Post Aix-en-Provence

My third or fourth visit to Aix-en-Provence and the longest to date, two weeks. This time I thought and read a lot about Provencal and struggled to work out whether it should be regarded as a language or a dialect and what its relationship to the southern version of French, the langue d’oc/Occitan is. According to Wikipedia, it is “not to be confused with Franco-Provencal, a distinct language that shares features of both French and Provencal”. Despite this succinct warning, clouds of confusion swirl around my brain…

Last time I was in Aix, I picked up Etienne Garcin (1784-1845) “La Robinson Provencale/La Robinsouno Prouvençalo”, with bilingual text in French and Provencal. It’s undoubtedly much easier to read Provencal than it would be to read another unknown Latin language but there are quite a few grammatical differences to modern French, not just vocabulary differences.  Leaving me not much wiser as far as concerns the relationship between “dialect” and “language”.

I thought to start with that it was simply the story of Robinson Crusoe in French and Provencal but on closer inspection, I realise that it’s an adaptation where a group of Provencal folk are shipwrecked on an island and start to build up a new Provence and that Robinson Crusoe is not just the name of a book but of a literary genre as a device for social commentary.

Etienne Garcin also constructed a French-Provencal dictionary although it appears that his project was to help Provencal speakers learn French rather than focusing on the preservation of Provencal.

Other authors important for Provence and Provencal were the poet Frederic Mistral (1830-1914), awarded the Nobel prize in 1904 and one of the founders of the literary and cultural association, the Felibrige, Alphonse Daudet (1840-97) and Jean Giono (1895-1970).

With roots in the West Country and an intensive relationship with Dorset and Somerset, it’s not hard for me to relate to this French regionalism and it’s of great interest to me to compare the two processes.

In Dorset, Thomas Hardy towers above all else and much of the area’s regional identity feeds off his work. There is, however, a strong antiquarian tradition pre-dating and post-dating Hardy, for example, William Barnes and other authors, such as the Powys brothers, as well as groups of people active around the Dorset County Museum. This tradition made a major contribution to documenting the old Dorset culture and language and to staying some of the excesses of the Victorian church restorers. Unlike the Provencal authors, however, there wasn’t much of a political dimension to Hardy – he may have regretted the passing of the old ways and documented them as well as being critical of some of the harsh results of industrialism but, unlike, for example, Giono in Provence, he wasn’t involved in any kind of struggle to maintain a way of life that bore up the old culture. In other respects though, Giono is the French author, who reminds me most of Hardy, in his descriptions of and attitude to rural life and his “pantheist background universe”. Some of his ideological positions feel like precursors of the modern environmental movement, although tinged with the political atmosphere of the 1930s, which (from a very superficial study of him so far) feels doubtful.

Provencal is interesting too in a wider context of studying French as the most German of the Latin languages and English as the most Latin of the Germanic languages. German speakers had a profound effect on both England and what was then Gaul, with the Anglo-Saxons pushing aside or at least subjugating the Celtic British and the Franks building an empire across northern France.

English became very much a Germanic language until the new impetus from French with William the Conqueror which led to the French being the language of the aristocracy for three centuries in England. The process was different in Gaul where Latin had had a greater impact on the previously Celtic population than in England and where there was then a major German influence on the language at least in northern France.

My knowledge of French history is not what it should be (I intend to try to tidy up this shamefully scruffy area of my “formation”) but I believe that the impact of the Franks was less in the south and that there Vulgar Latin developed into southern French, the langue d’oc, with less external interruption. It would be interesting to compare words originated from the Franks in northern France with similar words in Provencal to see whether different “more latinised” words have survived in the south.

All of this (and against the background of recent developments in Catalonia) makes one realise what a work in progress national identity is. Had the Paris-based French rulers (and perhaps the Spanish) been less effective, it’s not hard to see that there could have been another political/national entity extending from Catalonia to Savoy (Provencal is related to Catalan), effectively crushed by the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars and the later weakness of the area after its time of glory with the troubadours.

To sum up, I need to look at some university reading lists in appropriate subjects to have a firmer basis for thinking about terms like dialect and language, to read more about the history of France and the French language, to study the history of the Felibrige and Provencal authors in greater depth and to try to achieve some order in my mind about the welter of dialects and languages scattered over the south in recent history and up to present-day France. I have at least quite a library of books to help (making my bookshelf even more of a statement of the person I would like to be…) and it should be enough to keep me off the streets during the dark months ahead…

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