Un còp èra, a l’Escòla Occitana d’Estiu… : Writing fairy tales in Occitan, mapping Occitania, and other “bizarre” undertakings in the intensive introductory class

Per contunhar la discussion de l’Escòla Occitana d’Estiu, escriguèri un article sul cors intensiu de lengadocian nivèl 1 que seguiguèri. Parli aicí dels aspèctes sociolingüistics del cors, subretot de cossí nòstre professor Guilhèm Thomas abordèt los complèxes e los prejutjats associats a l’occitan a fin de promòure d’autres imatges de la lenga.

Within the first few minutes of Guilhèm Thomas’s intensive Languedocien class for beginners, it became clear that the course would provide not only an engaging introduction to the language, but also insight into the popular representation of Occitan and how language advocates seek to manage this image in the classroom. Guilhèm, a middle and high school teacher of Occitan and English in the department of Tarn, asked the 11 summer school participants in the room to explain why we were there because what we were doing was frankly quite weird: “apprendre l’occitan,” he explained, “c’est quelque chose de pas normal, de bizarre, de pas courant.” This opening salvo broke the ice and provoked the first of much shared laughter among the then-strangers gathered to do this bizarre thing. More than that, though, Guilhèm’s initial comments were also an early indication of how the course would actively confront the many hang-ups, prejudices, and presuppositions surrounding Occitan, addressing them head-on and opening up space for alternative visions of the language to develop.

The 11 participants laughing over the oddity of the task ahead of us were ourselves a varied bunch, comprising Occitans, French, a Catalan, a Russian, and an American ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. Several people answered Guilhèm’s first question by evoking parents, grandparents, and other more distant relatives who spoke Occitan. Others worked – or hoped to do so – in bilingual or Occitan immersion schools, or had children enrolled in such institutions. My fellow ‘foreigners’ and I were less directly connected to Occitan but were interested in questions of literature, language revitalisation, and the use of Occitan in and beyond Occitania. With all of our respective ideological baggage, our first task was then not a grammatical one, but a cartographic one: Guilhèm distributed three maps for us to discuss. The first depicted the wider linguistic region of Occitania, and as we traced its boundaries, which were unexpected for several participants, Guilhèm explained that this map should refute the notion that Occitan is nothing but “la langue de chez soi” and instead illustrate that the language is part of a much wider linguistic region. The second map highlighted the varied geographic features of Occitania, which Guilhèm linked to the diversity of the region, its inhabitants, and its social dynamics. Setting out all the regional languages of France and indicators of their vitality, the final map was then meant to remind speakers of Occitan that they were not alone in their efforts to maintain a language other than French in France. Simply and effectively, this discussion of maps immediately called into question the weirdness of learning Occitan, which was not the patois of individual grandparents and isolated villages but a language spoken across a wide, diverse swath of territory and joined in its resilience in the face of French by multiple other languages.

The second exercise of the class further spoke to the necessity of chipping away at existing ideas about Occitan. Guilhèm asked us to describe what we thought we knew about the language or to suggest any words that we thought we understood or had heard from family members. After one student volunteered his grandfather’s colourful way of telling people off (the classic “Va cagar a la vinha e pòrta-me la clau!”), other participants began to recall other words and phrases that they had heard their grandparents use, or French terms such as pétanque that were derived from Occitan words. The list covering the whiteboard then stood as testament to the often-overlooked presence of Occitan in everyday life: not only did many of the participants already know more Occitan than they might have previously realised, but we also began to have an idea of how common it was for Occitan words to have slipped into contemporary French. This exchange then segued into a discussion of the origins and evolution of Occitan, with Guilhèm tracing the history of the language from Latin through to the 21st century, and emphasising along the way Occitan’s links with fellow Romance languages and the impact of the Troubadours’ literary innovations on writers across Europe. These two discussions thus cast further doubt on any perceived isolation of Occitan, drawing out both the bits and traces of the language that currently remain in use within families and throughout (southern) French society, and the historical ties between Occitan and European linguistic and societal development more broadly.

Trotet e la pluèja (Photo and terrible handwriting in red by Sara Brennan)

At this point, we embarked upon the nitty-gritty of the course: learning and practicing Occitan pronunciation and grammar. Guilhèm mixed more straightforward written and oral exercises with activities centred on creative production that grew more complicated as the week progressed. We started by writing one-sentence narratives for children’s cartoons, worked our way through presenting weather reports, and finished by writing our own poems and fairy tales. Many of these activities involved an artistic component, whether it be nicely writing captions or drawing illustrations or rendering our poems amateur illuminated manuscripts. As a complete non-artist incapable of drawing a straight line or writing legibly, I grumbled a bit about these activities, longing instead for some unadorned conjugation tables. At the end of the week though, the virtue of Guilhèm’s approach became very clear. In one of our last sessions, Guilhèm cautioned us that Occitan was not a language that would come to us, and that learning and practicing it would cost us energy, time, and money. We had indeed invested all of these things during our week at the Escòla…and by the last class, we had made progress thanks to this investment and had physical proof of it in the form of these cartoons and poems, proof that we could share with others. Several of my classmates brought home their drawings and family trees of Eleanor of Aquitaine to show their children and to use to tell them stories in Occitan; one indeed said that her children were in their teens but she would recount the adventures of Trotet, a cartoon donkey, to them anyways. My friends here in Edinburgh, meanwhile, have been delighted (I’m fairly certain…) by the recitation of my poem about lo drac. Having guided us through a dismantling of misconceptions about Occitan, Guilhèm had then helped us to further invest in the language and to emerge from the week motivated to continue making progress and to integrate Occitan into our lives. The language may indeed never come to us, but we who had made the bizarre choice to enrol in introductory Languedocien would keep moving towards it.

Grandmercé encara un còp a Guilhèm et als autres estagiaris per la setmana tant intensiva mas agradiva! Me faguèt plan gaug de descobrir l’occitan amb vosautres.

I a pas fòrça locutors a Edimborg, mas ensagi de trobar de mejans per practicar la lenga aicí. Legissi un conte de Bodon, escoti Mauresca Fracàs Dub e La Mal Coiffée, e soi a escriure aqueste paragrafeton environada de mos libres de gramatica…se per cas avètz d’autras suggestions per contunhar d’estudiar l’occitan luènh d’Occitània, laissatz un comentari!


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