On a cold winter’s night nine years ago, I made my way along icy cobblestone streets, a howling wind at my back, into the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of south-west France. This area is famous for its prehistoric caves, medieval castles and truffles – but I was here for another reason altogether. This was to be my first session of Café Oc, a monthly conversation circle at the Café La Lune Poivre, where locals gather to practice the regional Occitan language.
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Although many people have not heard of Occitan, also known as Langue d’Oc, it’s one of several Romance languages that evolved from vernacular Latin, and is still spoken in six major dialects across southern France as well as parts of north-western Italy and northern Spain. Anxious about being accepted as an outsider – but fascinated by the language and culture and hoping to learn more – I pushed open the door and prepared to make my case. Warm air scented with spicy mulled wine rushed at me, as did a collective greeting.
“Benvenguda a Café Oc,”exclaimed 10 people, all age 60 or older, in Occitan. I introduced myself in French, and they assured me that I was welcome. One woman made a point to sit to my left and in soft whispers translated the conversation into French for me. Their warmth, her kindness, and the conversation that night deepened my affection for this ancient land of the Périgord, the older name of the Dordogne, which also included a section of the Lot-et-Garonne region to the Dordogne’s south. It is a region that has drawn humans to it for some 400,000 years.
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That night at Café Oc, participants spoke of many things, all wedded to the land and traditions. They described growing up cultivating and producing all that their family needed to eat; how to hunt for cepes (porcini); the medieval pilgrimage route that passes through their region toward Santiago de Compostela; gathering and selling truffles at Christmas; and colourful folkloric characters, the most memorable being the lébérou, Périgord’s version of a werewolf-like creature.
I learned that Occitan was once the lingua franca of the south of France, and is best known as the language in which the troubadours sang. But in 1539, King François I signed into law an edict, the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts, which made Francien, the northern French dialect of Paris and the Île-de-France, the entire county’s official language.
However, outside of official business and written documents (such as marriage, death and birth certificates), much of daily life continued to be conducted far away from officialdom, and Occitan remained the language of the home, field and family. Graham Robb, in his historical geography, The Discovery of France, noted that despite three centuries of efforts to make standardised French the language of all of France, in 1863 in the south of the country more than half the population remained non-French speaking. In the Dordogne the numbers were even higher, where more than 90% of the population was still largely Occitan speaking.
But a little more than 100 years ago at the turn of the 20th Century, the central government launched an aggressive campaign to extinguish any language that was not the standardised French. Occitan was forbidden to be taught in schools, and any children who used their mother tongue were punished, a practice that infused deep shame in many people. Many older adults in the Dordogne still tell stories about being humiliated in school for speaking Occitan.
The Dordogne region is rich with rivers that have deeply carved the soft and gold-toned limestone into caves and cliffs, fertile valleys and hilltop plateaus. It is an agricultural and herding region where traditional small-scale farming and animal-rearing practices persist. Today, along with tourism, the Périgord’s livelihood remains directly connected to the ancient land, where the past flows unbroken into the present.
Soon after my first session of Café Oc, I joined Bruno Eluere and Béatrice Mollaret, local guides and co-founders of regional tour company Dordogne Fellow Traveller on weekly treks exploring caves, castles and forest tracts. I was curious about their experience with Occitan. It seemed that, despite being brought up as French speakers, the language was still very close to their hearts.
“Occitan is part of my very first memories,” Eluere told me. “Andrea, my grand aunt's maid used to call me moun cacalou, my little walnut, which became my first nickname.”
Mollaret went further, explaining that the language is intrinsically tied to Périgord culture and how Occitan intimately describes aspects of life here, details that are lost if expressed in French or that simply do not have French words.
“[Occitan] is really linked to the land, to the farm, to the traditions and legends,” she said. “Some things concerning the animals, the plants, are only known in the former language. In the Dordogne, le cluzeau [dug out rock or cave shelter], le cingle [looped or circular path], le téchou [pig] are always expressed in Occitan.
“I like very much the poetry of some special words that others cannot understand, from one region to another one,” she continued. “Just by travelling from the Dordogne to the Lot, very few kilometres, sometimes I discover different expressions, different ways of calling the same bird or the same tree, and I like the way everyone is trying to catch the reality in his own way.”
This intimate and detail-oriented relationship between language and land was reinforced on the many solo countryside walks that I love to make when I visit, which has been nearly every year since I first came nine years ago.
Once I met a man standing among his grapevines, whispering Occitan incantations of encouragement to them to grow and thrive – his eyes closed, his fingers brushing their leaves, his palms facing the sky – an effort that he later explained to me was as important as rain, soil and pruning.
I like the way everyone is trying to catch the reality in his own way
Another time, I passed a man weeding his garden who put out a small dish of water so that the resident rouge-gorge (European robin) – known by at least three names in Occitan, depending on who you ask (barbarós, papach-rós and rigal) – would fly down from the tree for a visit.
I also spoke with a farmer who explained that each year, after he ploughed the field, new stone tools emerged, some from Neanderthals and others from Cro-Magnons. I learned that the name Cro-Magnon itself was Occitan: Cro means ‘hole’ or ‘hollow’ in Occitan (creux in French), and Magnon was the family name of the gentlemen on whose property workers, in 1868 in the village of Les Eyzies, discovered five 27,000-year-old skeletons.
The fact that the language is so intertwined with the culture is perhaps why it has never completely faded away. Despite being classified as ‘severely endangered’ by Unesco, it has survived in traditional spheres: in homes, at bedtime in folktales, in fields during planting and harvesting, with herding and transhumance (moving animals between summer and winter pastures), in the forests during hunting seasons, and in the music and poetry. It is also most definitely heard in the sayings that naturally fly off the tongue, such as, ‘se la barba donava de sen, totas las cabras serían doctors’ (if a beard were the sign of wisdom, all goats would be doctors), or ‘l’aiga va totjorn d’aval’ (water always flows down; things are as they are).
Since the 1950s, Occitan and other minority regional languages in France – such as Breton, Basque, Flemish and Alsatian – have returned to wider public engagement and are taking on positive associations, casting off the negative connotations assigned them by the central government 100 years ago. In 1993, France’s government informed teachers across the nation to prepare to teach bilingual curricula in places where regional languages persisted.
Today, no longer banned, Occitan is experiencing a small but healthy revival, with around three million speakers across all the southern regions of France, according to estimates from the Académie Bordeaux, part of the Ministry of Education. Occitan is now an elective in some (but not all) schools; and some schools in the Dordogne offer bilingual curricula. For people of all ages, local language groups promote Occitan lectures, concerts and conversation circles, such as Café Oc.
While French is still the prominent language throughout region, if you pause to listen to locals shopping in the market or chatting at cafes, you will soon hear the mellifluous sounds of Occitan instead of French, or a blending of the two languages.
One evening on a recent visit in late May, I followed the plaintive melody of a lone flute to Sarlat’s car park known as La Grande Rigaudie. That night the space had been transformed into a dance floor for the two-day springtime festival, La Ringueta, which celebrates Sarlat’s and the Périgord’s Occitan culture with traditional games (such as nine pins, tug-of-war and ring tosses), bilingual classes and craft workshops.
There is also a large communal meal (often goose or pork roasted all day over open coals), and the festival culminates with the ‘Bal Trad’, a traditional dance. Drawn to the music, I entered the car park, its trees hung with fairy lights and people resting around the edges or watching the dancers, pair by pair, swirling to the music in a sultry waltzing rhythm. When the flute ended its lament, a guitar and accordion joined in with a rowdy tune. The couples parted and formed a large circle, and people of all ages joined in, holding hands and taking me with them. With a few fancy steps left and few more fancy steps right, we moved in an intoxicating circle of belonging.
Never have I felt the Périgord culture more alive than in that moment. As I was woven seamlessly into the circle, I felt the true depth of this culture and the reason why it and its language persists.
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