What Is Occitan? How a Formerly Banned Language Influenced Modern French
Did you know there’s a whole side of French you may have never known existed?
In fact, knowing origins of words can be a very memorable way to learn, and there are more to some French words than meets the eye.
Enter Occitan, a language of Southern France whose influence pops up all over standard French.
But what is Occitan, who speaks it and how exactly has it impacted the French language?
What Is Occitan?
Occitan is a Romance language that hails mainly from Southern France, with some small outposts in what’s now Italy and Spain. It’s sometimes referred to in French as langue d’oc, and you could think of it as a “family” of dialects including Provençal, Languedocien, Gascon, Auvergnat, Limousin and Vivaro-Alpin.
Although it was the main literary language in France back in the Middle Ages, UNESCO now considers all of Occitan’s major dialects as endangered.
Who Speaks Occitan?
If you want a chance to speak Occitan, you have to really go looking for it. Most people in Occitania (that is, the Occitan lands) don’t speak it anymore. Today, Occitan is mostly spoken at home or casually, and those who do tend to be very old or young activists hoping to save the language as it makes its last gasps.
Currently, there’s an attempt being made at a revival, with festivals, singing clubs and classes available at some universities.
What Languages Are Similar to Occitan?
Occitan has similarities with other Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian. Here’s what one dialect of it (Aranese) sounds like:
The language that’s the closest to Occitan would be Catalan. Some linguists even debate that Catalan and Occitan are actually the same language.
As a Catalan speaker, I’ve been able to hold conversations with Occitan speakers without any problems. If you know Catalan, it’s also possible to watch the news in Occitan and understand most of what’s being said.
How Is Occitan Related to French?
Occitan was the main language in Southern France many centuries back, during the time of the troubadours. Eventually, French was declared the official language of France, and speaking other languages was heavily discouraged or even forbidden. For example, at some point, people weren’t allowed to speak Occitan at school, and they couldn’t even use it for official documents.
But even if Occitan does die out, the language will at least be remembered through its influence on French. Since French and Occitan were neighbors for centuries, there were lots of opportunities for this crossover to take place.
As with America’s Spanglish, there’s now a crossbreed of the two that’s called Francitan. And as I’ve previously documented for this blog, there’s a lot of regional slang in Toulouse that’s taken from Occitan. You’ll soon start to see all the various areas of overlap and origin here.
However, keep in mind that some etymologies are still being debated among linguists. There are plenty of discussions to be had on this fascinating topic, but there’s no doubt of its linguistic importance!
4 Elements of Modern French Rooted in Occitan
The following are all important parts of modern standard French. The origins may be region-specific, but you can use the vocabulary that you’ll learn in this post anywhere in the French-speaking world:
1. Amour and other -our and -eur words
The word amour (love) seems so quintessentially French, doesn’t it?
From the perspective of Anglophones struggling to learn French in France, that second vowel is fiendishly tricky to achieve, as is the emotion itself. But amour is an Occitan import.
Occitan troubadours once traveled through France singing about amor.
But the Latin students out there might be saying, “how do we know that amour was borrowed from Occitan, and not taken from directly from the Latin amore?”
The answer is that French (in its Picardy dialect) already did have its version of the Latin word, ameur. The fact that modern French uses amour instead of ameur shows that the Occitan version of the word won out.
We thus know that the words fleur (flower), douleur (pain) and chaleur (heat) followed a similar path through Occitan before being borrowed by French, also due to their vowel sounds. The original Occitan words were flor, dolor and calor.
For those who study other romance languages, you’ll notice regular, easy variations from Italian, Spanish, Catalan or Portuguese with these French words.
2. The obsession with good eating
Southern France is famous for its gourmandise (love of good food, gluttony), so it makes sense that some of its food vocabulary would make its way from Occitan into standard French.
- The Occitan caçòla (pan) gave French the words cassoulet (the diminutive form of the Occitan word, used to describe a typically Southwestern French slow-cooked meat stew) and casserole (a pan, a stew or casserole that’s cooked in it).
- Bouillabaisse is the French name of a fish stew from Marseille. This French name for it comes from the Provençal words bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to simmer). In French, those words are bouillir and mijoter.
- Also from the sea is the French dish brandade, which is an emulsified mixture of salt cod and olive oil. Brandada in Occitan is a mixture. You can use the rare word branlement (mixture) in French, though it may produce snickers—se branler is very common slang for “to screw around, doing nothing” and has some sexual undertones. Mélange is the more common French term for “mixture.”
- Aïoli, a treasured condiment from the Southwest known throughout France, comes from the Provençal alh (garlic, ail in French) and oli (oil, huile in French). It’s a garlic mayonnaise that’s now popular all around the globe.
- You can wash it all down with the French pastis, an anise liquor that’s served mixed with water and then becomes spookily cloudy. The word pastís in Occitan means “mash-up.” It’s popular throughout France, particularly on sunny summer days.
- For dessert, one can have some French nougat, from the Occitan pan nogat (nutty bread). As you likely know, nougat is a chewy confection of roasted nuts, egg whites and sugar or honey.
3. Animal names
The following animals were originally Occitan, and French took on versions of the Occitan names.
I’ll give an Occitan word first, followed by its French translation and then English. You’ll see a certain obvious pattern in how these words became Frenchified:
abelha → abeille (f) — bee
aigla → aigle (m/f) — eagle
cigala → cigale (f) — cicada
faisan → faisan (m) — pheasant
rascassa → rascasse (f) — scorpion fish
daurada → daurade (f) — sea bream
4. Miscellaneous screwball words
- The French word for lawn, pelouse, comes from the Occitan pelosa or peluda, which means hairy or shaggy. It’s a memorable (or disturbing?) image for a lawn, isn’t it? If you want to describe someone as hairy in French, you can use poilue.
- We don’t have any word for an aubade in English, but in French, it’s a serenade performed at dawn below the windows of one’s true love. It comes from the Occitan aubada and was popularized by troubadours.
- A badaud (m) is an onlooker or a gawker. This word comes from the Occitan badar which means “to yawn” (bâiller in French).
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Resources for Learning About Occitan and French
For further adventures into better understanding French—and, of course, improving your vocabulary and retention of it—here’s a useful Occitan-French dictionary.
And, if you found this exercise useful for memorizing new vocabulary, or if you’re a word nerd planning a wild Saturday night, you can head to this French etymological dictionary.
If you’re curious about learning Occitan, you might be interested in this Youtube channel by Parpalhon Blau:
As a French learner, you might enjoy getting to know Occitan since it’ll expose you to a different aspect of French culture and history.
So have fun trying out some Occitan vocabulary and exploring the resources above!
And one more thing...
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