Occitan

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Author: Lena Smith

Languages die in stages. Barring natural disasters and plagues, a dying language slowly becomes a minority in a region, its speakers become bilingual with the dominant language, and finally they stop speaking it altogether. A language is lost somewhere in the world approximately every two weeks. Each takes with it a piece of a culture, and beyond that knowledge that the speakers have accumulated over generations.

Occitan, the regional language spoken in the south of France, is a minority language. Two generations ago, it was considered “patois” and children were punished for speaking it at school. Unsurprisingly, those children did not pass the language down. Now, many members of that lost generation want their children to speak the language they never had the chance to learn. They are fighting against the death of their language with designated schools in which children learn only in Occitan and study the history of the region and its culture. There is also an Occitan department at the university where I am studying, and a local publisher and radio station that use Occitan as their primary language.

Occitan speakers are very proud, and rightly so. Theirs is one of the few remaining romance languages spoken in France after the Academie Francaise standardized and imposed French on the entire country. It has a rich literary history, particularly from the Middle Ages, and was the language used in regional government and commerce for an extended period. Now, however, it is not even considered a longer considered a living language, since parents do not pass it to their children. Speakers find limited uses for it, such as teaching and literary study.

Languages like Occitan are disappearing quickly in places where people do not have the resources to publish books and open schools to keep their language alive. One language in South America, which is on the verge of disappearing, includes information about local medicinal plants unrecorded by the rest of the world. Different languages offer different perspectives on certain concepts, different social customs and different groups of people to interact with. Learning multiple languages makes the existence of other worldviews something real, rather than something abstract. For these reasons, I applaud the efforts of the parents attempting to teach their children Occitan, and other disappearing languages across the globe.

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