Thursday, February 22, 2007

Yer wot?

As if it wasn’t difficult enough understanding my children these days, who take great delight in speaking verlan to me – a slang where words are pronounced backwards – I now discover that seventy-five different languages are spoken on French territory! To be fair, many of these languages are spoken overseas in places like Tahiti, Guadeloupe and French Guyana and the list also includes Yiddish and Berber. However, here in metropolitan France, it seems that there are over twenty regional languages spoken today so it’s little wonder I feel a tad misunderstood sometimes.

The French government is compelled by law to communicate in French, which means it can pronounce as much baffling twaddle as it wants, as long as it is in French. The Minister of Culture admitted in 2001 that France had been suppressing regional languages for hundreds of years in the interests of unity even though up until the First World War, these – and not French - were the languages spoken at home. Under pressure from minority groups, the government is now recruiting bilingual teachers to teach them in schools. Many towns display street signs in both French and the regional language and you can watch television programmes in Breton or Basque, for example.

It was Dante who first talked about the languages of oïl and oc – both words for ‘yes’ in medieval France. Those who said oïl lived north of the Loire and those who said oc lived in the south. Modern French developed from the langue d’oïl (oïl has become ‘oui’ ) while the region in the south is still called Languedoc today. Occitan dialects (or languages – there is much dispute) continue to be spoken by a minority. Provençal is perhaps the most well-known and when the people in Provence speak French, it is with a distinctive accent directly influenced by these dialects. When I arrived in Aix-en-Provence twenty years ago, thinking I was a fluent French speaker, it took me several weeks before I understood what the woman in the bakery was saying to me. In the south, pain rhymes with ‘twang’ and every word seems to have an ‘a’ tacked on to the end.

The great literary renaissance of Provençal was led by the poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Frédéric Mistral, in the nineteenth century. Thanks to him, my children learnt provençal nursery rhymes at school and we could watch television programmes and read newspaper reports in the dialect if we so wished (we didn’t). There is even a band from Marseilles enjoying popularity today, singing provençal lyrics to reggae music. The words harlequin, mascot and, of course, troubadour are all of provençal origin.

The French island of Corsica is closer to Italy than France and Corsican is very similar to the Italian dialect spoken on the island of Sardinia. The language is in danger of becoming extinct although there are movements dedicated to its protection. Corsican is rich in proverbs and colourful sayings, like the very wise Mariteddu tamant'è un ditu Ièddu voli essa rivaritu which means "A husband must be respected even if he is very short ".

Further along to the west, in the area around Perpignan, we have French Catalonia. This was once part of the Principality of Catalonia of which the greatest portion is across the Pyrenees in modern-day north-eastern Spain. My mother-in-law grew up speaking Catalan and still lives in the region although she only speaks French now – speaking Catalan is social suicide, apparently. From the language we have the words paella and perhaps capsize.

Even further west, on the Atlantic coast, is the Basque country. Again, this is part of a larger area that includes north-western Spain. The Basque language is unlike any in Europe and despite copious research, no link has been found with any other language in the world. The people even differ genetically from their neighbours and are very proud of the fact - hence their sometimes violent nationalistic tendencies. From Basque we have the word silhouette and possibly bizarre.

Moving up north, we get to Brittany. There are two regional languages spoken here. In the west, the Celtic language, Breton, is undergoing a revival. The language is closely related to Cornish and Welsh and is taught in schools although not without hostility from various quarters, including the French government. Last year, the president of the Dihun Association for the bilingual teaching of Breton and French in the Catholic schools in Brittany, went on hunger strike for two weeks over the hostility of members of the church establishment to bilingual teaching. We get carol and gaberdine from Breton.

In eastern Brittany, Gallo is spoken, although to a much lesser degree. Signs in the Rennes underground system are written in French and in Gallo and there has also been a revival of traditional music but not to the same extent as Celtic folk-rock, which has entered the mainstream. Gallo is a langue d’oïl, like French, and for many years was considered as ‘French, badly-spoken’ – but it would be advisable not to mention that if you ever find yourself in Brittany…

In north-eastern France – and wide open to a host of bad canine jokes and puns which I will not lower myself to make – Alsatian is spoken. This is a German dialect - Alsace is a region that has passed between French and German control many times during its history. The only words I know in Alsatian are sauerkraut meaning ‘sour cabbage’ and Kronenbourg, meaning ‘It’s your round, mate’ or something like that.

Around Grenoble, the regional language is Franco-provençal. Despite its name, it is neither French nor Provençal but a distinct language and many people refer to it as Arpitan. We get the words avalanche and glacier from Arpitan.

Finally, chez nous, we use mostly Franglais, in which I am fluent, and text messaging which I do not understand at all. Oh, well, I suppose it’s never too late to learn – mdr (‘very funny’)…


Louise said...

In Colin Randall's Telly days, we got into quite a scrum about local dialects in France - I hope for your sake the regulars are better behaved now! Watch out for someone called Thomas (Ithink it was) who will make you give up the will to live!

When we eventually moved down to the Aude, both my children fortunately spoke 'proper' French so didn't pick up too strong an accent - my son did use a lot of patois which was hard going at times! I don't like the accent from that part of the world - as you say 'pain' rhymes with 'twang' and instead of saying 'rose' they say 'rrrroze'. And every sentence ends with 'putain com' ' yes, that is an m!

SMS language - forget it! I SMS as I type, punctuation, capital letters, paragraphs, the works! My only rapid SMS is RUOK to my children!

Sarah said...

My texting is like yours, Louise. It would take too long to decipher if I tried to use true text abbreviations, especially as I probably only text about twice a month max.

Gigi said...
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Gigi said...

When we lived in Aix, the girls did have a provençal accent but it wasn't too pronounced (and they are aixoises, after all) - but what tickles me the most is that they all have posh English accents! Far more posh than me - I'm just yer Woman from the North, me.

angela said...

In our village the Sports and Social club has a class in Provencal and singing in Provencal but I thought I'd master French before tackling Provencal.

My kids too speak posh English. Strange, isn't it as even the BBC speaks with an Essex accent these days!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Gigi, especially about the derivation of Langue d'Oc. As well as 'la vache qui rit', then, do we now have another potentially useful concept of a 'région entier que dit oui' ?

A now sadly departed relative of mine was a provençal niçoise. She used to say 'chant-e' to rhyme with the English 'banter'.

That was just wonderful - like listening to perfect French spoken with an Italian rhythm and accent.

My relative's parents had run the Berlitz language school in Nice, and her English was as plummy as you could imagine, too.

The combination of spectacularly upper class English and authentically vernacular regional French was an interesting one to find in the same person, I thought, but maybe it's a much more natural one amongst bilingually-raised children than I'd realised.

Tinsie said...

Another great post, Gigi. Merci!
I never knew there were so many dialects in France - and I loved the Corsican proverb about short husbands :-)

Bryce Wesley Merkl said...

Wow! That is a lot of different languages and dialects! I never knew there were so many, especially just for one country.

You might be interested in this great website I found that has pages in many of the languages that you mentioned. Here's the Franco-Provençal page: Arpetan wiki browser