An American in Occitania: Of patois, papis, and pandemonium in an Occitan language workshop

As James mentioned in an initial post, our project is funded by the Smithsonian Institution’s SMiLE (Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe) research programme, which brings together six teams working on minoritized language revitalisation initiatives across Europe. Working together with the other teams, we will ultimately seek to compare our findings and to draw out cross-contextual observations that could be relevant to other minoritized languages and help develop resources or tools for revitalisation efforts and endangered language communities. With this objective in mind, I will be writing a series of posts centred on the experience of undertaking research on Occitan in Occitania after having focused on the business-centred promotion of the Irish language in the Republic of Ireland during my MA and PhD studies. By discussing moments of “hmm it wasn’t like that in Ireland”, I hope to build towards our project’s overarching aim of entering into dialogue with the five other research teams working in diverse European minoritized language contexts.

Photo Sara Brennan

When I first studied abroad in Paris ten years ago, no one seemed particularly shocked to hear my “petit accent américain”, as people were generous enough to call it then. When I moved to Lyon for three years after university to work and then complete my MA in Sociolinguistics, the revelation of my nationality never appeared to bowl anyone over. Fast forward to the summer of 2018 and an Occitan language workshop at the Festen’Òc Occitan festival in the village of Saurat, as we go around the table introducing ourselves: “Soi Sara”, I venture in Occitan before realising I’m not sure how to say ‘United States’ in Occitan and retreating to French, “je suis en train d’apprendre l’occitan et je viens des Etats-Unis.” At this, the room breaks out into a chorus of “ooooh!” and animated commentary among the other participants. One pleasantly astounded, béret-sporting gentleman from Béarn immediately turns to the organiser and demands “pourquoi fait-elle une thèse sur l’occitan??”, to which the latter laughingly responds “pourquoi pas??” Following my brief explanation of the trajectory that led me to the workshop, the organiser finally manages to quiet the room and redirect attention to the next participant, wryly noting that it is difficult to follow-up the spectacle of the American at the table.

While this minor uproar caused by my presence in an Occitan workshop was somewhat singular in its magnitude, I have gradually gotten used to being met with varying degrees of surprise, puzzlement, and incredulity when I introduce myself during fieldwork in Occitania. The fact that I’m an American who is interested in Occitan often elicits such a reaction, which is usually followed up by questions concerning why and how I’ve come to do research on and try to learn the language. This reception is a marked departure from the one I usually received in the Republic of Ireland, where my ethnographic PhD fieldwork centred on the promotion and use of the Irish language in business. There, my presence as an American researcher – and more specifically, an Irish-American one – provoked notably less astonishment. My accent would usually prompt some discussion of where I came from, but the follow-up question was less often “why are you studying Irish?” than it was “where is your family from?” – as in, where in Ireland did my ancestors emigrate from. My interest in Irish seemed to ‘make sense’ in the context of both my familial heritage in particular, and the wider phenomenon of American tourism to Ireland, in which roots-seeking Irish-Americans – who represent nearly 40 million of the 70 millions members of the Irish diaspora – play no small role. My interlocutors in Ireland also frequently pointed to the Irish language courses offered by several American universities and to the government-supported grants funding research visits by American Irish language learners and teachers, situating my academic engagement with Irish within a broader dynamic of American students and scholars actively studying the language.

These latter comments from Ireland, it would seem, help point to some of the factors informing the reactions ranging from the bemused to the baffled that I have encountered in Occitania. As a language still lacking almost any formal recognition within France, and as one that was for centuries relegated by the French State to the non-language category of ‘patois’, Occitan does not benefit from government-supported schemes to help foreigners advance their language learning; indeed, there is often very little official support within France and even within Occitania for citizens’ efforts to study and speak the language. The decline in status and use of Occitan under centralist policies that for decades fostered the punishment of children who spoke ‘patois’ in school has helped contribute to a near-total rupture in family transmission, contributing to a popular (and often derogatory) image of Occitan as the local vernacular of grandparent, remote villages, and rural life, all of which are disappearing. If Occitan is widely seen as the patois of “le papi du coin”, “les petits papis et mamies”, or “ceux qui sont morts ou en train de mourir”, as numerous people have characterised its speakers, can it be any surprise that people I meet in Occitania – including Occitan speakers and advocates – might find a 30-something American interested in this long unnamed, unrecognised language to be somewhat unexpected?


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