From the nineteenth century onwards, with the rise of universal public education, the French state embarked on a policy of punishing and severely shaming speakers of minority languages in France, with the stated purpose of “annihilating” them and replacing them with only French. The word “vergonha” itself, meaning “shame”, comes from Occitan, but the same policy was enacted against speakers of other minority languages, such as Catalan, Basque or Breton.

A large part of the process was carried out by means of propaganda, denigrating all regional languages as “patois” or “corrupted French”. Words would be painted extremely large on classroom walls: “SOYEZ PROPRES, PARLEZ FRANÇAIS” (“be clean, speak French”) or (apologies I don’t know the French for this one) “it is forbidden to spit on the ground and speak patois”. Students were indoctrinated into thinking their languages were dirty, corrupted speech patterns that didn’t even have names of their own, but were only patois.

A widespread punishment for children who did speak their native languages in school was “clogging”, or the hanging of a clog (or sometimes something else, like a horseshoe, or even a little sign with a trite slogan about local languages being dirty) around a student’s neck until the end of the day, or until a different student made the same mistake. There was also, of course, extensive use of corporal punishment and other methods of humiliation.

These policies were extremely successful; Occitan went from being the native language of 39% of France’s population in 1860 (a higher proportion than that which natively spoke French) to 7% by 1993, to having a mere 100,000 native speakers today (less than 1% of France’s population). In fact, there are far more Occitan speakers outside of France, in enclaves like the Val d’Aran in Catalonia and the Occitan Valleys in Italy. Occitan still has no official status in France (unlike Catalonia and the Occitan Valleys) and the French constitution still places severe restrictions on the use of non-French languages in official settings, basically eliminating the possibility of offering classes in minority languages in schools, for example. (There are language revival efforts involving kindergartens.) Other minority languages of France have also suffered badly.