The language the French forbade

September 12th, 2018 by On a cold night 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. 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. 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. Read more: BBC Travel

The mysterious origins of Europe’s oldest language

July 24th, 2017 by From my car window, I watched Spain transform. From Madrid in the country’s centre to the coastal north, empty land and grazing cows turned to misty green mountains and a shimmering harbour full of boats. I had driven north before, but this was the first time I’d stopped in Getaria, a medieval fishing village with beaches, vineyards and the 15th-Century baptismal church of native son Juan Sebastian Elcano, the first person to sail around the world. In the early afternoon, on a narrow street, hot smoke rose from seabream sizzling on an outdoor charcoal grill. Two men standing behind a seafood delivery truck were speaking a language I’d never heard before. The staccato sounds they exchanged mingled with the light drips of rain on the pavement that March day. Later, I realised they were speaking an ancient language that has teetered on the brink of extinction. Euskara, spoken in the autonomous communities of Navarre in northern Spain and the Basque Country across northern Spain and south-western France, is a mystery: it has no known origin or relation to any other language, an anomaly that has stumped linguistic experts for ages. “Nobody is able to say where [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][the language] comes from,” according to Pello Salaburu, professor and director at the Basque Language Institute at The University of the Basque Country in Bilbao. “Scholars used to research this problem many years ago, but there are no clear conclusions.” Read more: BBC[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

How music is keeping one southern Italian dialect alive

April 28th, 2017 by The historic dialect of Southern Italy, spoken by the Griko people, is on the verge of extinction. However, it's still alive - largely thanks to the music associated with it. Also known as Salentino-Calabrian Greek, Griko or Italiot Greek is an umbrella-term for two distinctive dialects: Griko, spoken in Salento, and Calabrian Greek, still present in Southern Calabria. Both dialects are usually referred to simply as 'Griko'. Partially intelligible with Modern Greek, its exact origins are unclear even to academics with expertise in the area. Historians and linguists have put forward several hypotheses, linking the dialects with Ancient Greece and Magna Grecia or with the Byzantine Empire, but none of these theories has been proven. But wherever its Greek-ness came from, Griko has also been heavily influenced by the Italian Language, and speakers use both the Greek and Latin alphabets. Read more: The Local

Census shows we must rethink our approach to Irish and the Gaeltacht

April 11th, 2017 by The 2016 Census returns, published this week, contain bad news for the Irish language, with a decline across all significant categories: daily speakers of Irish outside the education system and knowledge of and use of Irish in the Gaeltacht. The fall in the Gaeltacht is particularly dramatic – an 11 per cent drop in daily speakers outside the education system within the past five years – and provides further confirmation of the decline of Irish in its traditional heartland, a change which has been documented extensively in recent years. Although the latest Census figures also illustrate a fall in daily speakers outside the Gaeltacht, that reduction, from 54,010 to 53,217 people, is very small (just over 1 per cent). There has also been an 0.8 per cent increase in the numbers of weekly speakers outside the education system, which probably include those who speak Irish well but lack opportunities to do so. This confirms another existing trend: that the numbers speaking Irish regularly outside the Gaeltacht, although small, are more stable than the equivalent figures from the Gaeltacht. Research on these “new speakers” of Irish – fluent and committed speakers who were not raised with the language in the Gaeltacht – shows that some look to the Gaeltacht as the model, although it is declining, while others are attempting to create new models such as the recent Pop-Up Gaeltacht events around the country. This is a European-wide trend and is being explored by a European research network on “new speakers in a multilingual Europe”. Read more: The Irish Times

Why Italians are Giving up Italian

February 23rd, 2017 by As I stroll under the scorching sun in Nardò, a town in Puglia on the heel of Italy’s boot, I hear music from an open window. The melody sounds like the Lennon–McCartney classic “Yesterday,” but the lyrics are not in English — or Italian. Then I see a leaflet announcing courses in Neretino, a dialect spoken only in Nardò. But that’s not unusual: Each whitewashed village in this gorgeous region of olive groves and Baroque churches has its own tongue. And it’s not just in the deep, primitive Italian south where ancient languages are lovingly preserved and promoted. All of Italy is seeing a renewed interest in dialects, a revival linked to a national — and greater European — identity crisis. “It’s a matter of territorial belonging,” says Andrea Maniero, a linguistics expert and resident of Nardò, where everyone understands the local lingo even if they don’t speak it. “The ones most lured to learning it are the youth, who are fascinated by the old speech of their grandparents.” According to national statistics, half of all Italians prefer to speak in a dialect, whether it’s picturesque Napulitano (Neapolitan), Siculo (Sicilian), Francoprovenzale (an ancient Gallo-Romance language spoken in Alpine valleys), Fùrlan (Friulan, typical of the Friuli region in northeastern Italy) or Ladino (an old version of Latin) — just to name a few. In fact, Italy’s Union of Tourist Boards calculates that the country has some 11,000 dialects. The influence of Napulitano and Siculo is so strong that the iPhone offers them as language options. Read more: Ozy

Italian is under assault from rising number of Anglicisms, sloppy use of verbs and shrinking vocabulary, guardians of the language warn

January 19th, 2017 by The Italian language is under assault from a growing tide of English words, the abandoning of verb tenses and a shrinking vocabulary, and could be driven to extinction altogether, the head of the country’s most illustrious language institute has warned. The language of Dante and Petrarch is becoming vulgarised and made more simplistic as young people dispense with the subjunctive and future tenses and sprinkle their day-to-day language with Anglicisms, even where there are perfectly adequate Italian alternatives, according to the Accademia della Crusca, an academy that guards the purity of Italian, said. “There’s been a big increase in the number of foreign words and expressions and the trend will continue, above all with English words,” said Prof Claudio Marazzini, the president of the academy, which was founded in Florence in 1582. “We are heading towards a more meagre Italian.” Thousands of words are at risk of extinction through not being used anymore in daily discourse, he said. They include “accolito” (acolyte, henchman), “maliardo” (bewitching), “tremebondo” (tremulous, trembling), “zufolare” (to whistle), and “abbindolare” (to be taken for a ride, to be led by the nose). Read more: The Telegraph

Milan’s beloved but endangered dialect

December 18th, 2016 by The 2015 World's Fair, held in Milan, was an unexpected success. It showcased a sleek, self-confident city, all trendy architecture and eco-friendly design. How things have changed. In the 1960s, Milan was a grubby, electrifying place. Industry choked the streets, and petty crime was rife. Milan was also different linguistically. Singers belted out folk songs in milanes, the city's distinctive dialect. This tradition is all but dead now. But recalling it conjures another Milan, charting its transformation into a modern city. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Milanese folk music was hugely popular. From legendary joints like the Derby Club, singers like Enzo Jannacci (pictured) and Nanni Svampa composed or reinterpreted dozens of songs covering all parts of Milanese life. Some bands, like I Gufi (The Owls), were famous enough to be shown on television. These chroniclers had a lot of material to work with. The post-war “economic miracle” was turning Milanese society on its head. Hundreds of thousands of poor southerners came north to work in new Milanese factories. Cheap apartment blocks sprouted up to house them. Class tensions were common: one industrial suburb was known as the Italian Stalingrad. In one song, Mr Svampa remarked that he would never stop being jealous of those who can afford to “marry for love”. It is unsurprising that some resorted to crime. Jannacci (who died in 2013) and Mr Svampa sang at length about la mala, the now defunct Milanese underworld. Friends are betrayed and lives wasted, all for the price of a risotto and a carafe of wine. In one poignant song, the protagonist—now in jail—muses that everyone has “three things at the depth of their heart: their youth, their mother and their first love”. Now that his youth is spent, and his mother dead, the narrator concludes that he’s “stuck like a pirla (prick) with his first love”. Read more: The Economist

Italy’s Last Bastion of Catalan Language Struggles to Keep It Alive

November 21st, 2016 by ALGHERO, Italy — The first Catalans reached Sardinia in the 14th century, when troops sailed from the eastern coast of what is now Spain as part of an expansion into the Mediterranean. After an uprising slaughtered the forces garrisoned in this northern port on the island, King Peter IV expelled many of the locals. In their place, he populated Alghero mostly with convicts, prostitutes and other undesirables, many of them Catalans. Today, Alghero is a linguistic anomaly. This walled and picturesque city is, quite literally, the last bastion of Catalan in Italy. In an age when people cling ever more tightly to national identity, the lingering use of Catalan in Alghero is a reminder of the ways Mediterranean cultures have blended for centuries, rendering identity a fluid thing. But while the traditional insularity of Alghero has helped to preserve Catalan, the language is struggling to survive even here. Read more: NY Times

The Sardinian professor fighting to save Gaelic – and all Europe’s minority tongues

March 14th, 2016 by It is an impending extinction that will change the world and how people communicate: within 20 years, half of all the planet’s languages will be dead. Experts agree that nothing can stop it happening but one academic is trying her hardest to slow it down, to help preserve what may be part of a golden ticket for our brains. Professor Antonella Sorace – a Sardinian who was discouraged from learning her own dying language in favour of “proper” Italian – is one of a growing number who believe learning a second language has enormous untapped benefits for the human brain. This is true not only for young children but also for adults and people at risk from dementia, where research consistently shows that learning a new language could delay the onset of the disease for four to five years – a better result than with any medication to date. Read more: The Guardian‎

Multilingualism: in the fabric of Europe’s identity

November 29th, 2015 by Speaking their native tongue is a basic right for MEPs, but then how does Parliament avoid a Babel-like cacophony? As Umberto Eco said, 'the language of Europe is translation'. Brought to you by the European Parliament.

Unusual ‘relic language’ comes from small group of farmers isolated for thousands of years

September 9th, 2015 by If you find yourself along the Atlantic coastal border between Spain and France, here are some phrases that might come in handy: Urte askotarako! (“Pleased to meet you!”), Eskerrik asko! (“Thank you!”), and Non daude komunak? (“Where is the toilet?”). Welcome to Basque Country, where many people speak a musical language that has no known relationship to any other tongue. Many researchers have assumed that Basque must represent a “relic language” spoken by the hunter-gatherers who occupied Western Europe before farmers moved in about 7500 years ago. But a new study contradicts that idea and concludes that the Basques are descended from a group of those early farmers that kept to itself as later waves of migration swept through Europe. Read more: AAAS