Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Le Provençal

There are many things which contribute to Provence's unique identity, and perhaps one of the strongest influencing factors is its language. Provence is a bilingual region. If ever you happen to take a holiday in any one of the hundreds of its small villages and hamlets, you will find yourself immersed from the very outset in a veritable linguistic bouillabaisse. Firstly, the French spoken in Provence bears little resemblance to the French learnt in schools:

" was a rich, soupy patois, emanating from somewhere at the back of the throat and passing through a scrambling process in the nasal passages before coming out as speech. Half familiar sounds could be dimly recognized as words...demain became demang, vin became vang, maison became mesong...often with an extra vowel tacked on to the end for good luck. Thus an offer of more bread - page one stuff in French for beginners - emerged as a single question. Encoredupanga?" (A Year In Provence, Peter Mayle 2000:6)

But when you begin to understand the twangs of the accent (often blurred by one pastis too many...), and even to fill in the missing words replaced by gestures of the hands, elbows, shoulders and eyebrows, you quickly realise that these ways of communicating are mixed together with sentences in a whole other language. This code, incomprehensible to the outsider, is Le Provençal.

After my first few months here, a friend explained this linguistic duality to me, and I realised why I was struggling to understand some speakers so much! Le Provençal is not French, nor is it Italian, or even Latin, but it sounds like a melting pot of all three...

I do not intend to write a comprehensive history or analysis of the Provençal language here - if you would like to learn more about le Provençal then please do contact me, I will happily orientate you towards some good websites and books. In short, the history of the Provençal language is a history of immigration. Provence's location has made it a prime target for invaders, settlers, travelers and tourists throughout the ages (the first to knock at the door of the natural harbour of Marseille's Vieux Port being the Greeks from Phoecaea in around 600BC) and the language spoken there represents this. Many linguistic factors come together to create this unique way of speaking, itself a dialect of Occitan, the language of Southern French.

A grandmother and grand daughter in traditional Provencal dress, selling chickens from wooden cages in Allauch, a village perched in the hills overlooking Marseille. 

And the Provencaux people are fiercely proud of their language, as even today it plays a central role in the region's identity. There are now relatively few fluent speakers of Provençal, although it continues to be taught in primary schools. But many expressions have been retained, and are very frequently used - especially in modern slang. The friend who first told me about the language introduced me to it via the songs of Marseille-based reggae group Massilia Sound System, whose lyrics combine modern French with Provençal expressions such as "mettre lo oai" (to make a mess, create a scandal), "degun" (nobody) and "minot" (kid).

Road signs at the entrance to towns in Provence are often found to be bilingual French-Provençal. It was recently suggested that this was outdated, unnecessary and even confusing, and a court order was drawn up obliging local authorities to take them down. There was widespread outcry across the region, and many mayors refused and protested, including this small town near Montpellier:

Le Provençal is therefore a badge which its speakers wear with pride, and which creates a solid basis for the strong regional identity that is so apparent here.

And yes, the title of my blog is in Provençal... Uno Angleso en Prouvènço... Not an Englishman in New York, but an English girl in Provence.

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