A region by any other name? Encountering the lived experiences of the naming of Occitania

In his last post, James cast a theoretical light on the implications of officially putting Occitania on the map. He argued that the naming of the region brought into vivid relief how language can create both possibilities and impossibilities, relations and ruptures, visibility and invisibility. Following on from his discussion, this week’s post will focus on a few interactions from my fieldwork across Occitania (both administrative and linguistic) that bring to life the multi-faceted ways in which this name resonates — for better or worse — with the daily lives of individuals living in and beyond the new region.         

Earlier this year, I found myself a 15-minute drive outside Rodez in the farming village of Agen-d’Aveyron, sitting across the kitchen table from Amans Batut, a gregarious native Occitan speakers in his 90s who has written and sung for decades in both Occitan and French. Over the course of an animated discussion of how the place of Occitan in daily life has changed since he was a boy, Monsieur Batut recalled how the language was spoken by everyone in Rodez when he was 10 but has since receded to pockets of the surrounding countryside. When I brought up the 2016 creation and naming of the administrative region of Occitania, however, Monsieur Batut stopped talking — and began singing. Visibly moved, he performed a traditional song that spoke of longing for Occitania, which until two years earlier had only appeared in the minds and hearts of those working to keep Occitan alive, and not on the map of France. When he finished the song, Monsieur Batut explained that Occitania had never before existed, and that the act of baptising the new region by this name had deeply resonated with speakers and advocates of Occitan. Although he described himself as having always known he was a speaker of the named Occitan language and not of a nameless, unrecognised patois, he recalled how he had nonetheless been forbidden to speak this language at school. In the Occitania of 2018, however, Occitan was widely recognised as a legitimate language, and there was an awareness that it was not the “patois du coin” (local vernacular) but a means of communication shared by speakers across the vast region. Thus for Monsieur Batut, the naming of Occitania had brought into being a long dreamt of entity and solidified relations among the region’s Occitan speakers.   

« Occitania » now appears in spaces previously unimaginable for many speakers, such as the duty-free area of Toulouse airport (Photo: Sara Brennan)  

The questions of visibility and legitimacy referenced by Monsieur Batut in his fond musings on the naming of Occitania resurfaced in a markedly different manner later that summer at the Obrador de Lingüistica Occitana (Occitan Linguistics Workshop), where I had the chance to present some of the project’s preliminary observations concerning the impact of the creation of the region on Occitan and Occitan speakers. One of the first questions during the discussion session after the talk then sparked lively debate among the assembled participants: but what about the Catalans? As widely covered in the French and international press, one of the strongest and most sustained sources of resistance to the selection of Occitania as the name of the new region has been the Catalan community of Catalunya del Nord, which administratively is now part of Occitania. Several names evoking Catalan had been put forth by the public vote on the name of the new administrative entity, and one of the final five names considered by the region’s elected officials was Occitanie-Pays Catalan; ultimately, however, Occitanie (with “Pyrénées-Méditerranée” in subscript) carried the day. As the French Catalan participant at the workshop argued, the legitimacy and visibility that many Occitan speakers saw the naming of Occitania as bringing to their language were what many Catalan speakers living in the new region felt stripped of by the name. By officially englobing Catalunya del Nord within Occitania, she explained, this christening of the region foregrounded the Occitan language and culture, and thus effectively erased the Catalan identity of 450,000 of the region’s residents. This uneasy situation was one that several Occitan language activists also mentioned to me: while they were hopeful that the name of the region might advance the cause of Occitan, they were also aware that the region’s name risked to give precedence to the language and culture of Occitans over those of Catalans, effectively reproducing an element of the domination Occitan-speakers have long experienced in relation to French. A few of these activists suggested that the Occitan-ness of Occitania had indeed been played down since the official naming so as to avoid imposing it upon the Catalans of the region. These interactions thus brought to the fore the double-edged sword of the nomination process: in finally putting Occitania on the map, the name of the new region effectively removed an opportunity for the Catalan identity of residents of Catalunya del Nord to be acknowledged.  

Signs from a Perpignan protest against the name of Occitania (Photo: Vincent Lacourt, https://www.midilibre.fr/2016/09/10/direct-perpignan-la-manifestation-des-catalans-contre-occitanie,1391460.php)

In some cases, meanwhile, the emerging impact of the creation of the region seemed much more nebulous. I had the chance to speak with Occitan teachers from within and beyond the boundaries of the administrative region, and their experiences of the implications of the region’s name for the promotion and representation of the language ran the gamut from cautious optimism to simmering despair. In Toulouse, for instance, one primary school teacher recounted how her students, who had for years arrived in her classroom referring to Occitan as “patois”, now entered calling the language by its name. For these recent student cohorts, she observed, the idea that a language called Occitan would be spoken in a region named Occitania seemed to simply make sense, suggesting that at least the perceived legitimacy of the language — if not its actual use — was improving among younger generations. At an Occitan festival, however, I met Occitan teachers working outside Toulouse (the capital of the new region, and a city in which at least some measures have been put in place to promote the presence of the language in public spaces) who were unsure if the naming of the region had had any impact at all: the creation of an administrative Occitania had not brought more funding to Occitan-language advocacy or education initiatives, they noted, so they did not expect it to change their students’ thoughts about the language. According to an Occitan teacher from Provence, though, there was no question about the catastrophic impact of the region’s naming on the fate of the language in Occitan areas outside administrative Occitania. She saw the new name as undoing over a century of language activism in these areas, as it undercut speakers’ and learners’ legitimacy in calling themselves and their language ‘Occitan’. The geopolitical bounding of Occitania, she further warned, would hinder the ability of Occitan advocates outside the administrative region to obtain funding for their efforts, as the language and efforts to promote it could be seen by funding bodies as only relevant to this new territory. There thus seemed to be little consensus to be found among educators, whose experiences of the region’s naming encompassed the good, the bad, and the uncertain.     

In drawing out diverse, divergent positionings on the creation of an administrative entity named Occitania, such encounters across the linguistic region highlighted how the nomination process has — for better or worse — resonated with daily life in both areas. As James argued in his post, the act of naming is not without consequence: the delimitation of an official Occitania has gone hand-in-hand with experiences of legitimization and delegitmization, visibility and invisibility, continuity and rupture. For some, efforts to revitalize Occitan seem reinforced by the region’s existence; for others, similar efforts feel undermined or even obliterated. Naming is indeed not merely a game, to paraphrase James, and these interactions pointed to the lived experience of the possibilities opened up as well as the obstacles put in place by the new region’s name.            


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