France’s regional languages: How Occitan made our French household trilingual

One of the biggest hurdles any anglophone faces on moving to France is the language - but while French is the official, and by far the most widely spoken language here, it’s far from the only one. As well as languages imported by immigrants, there are dozens of living, breathing, regional languages that add so much to the country’s culture, as James Harrington has found out.

France's regional languages: How Occitan made our French household trilingual
Photo: Pascal Guyot / AFP

A survey carried out in France by Insee on behalf of the EU back in 2007 found that French was the mother tongue of 87.2 percent of the population – or just shy of 56 million people at the time. It was followed by Arabic (3.6 percent of the population of France, or 2.3 million people), Portuguese (1.5 percent, 960,000), Spanish (1.2 percent, 770,000) and Italian (1 percent, 640,000). Households with English as a mother tongue made up 0.4 percent.

The study did not take in dozens of regional French languages, including Breton – with its Celtic links – as well as Basque, Corsican, Alsatian, and Occitan – perhaps because most people who speak them also speak French.

Three years ago, the number of people speaking Occitan rose by one, as the youngest of our three children moved to an Occitan primary school in southwest France – one of the schools of the Calendreta association, dedicated to keeping the language and the history that goes with it alive.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 2009, three of us had moved from England to France – I headed out first, followed a month later by my wife and our daughter. I was pretty good at French at school – German, too – but had forgotten most of it in the intervening years. My wife’s French was – and is – better than mine: she studied it at university. And our daughter, then three, was effectively thrown into school with no French whatsoever.

It was actually fascinating to witness our daughter’s brain reboot. She reverted briefly to babble – but it was increasingly French babble as opposed to English babble. Within weeks, her sponge brain was starting to deal in two languages. Today, when a phrase or an accent catches either of us out – even after 12 years living here, we get caught out from time to time – she’s our go-to French-to-English translation chip. At lycée, for her friends, she works the other way around.

We’ve also added two boys to our Anglo-French household since moving here. The oldest headed off to collège for the first time this week, while our youngest, who is autistic, went into the CE2 class at his small Occitan school, having moved from the school his big sister and brother had attended at the very end of his Grand Section year.

He has always had plenty to say for himself, our fizzing, overcharged battery of a youngest boy. He babbled away to anyone who cared to listen as a baby, and – when in company – has scarcely shut up since. Spending any length of time with him is to enter a non-stop whirl of breathless consciousness. 

He’s quick, too. Having learned to read in French, with the help of his crèche and then his first school, he pretty much taught himself to read in English, too. 

His first couple of years in maternelle were relatively unremarkable, but midway through his Grand Section year, we realised the school that had served his older siblings so well wasn’t working for him. In the end, it was a comment from his teacher about running out of books for him to read that sealed it.

So, we decided to switch schools. Administratively, that’s not hard to do in France. But we agonised over it, because we worried it would be an emotional wrench for a boy who thrives on routine. That said, we believed he would benefit from a less rigid typically French system than the one he knew, not to mention get his teeth into learning something new. 

And, at first, it was difficult. He missed his classmates. But his new teacher was a marvel and he has integrated well. 

He already spoke with that easy, natural mix of two languages that children in immigrant households do. And he has picked up Occitan quickly and, apparently, effortlessly. After just one year he was one of a few to speak Occitan all the time in class. 

Variations of the language exist across the whole of the south of France, into Spain’s Catalonia, Monaco and northern Italy – not to mention Calabria, in southern Italy. In our neck of the linguistic woods, the regional variation is languedocien, often the basis for Standard Occitan. There are so many different versions of Occitan that it’s easy – and wrong – to think in terms of patois.

But there is more to Occitan than a melodic romance language and a whimsical nod to the region’s past on road signs. Thar’s historic gold in them thar words. It’s a language that carries with it centuries of history, which its adherents are keen to protect. 

Many dialects in the vast region covered by Occitan speakers gave rise to the misconception that ‘Occitanophones’ don’t share a common culture, unlike Basques or Bretons, for example, and into the easy and pejorative categorisation of Occitan as ‘patois’.

The government, at least, is talking the talk. The Ministry of Culture website has pages dedicated to the preservation of regional languages in metropolitan France and overseas. But the question remains – the one that those who want to protect and nurture regional languages find hard to believe – is whether it is walking the walk.

A few Occitan words and phrases

Adiu (pronounced ad-ee-you) – Hello (in French bonjour)

Adissiatz (pronounced adissiass) – Goodbye (au revoir)

Òc (pronounced o) – Yes (oui)

Noun (pronounced non) – No (non)

Mercés (pronounced Mersess) – Thank you (merci)

Va plan ? (pronounced ba pla) – How are you (ça va?)

Ont vas ? (pronounced oontey bass) – Where are you going (où vas-tu?)

A tot ara (pronounced a toot aro) – See you later (à tout a l’heure)

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Italian word of the day: ‘Inchiodare’

You'll nail this word in no time.

Italian word of the day: 'Inchiodare'

What do a carpenter, a detective, and a bank robber screeching to a halt in their getaway car all have in common?

In English, not much – but in Italian, they could all be said to inchiodare (eenk-ee-ohd-AHR-eh) in the course of their professional activities.

In its simplest form, inchiodare simply means ‘to nail’ (chiodo, ‘kee-OH-do’, is a nail) – a picture to a wall, or a leg to a table.

Ha trovato questo cartello inchiodato alla sua porta.
She found this notice nailed to her door.

Inchioderò la mensola al muro più tardi.
I’ll nail the shelf to the wall later.

But like ‘to nail’, inchiodare has more than one definition.

You can use it to describe someone or something being ‘pinned’ in place, without actually having been literally nailed there.

Mi ha inchiodato al muro.
He pinned me to the wall.

La mia gamba è inchiodata al terreno.
My leg is pinned to the ground.

You can be metaphorically inchiodato to a place in the sense of being stuck there, tied down, or trapped.

Dovrei essere in vacanza e invece sono inchiodata alla mia scrivenia.
I should be on holiday and instead I’m stuck at my desk.

Don'T Forger You'Re Here Forever GIF - The Simpsons Mr Burns Youre Here GIFs

Siamo inchiodati a questa scuola per altri tre anni.
We’re stuck at this school for another three years.

Sono stati inchiodati dal fuoco di armi.
They were trapped by gunfire.

Just like in English, you can inchiodare (‘nail’) someone in the sense of proving their guilt.

Chiunque sia stato, ha lasciato tracce di DNA che lo inchioderanno.
Whoever it was, they left traces of DNA that will take them down.

Ti inchioderò per questo omicidio.
I’m going to nail you for this murder.

Thomas Sadoski Tommy GIF by CBS

Senza la pistola non lo inchioderemo, perché non abbiamo altre prove.
Without the gun we’re not going to get him, because we have no other proof.

For reasons that are less clear, the word can also mean to slam on the brakes in a car.

Ha inchiodato e ha afferrato la pistola quando ha visto la volante bloccando la strada.
He slammed on the brakes and grabbed the gun when he saw the police car blocking the road.

Hanno inchiodato la macchina a pochi passi da noi.
They screeched to a halt in the car just a few feet away from us.

Those last two definitions mean that you’re very likely to encounter the word when watching mystery shows or listening to true crime podcasts. Look out for it the next time you watch a detective drama.

In the meantime, have a think about what (or who) you can inchiodare this week.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.