More than merchandise: Commercial Occitan as a site of encounter, discussion, and resistance

Resumit en occitan: Mai que de merças

Bóstias de pasta, pegasolets, jòias: vaquí qualques objèctes suls quals trobèri l’occitan pendent mos primièrs viatges en Occitània. Mas son pas brica solament d’objèctes. Aquels produchs son venduts per d’entrepreneires occitanfòns que los veson coma dels sitis de rencontre, de partatge e de resisténcia. Per un productor albigès de pasta que sentiguèt la vergonha de parlar l’occitan a l’escòla, sas etiquetas occitanas senhalan son opocision al centralisme de l’Estat francés. A Tolosa e als festenals occitans, los pegasolets, los camisons e las mapas de Macarel avian de discussions a l’entorn de — e sovent en — (l’)occitan, çò que fa viure la lenga dins la vida de cada jorn dels locutors atal coma dels non-locutors. La visibilitat de l’occitan sus las jòias e las etiquetas bilingüas d’una creatritz en Arièja crèa un espaci ont l’occitan se pòt parlar naturalament e pòt èsser reconegut coma una lenga nomenada e legitima. Dins cada cas, los objèctes portant d’occitan son de sitis d’accions socialas que promòvon la consciéncia e la reconeissença de la lenga. A l’encòp, l’occitan vèn un siti d’interaccion sociala dins lo domeni del comèrci, que permèt a d’unes de viure de sa passion.

During my first fieldwork trip to Occitania, I happened across the covered market in Albi while exploring the town on a Saturday morning. One stand that immediately caught my eye was a booth selling a local family farm’s pâtés and other duck specialities, as many of the cans in which these products were sold were labelled with Occitan names. The farmer manning his family’s booth, a gregarious chap of 65+ if he was a day, came over and asked me where I was from, and when I responded “Texas” he feigned shock and asked what on earth had brought me to Albi. Upon hearing that I was there to study Occitan, he seemed even more surprised but also quite pleased, and then told me that he himself spoke Occitan. He nuanced this statement though, noting that he could indeed speak Occitan but rarely, if ever, had an opportunity to do so: “Je parle l’occitan, mais avec qui parler?” He traced the decline of France’s minority languages and this current lack of interlocuteurs to les lois Jules Ferry, the laws passed in 1881-1882 to establish free mandatory public education. Explaining that he had grown up in the countryside around Albi, he then recounted how he had gone to school at the age of 5 speaking only Occitan. When the teacher heard him use the language, she slapped him across the back of his hands and warned him not to speak patois; the worst part of this punishment though, the farmer recalled, was the shame he had felt at being hit in front of the girls in his class, as he had already fallen in love with all of them on that first day. Now, some 60 years later, when I asked him why he used Occitan on his cans of pâté, his immediate response harkened back to this traumatic moment of his youth: “Je fais de la résistance”. For this Albigeois farmer, putting Occitan on his duck products signaled his resistance to the centralism of the French state, a subtle but meaningful rejection of the system that had nearly eradicated his native language — and had thoroughly embarrassed him in front of his boyhood loves.

Amongst older generations of Occitan speakers, similar stories of the punishment and shame — or la vergonha, in Occitan — associated with the language by efforts to suppress it within the national education system abound. With my background working on the use of Irish in business, however, what was of particular interest to me during this encounter was how the farmer positioned his commercial engagement with Occitan as an effort to display his resistance to France’s centralist institutions. My research in the Republic of Ireland had suggested that local business owners viewed their mobilisation of Irish as linked to a range of social projects, including language revitalisation, heritage preservation, and a redefinition of Irishness after the 2008 financial crisis. In Occitania, meanwhile, many of the Occitan entrepreneurs with whom I have spoken similarly shared how their products bearing the language offered more than just authentic gifts, handmade keepsakes, or local products to potential customers. The Occitan used on pâté labels or t-shirts was in many cases seen as a site of social action, whether it be an act of resistance in the case of the Albi farmer or an incitation to discussion, exchange, and awareness-raising among members of the wider public, Occitan-speaking or not.  

In Toulouse, for example, I had the opportunity to speak with Danis Cantournet and Evelyne Houlès, fluent Occitan speakers and the owners of Macarel. In running an activist enterprise (une entreprise militante) with a storefront just off Place du Capitole while also making the rounds of Occitan festivals across and beyond France, Danis and Evelyne work to foster awareness of and support for Occitan through the wide variety of products (t-shirts, stickers, maps, flags, mugs, keychains, etc.) that they have designed with a friend to prominently feature the language and other symbols of Occitania, such as the Occitan cross. The goal of Macarael, Danis shared with me, is that Occitan be seen, and I indeed saw people wearing their t-shirts and cars bearing their stickers all across Occitania. Beyond rendering Occitan visible, moreover, Macarel’s wares also seemed to function as catalysts for encounters around the language. Danis described how at Occitan cultural festivals, he and Evelyne would often meet people who thought they were the last people to speak or to love Occitan. Upon being drawn over to Macarel’s stand by the products emblazoned with the language, these individuals were then thrilled to discover they were in fact not alone after being greeted in Occitan by the owners, who are always happy to chat while running their booth. People less familiar with or proficient in Occitan, meanwhile, would often ask questions about the words and phrases on the stickers and t-shirts, prompting discussion of the language and a chance for Danis and Evelyne to raise awareness of Occitan and Occitania. Whether in their shop in Toulouse or at their prominent tent at Estivada (the largest interregional festival of Occitan cultures), where they were kind enough to invite me behind the scenes for some wine and apple tart while the last bands of the festival played, I had a chance to see how their Occitan products became sites of such encounters, as Occitan speakers of all levels and non-speakers alike entered into animated discussion around these items. One woman buying a sticker with an Occitan phrase on it, for instance, asked Danis and Evelyne to translate the phrase into French; as Danis told her the translation, she began nodding, explaining at the end that she understood “patois” and that the phrase meant what she had thought it did. A friendly chat ensued in French with bits of Occitan, creating a moment of convivial exchange that brought the “patois” this customer recognized into an everyday encounter.

Discussions autour de l’occitan chez Macarel à l’Estivada (Photo: Sara Brennan)

At the Festen’Òc Occitan festival in Saurat, meanwhile, I had the chance to meet with Camille Bilhac, an Occitan teacher with l’Institut d’Études Occitanes de l’Ariège who also founded a business selling her handmade jewelry and clothing pieces called Made in Ostal. Beyond the Occitan-English play on words in the name of her business (ostal means “house” in Occitan), a number of Camille’s jewelry designs feature Occitan words, and all her item tags are bilingual in Occitan and French. When we chatted about why she had chosen to integrate Occitan into her business, Camille explained that her aim was to render Occitan present in the public sphere and to generate discussion among her (potential) customers. People who understood the name, she related, tended to incredulously ask “Mais vous parlez patois??” upon approaching her booth at a festival, while those who did not would often inquire “C’est où, ce pays?” in reference to ‘Ostal’; in either case, the goal of getting people talking about Occitan was achieved. One of the most common topics for this opening interaction, she noted, was the (in)famous issue of labelling Occitan as ‘patois’, which gave her an opportunity to introduce her interlocutors to the idea of Occitan as a legitimate, named language. Beyond these initial discussions, moreover, her Occitan jewelry and bilingual tags helped open up new possibilities for the language of the encounter: without these visible Occitan elements, Camille explained, people would automatically address her in French, but this presence of the language changed the dynamic and invited browsers to talk to her in Occitan. None of these interactions about or in Occitan, she surmised, would ever naturally take place without the impetus provided by her Occitan jewelry or bilingual tags and business name. Once again, the Occitan words used in a local business seemed to function as sites for discussion and awareness-raising, offering Camille an opportunity to exchange with her customers about Occitan and to advocate for the wider recognition of it as a language.

Made in Ostal (Photo: Sara Brennan)

Many of the Occitan-bearing products I encountered during fieldwork thus seemed to be more than merchandise. These objects were understood by their creators as offering a terrain on which to do something with Occitan, whether it be to resist the centralizing policies of the French state, to encourage exchange in and around the language, or to draw attention to Occitan as a real, named language. Though perhaps in small ways, these entrepreneurs helped to bring Occitan into everyday life in the public sphere, rendering the language (defiantly) visible and making it a site of social interaction with speakers and non-speakers alike.

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