People over States : the països occitans (occitanian countries), a new paradigm of resistance

, par Josep Carles Laínez

Fortunately, not all the terms appearing in my title require an explanation. I take for granted that it is clear what we understand by “people” and also by “State”. However, the other three nouns—Occitanian Countries, paradigm and resistance— perhaps need a longer explanation. Let us proceed one by one.

Occitania is the name given to the territory which stretches from the Atlantic coast of France (the northernmost tip being the city of Bordeaux) to the western valleys of Piedmont (Italy), and from the city of Limoges in central France to the Pyrenees. Its lands belong to four different states : France, Italy, Spain and Monaco. The first texts written in the Occitanian language date back to the eleventh century, and the Golden Age of its literature also began in that century, with the troubadour lyrics and songs that diffused not only a literary genre but a whole mode of living. This mode laid the foundations of many of the principal traits of European culture in the period before the Renaissance, especially in regard to the idealized vision of woman in society. That is to say, Occitanian culture, together with classical culture, is one of the cornerstones of our European heritage, especially in relation to the pre-Romantic idea of love in Western thought. With the decline or invasion of the countries where Occitanian was official, its weight in literature and as a high language decayed over the period preceding the nineteenth century. At that stage, a revival of Occitanian took place, stimulated by the commitment and activism of a number of intellectuals who not only gave another opportunity to the language as a medium of creative expression, but also achieved a truly remarkable international presence. The most widely known figure in that Renaissença (Renaissance) was that of the poet Frederic Mistral (1830-1914), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1904. Without any doubt, this was the most conspicuous achievement in modern Occitanian literature. But after this period, and throughout the twentieth century—as a consequences of two world wars and the growth of the influence of the French language due to the educational system (in which Occitanian was forbidden), the Church (in which the sermons were in French) and the spread of mass-media (radio and television)—the transmission of the language across generations was severely curtailed. Occitanian is now an endangered language whose survival is enormously difficult : a language, in fact, under threat of death.

Naturally, this brief sketch is designed merely to suggest the bare outlines of a subject of great complexity. It represents common knowledge, which I have tried to summarize in a way which is at once sensitive and objective. Yet Occitania, or what we call the “Occitanian Countries” (Països Occitans, in our own language), or the “Lands of Oc” (Tèrras d’Òc o Terres d’Oc, depending on the dialect), also has a different story, one that has been forgotten for the simple reason that the unity of language, of culture, and literary revival has been subordinated to the interests of the nationalist idea—not of the nation that it is now known as Occitania, but rather of a territory that from the origins of our culture until 1934 formed an integral part of Occitanian civilization as a whole. I refer to the regions within Spain where the Valencian/Catalan language (one more variety of Occitanian) is spoken : namely, the Balearic islands, Catalonia, and Valencia, as well as the tiny Principality of Andorra, a sovereign member state of the United Nations. This story is not commonly told. Nationalisms usually conceal elements of their countries’ history that are not in keeping with the dictates imposed by the elite, and in the case of Catalonia, by the bourgeoisie. In 1934, some Catalan intellectuals launched a manifesto which broke with the Occitanian cultural idea in order to concentrate their efforts on ensuring the future independence of Catalonia within Europe. They subordinated the unity of our culture to their economic interests, and were not able to think of the survival of their language and civilization as a whole. Without wishing to complicate things unnecessarily—I am no expert in the history of Albanian people—I would venture that what has happened with Occitania is analogous to the case of Albanians from Kosovo who say that their language has nothing to do with Albanian, repudiating the common culture that exists across the two states. This would be a great mistake, in my view. Yet this was the option pursued by the Catalan bourgeoisie and intellectuals in 1934 ; Occitania decayed.

Neither Albania nor Occitania are the only cases of a culture separated into several countries or regions. In 1993, towards the beginning of the recovery of the Occitanian movement in Valencia, I wrote an article, published in the journal Paraula d’Oc, in which I compared the current situation of Occitanian Countries to that of two peoples quite far from us : the Celtic and the Swahili. The former, divided nowadays into six separate countries (namely, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany) shares with Occitania the fact that despite their differences they see themselves as falling under the umbrella of a inclusive term (‘Celtic’ countries) and jointly organize festivals, statements, and publications. The case of Swahili, on the other hand, is even more interesting for our purposes, since Kiswahili is also an international language and, for this reason, could be considered as neutral. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his book Moving the Centre, enumerates the features that make this language a special one. We can apply them to the whole Swahili people :

It [Kiswahili] has the advantage of never having grown in the graveyard of other languages. Kiswahili has created space for itself in Africa and the world without displaying any national chauvinism. The power of Kiswahili has not depended on its economic, political or cultural aggrandisement. It has no history of opresión or domination of other cultures. And yet Kiswahili is now spoken as a major language in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa as web as in many other parts of the world. 2

The Occitanian countries are, in other words, by no means unique in the world. From a political and cultural point of view the time may perhaps have arrived in which we might change our paradigm of how to deal with an extremely ‘dialectalized’ language, in conjunction with the people who still speak it, and without entering into nationalist struggles or radical utopias. That is what we endeavour to do.

The most important considerations that we must keep in mind are these : 1) There has never existed a political entity named Occitania (either as a state or as a region) ; 2) the unity of this land comes from being the soil where the Occitanian language is spoken, rather than from any historical event or a pre-existent territory to which other regions were added because of military defeats or internal colonization ; 3) there is no attempt to impose one dialect above the others (though this point would require some clarification) ; 4) there is no project to create a political force so as to claim a free Occitania (though there are some parties in Catalonia defending the independence of this region and other minority parties in Occitania aiming at the same goal ; 5) Occitanian, and some dialects of Valencian/Catalan, are facing extinction, a prospect which may be fulfilled in one more generation, which is to say that we are not contemplating a language that represents a danger either for Spanish or for French ; and 6) people in Occitania and in Valencia also feel French or Spanish and do not see their nationality as a handicap for a plural identity.

In civil and political terms, the objectives of the struggle—our struggle— for the Occitanian ideal from Valencia tend to subvert the usual political references. We are endeavouring to generate a different kind of populism, since our aim is not to create a “new people” as a construct opposed to other peoples in a theoretical confrontation, but precisely to find resources and links with those other peoples, nations, states, and regions. These links could be thought of as synergies that allow different communities the possibility of collaborating together and expanding the sense of what they perceive to be ‘theirs’.

Given the endangered state of the Occitanian language, associations and individuals demanding its co-officiality and the spread of the use of the language cannot dream of a reversal of the situation with regard to French, Italian or Spanish ; that is unrealistic, at least in the short and medium term. However, the languages must learn to coexist, and people should be allowed the possibility of expressing themselves in the endogenous language of their choice in their relations with other members of the community. What is ‘our’ community in the case of the Occitanian Countries ? Europe, and even what I have called, in other articles and conferences, Magna Europa : the peoples that have emigrated from the European continent or islands over the centuries and created new states and cultures that in many respects fall within the spiritual frame of Europe : the United States, Quebec, Australia, Siberia, Uruguay, South Africa... One is tempted to say that the future of a language, no matter how small it may be, is a problem that affects the whole of humanity, but I would prefer to avoid such grandiloquent statements, confining myself to the geographical territory of the language.

In considering the task that we are carrying out within this new paradigm of linguistic claims, we may think of languages and peoples as if they were ‘implicated orders’ (to borrow the expression from the scientist Niels Böhr). We are not dealing with a pyramidal structure, but rather with a circular and non-aggressive form that contains within it, progressively, various strata of complexity, in a flexible rather than hierarchical mode. Starting from the concrete individual, the community links to the family, the neighbourhood, the village or city, the region, the country, the state, the linguistic community, perhaps to an international organization as well (the European Union). In each stratum, there may be one, two, or many more languages of exchange, and each will need to be considered with the same importance. This way of rethinking linguistic relationships is even more interesting because it cuts with two structures of thought that are rooted in neoliberal societies.

Firstly, it proposes an alternative to the dangerous tendency to substitute one dominant language for another. In Catalonia, this tendency is very marked, and the final aim is to eradicate Spanish to the benefit of Catalan. That is to say, a great part of the population has the preconception—which predominates in countries such as Spain, France or Italy—that there is a prestige national language (Spanish, French and Italian), and a series of languages (called pejoratively “patois” in France, or “dialetti” in Italy) without that prestige. The objective of minority languages activists—and the fear of those who hold the ‘high’ languages—is that the situation may be subverted, and that minority languages may be granted official privileges. In the new paradigm that we propose, the responsibility does not lie either with states, or with intellectuals, but with every individual who must put it to use in their own community. If we consider some regions in Europe, we see that this is already a daily practice (in front of the obligatory homogeneity of the states) : in Gibraltar, for example, English, Spanish (in its Andalusian variety), and Llanito (an English-Spanish pidgin) ; in Aran, Aranese (a variety of the Gascon dialect of Occitanian), Catalan, Spanish, and some French ; and in some Swiss cantons, Swiss German, Standard German, one dialect of the Romansh language, Standard Romansh, some knowledge of French, some Italian, and the international English. All these languages coexist, each forming part of the community ; the most important thing is that all be alive and be transmitted.

Symbolically, to end the hierarchical structure in the use of languages is to undermine the patriarchal order, is to give priority to the mother tongue (the language coming from the mother, from the family) instead of that which neoliberal states wish to impose as the only language for knowledge and use (France is the champion in this). The image of a circle, within which everything is welcomed and everybody can move at will, expanding it or remaining in the point of their choice, is absolutely contrary to the idea of a pyramid or a staircase in which the levels are predetermined. There are no high and down languages, there are communication tools that can be interchangeable, and even it is necessary that they are interchangeable.

In his essay Les Identités meurtrières [In the Name of Identity : Violence and the Need to Belong], the French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf calls for leaving behind closed identities, which consider the Other as an enemy instead of encouraging awareness of the similarities that join us to him. From our new paradigm, the “plural identity” that we advocate has the individual as a central point of reference ; every individual is attached naturally to different identities that enrich his world view, and so must enrich the communities that he joins as well.

We rely on plurality, and not to any kind of forced homogeneity ; we rely on personal autonomy as a basis for a communal spirit open to any interaction, and not to states ruled by giant corporations and banks ; we rely on the inclusivity of European culture, on considering “ours” all peoples and languages ; we rely on the use of any language or dialect at all levels if the individual decides to pursue this, rather than to a colonial linguistics that gives priority to some languages and lead to the image of minority languages as “poor”, “regional” or “local” languages. They are transformed, in our case, into “European” languages spoken by a group of individuals with rights equal to those who speak the great international languages of communication. Valencian is my language, but Spanish too, and in this article English is also mine, but Albanian as well, because it belongs to the cultural and referential framework in which I live : Europe.

Returning to a language like Occitanian—spoken mainly in small villages, but also in modern cities like Marseille, Toulouse or Nice by the younger generations—is one option for returning to roots. These roots may be considered in political and cultural terms, but we must not neglect the economic, social, and ecological interests of this choice. The defence of minority languages in Europe is linked to a more all- encompassing movement that aims to preserve a whole series of elements interwoven historically with the language : 1) it gives priority to the consumption of products elaborated in the region ; 2) it defends the historical institutions and traditions linked to the language ; 3) it proposes new forms of schooling (from monolingual kindergartens to home schooling) ; 4) in some cases, there are experiences of community life (eco- villages)... That is to say, there are actions which enter into a dynamic of sustainable development. And if this occurs in Europe, where all of us share a European culture, we are obliged to think that experiences in the Americas or other continents are even more transforming and transcendental for the plurality of the world.

It is for these reasons that we talk about a new paradigm of resistance when we look at the future of minority languages. We are conscious, on the other hand, that ours will always be a minority option if there is no essential change in the culture of banality that extends over Europe and other western countries. In the particular cases of lesser- used languages in Spain, France and Italy, there are varying grounds for optimism. Spain is undoubtedly the state in which there are the most opportunities for a minority language to be used, though the situation is not the same in all the regions. Catalonia and Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) have the highest degree of achievements concerning the implementation of politics for the use, at all levels (political institutions, education from schools to universities, mass-media, courts, etc.) of Catalan and Basque. Even the Aranese subdialect, spoken only in a small valley at the Pyrenees, enjoys co- official status. However, there are no protective measures for Aragonese, Extremeño (a dialect derived from Asturian), or Murcian (a dialect with traits coming from Castilian and Catalan). Other languages or dialects (Galician, Asturian, Andalusian, the new Guanche...) move between those two poles of officiality and virtual inexistence.

If we turn to France, the situation, compared to the most successful cases in Spain, is terrifying. All languages other than French (even Basque and Catalan, and notably Corsican, the language of the most combative community) face extinction if measures are not undertaken to secure their survival. The idea that the sole important language is French, that the only language that has a right to live is French, is deeply rooted in right-wing politics ; some weeks ago, Nicolas Sarkozy affirmed that it was a sign of weakness that France has such a multiplicity of languages. The future of great languages of culture such as Occitanian is fragile, as it is for Romance varieties that are considered dialects by chauvinist scholars but are in fact independent languages (Picard, Poitevin, Normand, Wallon...). In Italy, meanwhile, there is no official language other than Italian, beyond the cases of very small communities in the Alps. Neither Occitanian, nor Friulan, nor Sardinian, nor Greek, have the possibility to be used in any normal situation. The same goes for languages that are not considered (exogenous) languages, but “dialetti” (dialects), such as Piedmontese, Lombard, Sicilian, and Venetian, although the oral use of these languages continue being very high (as opposed to their use in newspapers, churches, and schools). In Monaco, the national language—a Ligurian dialect—is probably already extinct, although Occitanian is still spoken by some people. In Andorra, Catalan was, has been, and is the only official language of the state, and it is spoken by all the nationals.

We are accustomed to aspects of neocolonialism or interferences from Western or Eastern countries in the international arena, falling sometimes into commonplaces that do not help to an understanding of the situation, dividing the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ agents, focusing on some states and avoiding the concern for others in the same situation. However, our own, European countries are usually forgotten, when we talk about discrimination, cultural genocide or colonialist measures. One of the most prominent authors in Occitanian, the Catholic priest Joan Larzac, published some decades ago a book that is still a reference in the study of our past : Descolonisar l’istòria occitana [Decolonizing Occitanian History].

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our task is to decolonize the mind of every European or individual in the world. There are no ‘important’ languages and ‘secondary’ languages : only languages spoken by individuals who have the same inherent values and dignity.

1 I want to express my thanks to Benita Sampedro (Hofstra University, New York), specialist in post-colonial literatures and the cultural production of Equatorial Guinea, for her careful revision of this text and for her comments.

2 WA THIONG’O, Ngũgĩ, “Imperialism of Language”, in Moving the Centre. The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Oxford, James Curie Ltd, 1993, p. 41.

Josep Carles Laínez
Editor-in-Chief, Debats Institució Alfons el Magnànim (CECEL-CSIC), Spain
Member of the Board of Directors Òc-Valéncia Association
Member Association « Ici et Ailleurs » (‘Aquí y Allá’) - Spain
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