Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On the cases of Occitan and Ullans

Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman, / qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire. / Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan; / consiros vei la passada folor, / e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan. / Ara vos prec, per aquella valor / que vos guida al som de l'escalina, / sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor"

So pleases me your courteous demand, / I cannot and I will not hide me from you. / I am Arnaut, who weep and singing go;/ Contrite I see the folly of the past, /And joyous see the hoped-for day before me. / Therefore do I implore you, by that power/ Which guides you to the summit of the stairs, / Be mindful to assuage my suffering

The above quotation is taken from the 26th canto of Dante's epic poem Purgatorio. Those of you familar with French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese might have seemed a bit puzzled by these sentences. The language is neither of the three; it is in fact Occitan or what is generally known as Provencal. If there is any language in Europe which deserves to be called multicultural, Occitan is certainly a notable candidate. Although it's status is often disputed, which most French people referring to it as simply a dialect of French, many scholars contend that it deserves the status of a separate langauge.

Occitan was widely spoken in the South of France up until the 14th century, and it was the principal vehicle for the poems and songs of the troubadour poets, whose influence spread to Gaelic verse after the Norman invasion in the 12th century. But its multicultural aspect becomes apparent when one realises that it was not only spoken in the territory pertaining to modern day France. It was also spoken in Spain, in the form of Aranese. This dialect is now commonly referred to as Catalan. There were also many speakers of Occitan in Northern Italy in the regions of Piedmond and Liguria as well as parts of Calabria in the south. With the standardisation of French after the foundation of the Academie Francaise in 1635 , minorities languages such as the Celtic Breton and the Romance Occitan went into terminal decline, but efforts to preserve and restore the status of Occitan resulted in the creation of bilingual schools in 1979. These schools are known as Calandreta and there are currently 26 of them in the South of France.

The status of a language and its standardisation is often the source of heated debate. Should one refer to Occitan as a dialect of French, Spanish or Italian or as a language in itself? The question is considerably complicated by the fact that there are many different versions of Occitan. These have been identified as Gascon, Northern Occitan,Lemosin, Auverhat, Vivaroalpenic, Southern Occitan, Provencal and Langadocian. But the fact that Occitan has an august literary history, must be taken into consideration. The status of a language is inextricably bound up with nationality and ethnicity.Why, for example are Swedish, Norwegian and Danish considered separate languages, when they are almost mutally intelligible. It is because these dialects of Scandinavian, if you like, have each become a standardised lingua franca of the nation-states bearing their names. Ireland has officially two languages, Gaelic and English, but the status of Ulster-Scots in the North still poses problems for linguists. The question is whether we can call it a language or a dialect of English.In a sense, all these languages are both separate entities as well as forming part of standard languages which suppressed and supplanted them; they are therefore both language and dialect, depending on how one views the cultural integrity or independence of the regions to which they belong. The fact that Ulster-Scots, for example, was willingly abandoned by Unionist Ulstermen after the formation of the United Kingdom, only to be revived recently as a sort of antidote to Sinn Fein's Gaelic project, has meant that few if any have taken it seriously as a langauge. But as they say in Ullans, E'enin orts is guid mornins' fother-what is despised today may be valued tomorrow and perhaps this could change if Ulster Unionists were to pursue the idea shared by some of making Northern Ireland an independent state. Just as in the case of Occitan in France, the formation of Ulster-Scots bilingual schools would go a long way towards the formation of a separate Ulster identity as well as encouraging more cultural appreciation, exchange and diversity throughout the region.

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