Occitan Language

General Overview


Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Occitan language (also called Provençal or Languedoc) is a Romance language spoken by about 1,500,000 people in southern France. All Occitan speakers use French as their official and cultural language, but Occitan dialects are used for everyday purposes and show no signs of extinction.

The name Occitan is derived from the geographical name Occitania, which is itself patterned after Aquitania and the characteristic word oc and includes the regions of Limousin, Languedoc, the old Aquitaine, and the southern part of the French Alps, all of the populations of which are Occitan-speaking. The name Languedoc comes from the term langue d' oc, which denoted a language using oc for yes (from Latin hoc), in contrast to the French language, the langue d' oïl, which used oïl (modern oui) for yes (from Latin hoc ille). Languedoc refers to a linguistic and political-geographical region of the southern Massif Central in France. The name Provençal originally referred to the Occitan dialects of the Provence region and is used also to refer to the standardized medieval literary language based on the dialect of Provence.

Origin and History

Occitan's medieval ancestor, usually called either Provençal or Langue d'Oc, was the first literary dialect of high culture in the territory now encompassed by France. It developed, as did Francien (ancestor of modern French), from the Vulgar Latin transmitted by Roman soldiers and traders to local populations. According to Encyclopédie Occitane, Provençal was actually the first Romance language to emerge from the mix of Roman and "barbarian" tongues; the earliest surviving texts in Langue d'Oc can be definitively attributed to the tenth century (a refrain attached to a Latin poem), and the 12th-century Donat provençal was the first grammar of a modern European language. The best-known ambassadors of Occitan were the troubadours, traveling minstrels who created enduring lyric poetry and canso, inventing and disseminating the idea of courtly love. Although Occitania was composed of small feudal polities, the Langue d'Oc benefited in medieval times from a common orthography, serving admirably as a language of philosophy, science, law and the arts, as well as the everyday dialect of its speakers. This usage continued well into the 14th century, and Occitan's eventual decline is closely tied to the evolution of royal power and the French state.

Although most of Occitania was added to the territory of the French crown by the 15th century (excepting English holdings), the French language did not begin to supplant Occitan for some time. The  Edict of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) made French the official language of government and legal documents, superseding Latin as well as the more than 30 diverse Celtic and Romance local dialects spoken by the majority of the populace

This set the stage for the association of French with privilege and power, as bourgeoisie, nobles and courtiers alike were drawn to French, the language of king and government; French also came to be the language of culture for the Occitan elite, lending words of politesse to the Occitan vocabulary. However, the Ancien Régime did not invest much effort in the enforcement of this edict. The official policy of at least the earliest Capetian rulers of Occitania allowed translation of documents on a local level, proving that the royal authority was not bent on imposing its own language.The encroachment of French began slowly, following trade routes and, like the shift from "tu" to "vous" pronoun usage, filtering from highest to lowest elements of society. Courtiers wishing to curry favor with the new crown in Ile-de-France chose to speak French; bourgeoisie, entrepreneurs, and the burgeoning class of governmental functionaries also found French bilingualism to be in their best interest.


The modern dialects of Occitan are little changed from the speech of the Middle Ages, although they are being affected by their constant exposure to French. The dialects are classified in three major groups:

Occitan is closely related to Catalan, and, although strongly influenced in the recent past by French, its phonology and grammar are more closely related to Spanish than to French.


In spite of the various dialects, attempts were made to create an Occitan standard. One of the earliest and most famous movements was founded by Frédéric Mistral, the region's best-known author, who was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature for the poem "Mirèilha" in his native Provençal dialect.

Mistral, together with a group of intellectuals known as the Félibrige, proposed in the 19th century a standard based upon modern Provençal (one of the Occitan dialects). The Félibrigians' preoccupation with purity and the past meant that the "corrupted, bastardized form of the frenchified patois of the streets' could not provide a suitable linguistic model for their poetry. That had to be found elsewhere, in the countryside." They re-worked the language, systematically pruning "frenchified"terms and replacing them with "older and more genuine" forms.

The Félibrigians are most often accused of passéisme, of wishing to preserve, from the safety of their ivory tower of intellectualism, the picturesque backwardness of Occitania, and of seeking in folkloric traditions a force to unite Occitania.

A post-World War II effort at standardization took as its model the Languedocien dialect; like the Félibrigian standard, the choice of one dialect as a model for all could only have overruled dialectical loyalty in a few urban intellectuals whose linguistic ties to the region were more symbolic or political than quotidian and authentic. There have been a confusing array of other standardizations, many of which have suffered in some degree from the crucial gap between urban intellectuals who seek to preserve and standardize Occitan, and rural paysans, the last remaining autochthonous native speakers, whose goals are more concrete and practical.

The Félibrigian spelling is still in use, primarily in the Provençal region, but current Occitan texts tend to favor Loís Alibèrt's Languedocien-based Gramatica occitana. His system, based upon the spelling and Latin derivations of historical Langue d'Oc, is sufficiently universal to enable the expression of every Occitan dialect, as well as autochthonic neologisms. The «graphie alibertine» is on its way to unite the dialects of Occitan; transcriptional conventions can now be regularized, and the historical roots of the system lend modern writing historical continuity and even a sense of the prestige of the medieval precedent. In Saussurean terms, Alibert's norms permit both synchronic communication, throughout Occitania, and diachronic communication back to the origins of Occitan culture.

Present Situation

The situation of present-day Occitan is rather paradoxical. On the one hand, there are people, mainly old, who still use it in every day life as their natural way of communication, at work or at home. Yet those people, for the most, are unable to read or write it as they never learned to do so. On the other hand, due to the movements and associations supporting the revival of minority languages in Europe and in France, Occitan is more and more taught in bilingual associative schools (Calandretas), in state-run primary schools, in high schools and Universities. Yet what is at issue now, is whether those people, who will be able to read and write Occitan, will use it in everyday life.


The main features of the Occitan vocal system are the following (we use French and Spanish examples as references):
Absence or rarety
of closed vowels 
rosa rose
rose [rz
rose [oz] 
No diphthongization
of Vulgar Latin vowels 
mele(m) honey
bene well
tres three
fede(m) faith 
of the Latin stressed a 
cabra goat
cabra (chabra) 
Maintenance of the Latin
final  unstressed a 
porta door
catêna chain 
porte [pt] 
chaine [n] 
of the unstressed
una petita femna
sus la finestra

['yn pë'tit 'fem- 
n sys la fi'nestr]

(12 syllables) 

une petite femme
sur la fenêtre

[yn ptit fam sy
la fnt]

(6 syllables) 

Spanish uses
words of different
No nasalized vowels 
vinum wine
bene well 

See also


Like Old French, from the 9th to the 13th century, Old Occitan preserved the two-case system of Vulgar Latin, subjective and objective, and it seems that until the middle of the 12th century, the written and spoken languages were identical. Then, the distinction between the cases disappeared in spoken usage, though they still persisted in the written texts of the Trobadors. This period can be qualified as the Golden Age or the time of the Trobadors.

A second period ranges from the beginning of the 14th century to the middle of the 16th. It is characterized by the dropping altogether of the flexions in witten texts, by the beginning of dialectization, the dropping of courteous vocabulary and the use of learned words borrowed from Latin and Greek to express law, medecine, philosophy and theology. Occitan was no longer a literary language, but it was used to write the deeds, the accounts, the chronicles and the resolutions of local communities. Since the second half of the 16th century to our days, Occitan was banned from written documents, and reduced to oral usage only, mainly by country and working people, in their everyday life, at work or at home.

All along its history, Occitan has remarkably retained its fundamental features: plurals marked by the addition of -s or -es , generally preserved in speech, the agreement of adjectives with nouns, and the conjugations of verbs.The latter, like Italian, Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese, but unlike French, do not require any personal pronoun to indicate the persons, the verb endings being pronounced differently to that effect:

There are 4 moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and conditional), 4 simple tenses (present, preterite, imperfect, future), and compound tenses. The latter are formed by adding to the infinitive (used as a stem) the present and imperfect indicative endings, respectively, of aver to have. The perfect, pluperfect and future perfect are usually constructed with aver, but some intransitive and all reflexive verbs use èsser (L esse) to be; in this Occitan is quite similar to French and Italian.

Yet, some syntaxic features are proper to Occitan like the extensive use of the subjunctive imperfect, no longer used in French, or the expression of progressive aspect by means of the periphrastic form, as in èsser + a + infiniive: Es a legir He is reading (cf. Portuguese estar + a + infinitive).


Occitan vocabulary is derived mainly from Vulgar Latin (pistillum => peile lock, mespilam => mèspla medlar), and also from Germanic (bastir to build, fanga mud, tropèl flock, herd), Greek (amètla almond, raumàs cold ), pre-Latin languages (truc summit, top, estalviar to save), especially Gaulish (carri cart, bruga heather).

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