14 March 2009

Linguistic diversity. My trip to Carcassonne

In memory of Eusebi Penadés
Last December I went on a trip to the south of France (Departments of Aude and Ariège) with a group of people. We visited the walled city of Carcassonne (see photo below, left) and some nearby places like Mirepoix, the Abbey of Saint Hilaire and Foix and its castle, with the snowy summits of the Pyrenees in the background. We also stopped at a winery in Limoux, where we had the chance to taste some of the local wines. The one I found particularly tasty was Blanquette, a type of sparkling white wine that has been produced here since the 16th century. The photo below was taken during our visit to the winery in Limoux:In this photo there are two noticeable elements: a person on the right (me) and a big poster on the wall, with a smiling wine-grower and a sentence written in Lengadocian, the Occitan dialect spoken in the area. Let’s take a closer look at this sentence:
A Limoux, avèm le solelh demaï.
The French translation, which is also written on the poster, runs like this: “(À Limoux) on a le soleil en plus”. At first sight, some clear similarities can be seen between the Occitan text and its French counterpart: the preposition “a”, the definite article “le”, the word solehl (soleil), and the use of the verb avoir meaning possession. French (originally Langue d’Oïl) and Occitan (Langue d’Oc) are neighbouring Romance languages and ones expects these similarities. But Occitan is even closer to Catalan. In our sentence, for example, we have the ending “-em” of the verb (1st person plural), which is also typical of Catalan, for example in havem (also hem). However, in Catalan, like in Spanish, this verb does not mean possession; it is used exclusively as an auxiliary. Another similarity is the word mai, comparable to Catalan més (both connected to Latin magis). What we find here is a classical example of various linguistic isoglosses affecting the languages of a given territory, in this case Western Mediterranean Europe. Somehow, my trip from Valencia to Carcassonne was also a trip across a linguistic continuum, starting in the Valencia/Catalan area, with its own internal isoglosses; from south to north: Valencian (belonging to the Western Catalan group), Central Catalan, and Roussillon dialect (already in France). Then, the region of Languedoc, belonging to the Occitan area. If we had continued our trip further north, we would have found other Occitan dialects, and then a series of Oïl dialects, including the one we call ‘French’. Rather than language boundaries, what we have here is a language continuum, or transitional stages between dialects. Now, is this exactly the linguistic situation that we can find today? The fact is that much of the linguistic variation has disappeared after the emergence and expansion of a series of standard languages, generally associated with power and prestige. First it was Occitan and Catalan (in Medieval times), then it was French and Spanish. The expansion of literacy in recent centuries, primarily associated with the languages of prestige, has been one of the major factors in the disappearance of linguistic variation in favour of standard forms of language. On the other hand, the emergence of powerful centralised states has brought about the delimitation of stronger language barriers. The truth is that nowadays, for example, Lengadocian is spoken by a minority of the population in Languedoc, whose inhabitants generally see French as their ‘language’. But the existence of a pre-modern distribution of dialects can still be felt, as the example of the Limoux poster shows, even if the sentence looks a bit like a picturesque note for tourists. It is clear that whenever we want to deal with the languages of the past, we have to bear in mind that concepts such as ‘language’ or ‘language barrier’ cannot be understood as we see them today, in our highly-developed societies.


Simon said...


I am so grateful that you posted a picture of this poster. I saw it back in the 1970s when it was used on billboards throughout southern France, and it was my first exposure to Provençal/Occitan. I have never recovered from my wonder at this persistence of the Langue d'Oc into the modern era. The memory of standing outside the family car in a French lay-by, staring up at the hard blue sky and the hot sun and then fixing on this roadside ad and realizing I was somewhere very different from England will always be with me. I googled for it and yours is the only site to have the phrase "A Limoux avèm le solelh demaï" in its entirety.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello Simon,

I'm glad that you found this post helpful. When I saw the poster, I thought it was really beautiful, and interesting, and I asked a friend to take the picture. Even in the dimness of that winery, the poster was full of light.