Occitan is an Occitano-Romance language once spoken throughout the south of France, but now fairly moribund, with only a few hundred thousand speakers (and only 100,000 in France, mostly very elderly). The process by which French state policy systematically eliminated Occitan has been referred to as la Vergonha (shame).
Occitan’s dialects are pretty different from one another, to the point that some argue for them (and especially Gascon) to be considered separate languages. It’s closely related to Catalan; indeed, the two were considered dialects (or groups of dialects) of the same language until the 19th century. The language (in both Occitan and Catalan forms) was extremely widespread in the Middle Ages, being the language in which the troubadours sang their famous ballads, for example. It was also a significant language of regional trade.
The name “Occitan” derives from its word for “yes”, “òc”. It was sometimes called the lenga d’òc, or langue d’òc in French. The language was also known for long periods of time as Lemousin or Provençal, after the most prominent dialect of the language during those times, but these days those terms are reserved for those specific dialects, with “Occitan” referring to the whole language.
The six main Occitan dialects are:
- Gascon (spoken in the west of Occitania, e.g. around Bordeaux, and in Catalonia in the Val d’Aran)
- Languedocien (central-southern dialect, e.g. around Toulouse)
- Provençal (southeastern dialect, e.g. around Marseille and Nice)
- Limousin (westernmost of the northern dialects, e.g. around Limoges)
- Auvergnat (centre-north dialect, e.g. around Riom)
- Vivaro-Alpine (northeastern dialect, spoken also in the Occitan Valleys of Italy)
Grammatically, Occitan remains extremely similar to Catalan. Some differences are:
- the treatment of adjectives ending in -al; in Catalan these don’t vary for gender, but in Occitan they do, with the feminine ending becoming -ala.
- while Occitan (like Catalan) is pro-drop, Occitan requires an extra particle added to the front of a sentence to replace the pronoun, depending on if you’re asking a question, making an observation, or saying something else.
- second-person plural verb conjugations generally end -u in Catalan, and -tz in Occitan.
- Occitan does not really use the “periphrastic past” that Catalan does (forms like va ser for “was”).
Some phonetic characteristics of Occitan:
- Latin [u] became [y]
- Latin [o] became [u]
- it kept Latin stressed [a]
- it kept intervocalic -d- (from Latin -t-) rather than dropping it entirely like French
- it kept Latin /aw/
- word-final /a/ became /ɔ/ (for me personally this is by far the aspect of Occitan that throws me the most)
- it diphthongised /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ before velars
- /ʎ/ distributed differently from in Catalan; generally in Occitan it can’t go word-initially, and in central dialects it also can’t go word-finally, whereas Catalan is fine with both of those. Occitan also doesn’t allow /ɲ/ word-finally, unlike Catalan.
There are also some phonetic changes that only happened in some dialects:
- northern dialects (like French)…
- palatalised ca-, ga- to “cha, ja”
- lost final consonants
- uvularised ⟨r⟩
- vocalised syllable-final /l/ to /w/
- nasal consonants made preceding vowels nasal
- southern dialects…
- lenited /b, d, g/ to [β ð ɣ]
- merged /b/ and /v/
- lost word-final /n/, but not /nn/
- merged word-final nasals to /ŋ/
- lost intervocalic /n/
- word-initial /f/ became /h/ (which happened in Mediaeval Spanish too, but in Spanish /h/ became silent, while in Gascon it is still pronounced)
There are two main systems for spelling Occitan, the first being the “classical” orthography based on medieval spellings, and the second being the Mistralian norm (named for its use by Frédéric Mistral) which aims to more accurately reflect the modern pronunciation of the Provençal dialect but with French spelling conventions (like ⟨ou⟩ for [u] or ⟨gn⟩ for [ɲ]). There are two other smaller standards used only for specific dialects (the Escòla dau Pò norm used in Occitan-speaking parts of Italy, and the Bonnaudian norm used for Auvergnat).