Sunday, March 17, 2013

Territory of the Secret Language

When I chose for the name of my blog a quote from an Occitan poet, I was reminded of an article written by my good friend Florenci in 2010 about a trip he took through the historically Catalan- and Occitan-speaking regions of southern France, today's region of Languedoc-Roussillon.  Languedoc is named for the Occitan language ('langue d'oc'), a fact touched upon in Florenci's article, and Roussillon (Rosselló in Catalan) is the region of Catalonia that was ceded to France by Spain after the Treaty of the Pyrenees.

Occitan flag

It is a wonderful view of the social realities of two minority languages in France (where only recently, yet again, the government has refused to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages), but is also generalizable to many situations around the world - something that Florenci calls in the article the "vision of a parallel world", which is a phrase that has stuck in my mind.  And even more, it is written beautifully.  For my blog, I asked if I could publish a translation done by me.  The original is written in Catalan, and another translation was made into Occitan by Patricia Delbosc.  Florenci agreed, and you can find my translation after the cut, along with photographs taken by Florenci during his trip.  I hope my translation does his work justice!

Territory of the Secret Language
by Florenci Salesas i Pla
translated by Stephen Shull

The land of the secret language
This trip to Occitan country has been a very powerful experience for me in many senses.  I will try to explain everything that has gone through my head, just as the images come.

When we visit the ‘south of France’ everywhere we read that we are in Languedòc.  Languedòc … what does that mean?  Is there some visitor who asks himself if there are many parts of the world that are named for their original languages?  I don’t believe that there exists any state, any known country; and I doubt there are many districts, counties, regions, provinces, colonies or whatever we’d like to call them that are named “Language of England” or “Language of Germany” (or perhaps more accurately “Yes language” or “Ja language”).

A rest on the way.
When I passed through this region for the first time with my parents, when I was little, I asked what “Languedòc” meant.  My father explained it to me as best he could, poor guy:
“This country is called that because they spoke - and still speak - a different language from French - the òc language.  In this language ‘òc’ means ‘yes’.  

Now that was great.  Òc language!  The place where they speak a language where instead of saying ‘yes’ they say ‘òc’.
“How fun!”, I must have thought.  “But why ‘yes’ and not ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘love’, ‘sun’, ‘moon, ‘land’ or something else, like ‘human beings’, just like the members of some Native American tribes call themselves?” I asked, but that was too much for my father...

From then on, whenever I’ve gone back through these lands I have never felt as though I were going to France, but to that country that names itself with pride after its language.  “A lovely thanks to the mother that taught you how to speak”, I’ve always thought.  Unfortunately, I’ve concluded that for a place that names itself after its language, that language is nowhere to be found.

A detail of the cathedral at Rodés (Rodez)
Other trips, like the one I made for the demonstration (Carcassona 2009), have confirmed this feeling.  I hold tightly to the idea that a feeling doesn’t represent a whole reality.  Surely there are villages or cities where Occitan still shoots up from the earth like fresh, dewy grass.  Or at least I would like to believe that.  The place is too big, I have seen too little of it, and in an incomplete and disordered fashion.  I would not be able to reach a conclusion, much less an expert one.

First, I went to see a friend of mine who is a writer, who lives not far from Perpignan.  With him, I had the opportunity to meet his uncle, who speaks a wonderful Catalan, a diamond in the rough.  We also spent the night with an ex-policeman - a wise man, sad and tired, with a lucid outlook on life, sarcastic and tender at the same time, full of compassion and humanity.  His Catalan was more deficient, and full of gallicisms.  He would switch to French when he didn’t know a word.  It didn’t bother me.  Countries have the realities that they have, and speakers do what they can.  Frequently one cannot ask for more.  I was quite lucky.

A detail that left me feeling badly: We ran into the uncle who was walking on a street in the village, accompanied by a woman.  We greeted him from my friend’s car.  The two men had a very brief conversation.  The uncle said he’d come see us tomorrow and afterwards we all said goodbye.  

Tomb at the Templar town of La Cobertoirada (La Couvertoirade)
“Did you notice we had that whole conversation in French?” my friend pointed out.  “If he had been alone, I would have spoken to him in Catalan.  But as he was walking with that woman who I didn’t know, I didn’t want to embarrass him.  We don’t know who she is, we don’t know what she does, she could be from Paris … I don’t know.”

Lesson learned: the language that in Barcelona or Girona I use to ask, without distinction, without caring about the race or the job of the person I’m asking, where to buy a newspaper; here it is a language that can cause embarrassment, can make one look bad, if one demonstrates that they know how to speak it.

A sign of normalcy, of being a good child of one’s land - not just good, but normal, like anyone from any other country - a sign of being cultured and refined even!  I believe that the more languages one knows, the more ways of thinking one has; we know now that languages aren’t just codes, but an entire way of seeing the world, different perspectives through which we approach the world around us.  That it should become a sign of shame, of stigmatization, is horrible!  Truly a sin!  True immorality!  It seems to be as ugly as hiding your mother from guests because you’re ashamed of how old she is, and of how she doesn’t have enough money to fix her teeth.

Suddenly I understood that going into a store to ask for a newspaper or a croissant in Catalan (the native language of this place!) on this side of the Pyrenees could never be looked upon with sympathy, but rather as a sign of ‘bad manners’ that would sooner cause discomfort - precisely in that part of the Catalan Countries where there are more Catalan flags blowing in the wind, in balconies, in stores, everywhere!

Up here, in Northern Catalonia, visual Catalanness explodes with such a brazen lack of hangups that, personally, I find it overwhelming: flags, regional clothing, souvenirs, all manner of patriotic regionalist paraphernalia attacks one’s sight from every corner.  Whereas, that which should enter through the ears, the main cause of that feeling of Catalanness, isn't present at all.  In its place, through the auditory orifice, French is heard, an omnipresent French.

Visual Catalanness in Northern Catalonia
This French has acted (has been used to act; the French language itself holds no blame) like imported American turtles which were were stronger and hardier.  Someone let them out in the open and they ate the plants that had nourished the native turtles.  These then got thinner, or died, or fled to places they could live in peace.  Or they hide themselves under stones when they see the other turtles coming, which have become the lords of the land and have imposed their rules and their way of life.  The strong ones have decided that the habitat, which the local turtles have built with great effort (generations of turtles, all of them quite slow!), isn’t worth anything.  In a matter of time, these insolent and powerful youngsters have shamed the older natives, who support themselves against the walls when they go out of the house.

With this lesson learned - and many other, thakfully more pleasing, lessons - I said goodbye to my friend, got into my car and made my way toward the land that is named for its language.  Wherever I would go, whatever I asked, I would do it in French.  I’m nobody to come teach the natives lessons.  I’m not that presumptuous.  I have many faults, but not that, I believe.

The calming plain of Roussillon
From the car, as Catalonia dissolves, Occitania begins to take shape.  The plain of Roussillon bit by bit becomes folded.  It seems as if the landscape, noting the change, were raising the collar of its shirt, in the form of hills, to protect itself from the wind that all the while is threatening to blow my 2CV off the road.  

Lost on a country road in the middle of nowhere
The beauty that surrounds me is calming.  The rivers, the trees, the grass and the stones present themselves smoothly, with true classical harmony, without any one thing jumping out.  The work of man - above all the old, but also the modern, with more grace and respect than I am accustomed to seeing - paints the land with vines and other crops, with villages, cities, highways and roads.  

The hills of Roèrgue (Rouergue)
End of summer, the wheat has already been reaped.  Enormous cylinders of hay rest blurred on the fields, as if they were the giant pieces of some board game.  Just as happens with wheat in Catalonia, velvety ochres take over almost completely the exuberant green, which limits itself to the grand expanses of forested land, strawberry trees and the rabid patches of grass that refuse to accept that Spring is over.  Yes, yes there are things that stand out, but they crane their necks over the horizon much more as punctuation marks than out-of-place anomalies: that rocky outcropping that appears just before you get to the last peak of Milhau, worthy of the Sigiriya of Sri Lanka; the stony circle I-don’t-remember-where, marvelous bowl of a scarred mountain, containing a bulb of air the size of a comet’s nucleus...

The walls of La Cobertoirada with the Templar flag
Milhau.  An observation: People regale me with kindess and a pleasant sweetness.  That much I had been able to confirm in other, earlier visits to other Occitan cities.  Relieved, I can affirm that good customs haven’t changed, nor should they have to change ever.  I’m sure an English friend would observe sarcastically: “everyone is very nice to me because I speak minimally decent French”.  I would respond that that is his problem, a struggle of expired imperialisms that doesn’t concern me.

Plaza in Milhau with portico
I’m interested in another type of decay that I consider much more real.  My internationalism is very different from his.  As a Catalan, I attempt a vision of a parallel world.  They, when they go on a trip, look at the flag of the country where they go.  I don’t go to Italy, to France, to the United Kingdom, but rather to Brittany, to Piedmont, to Wales … and always with a pencil and notebook to change those names to new ones, if I find them where I visit.  

There are those that content themselves with the artificial borders that states have established as indissoluble, absolute truths.  I understand if it makes you tired to think about it, but if your head is accustomed to being dizzied with questions, it all becomes very insufficient, inexact, frustrating.  Even the other borders, which I find more just, are artificial!  We have to accept that we can’t know everything and that reality changes constantly.  We ought to be more humble and admit we know nothing.  States have spent lots of money and effort misinforming people of their history and their true identities.  And in that way parents, when they try to tell them truth, see how their children insult them: “You can’t know more than a book, you who can barely even read!”  They won’t ever believe you when you tell them that those books were written by the foreign turtles.  Furthermore, the winner will always have a more attractive face to most people … I find these people sometimes attractive, sometimes they make me feel sad, sometimes they make me angry.  But the minority that I love, I love it very much.  We aren’t better than anyone else, absolutely.  Some of us are pretty bad people even!  But we are aware of what is going on, we speak the same language.  We don’t have to waste too much breath convincing each other of certain fundamental truths.  Our arguments and debates hinge on the details, the how’s, and the solutions.  

Plaza in Milhau with portico
Our sadness and our joy is the same and is universal: the native of Peru who visits the capital and is made fun of by others when he opens his mouth and begins to speak Quechua; the old Frisian farmer ashamed that his son mangles the language of Goethe every time he has to use it; the speaker of a variety of Chinese convinced that what comes out of his mouth is a baser ‘dialect’, that he should speak Mandarin to his children if he wants them to become something tomorrow; the tourist that complains about signs in Catalan at a shop, because he came to get his tan in Spain, and in Spain people speak Spanish, exclusively, completely, Cartesianly … The variations, the situations, the literatures and non-literatures will be of many sounds, they will take many different forms, as many as the faces of monsters that empires have invented.

And I, there, in the middle of Milhau, practicing my French...

French.  They speak it old and young.  Blacks and Chinese speak it.  Men and women.  All the teenagers screech in French.  The waiter who amiably serves your coffee.  The Arab man who asks for the time.  The people in charge of the city museum, who make an effort to sound like they’re from Paris.  The policeman, the thief, the doctor, the murderer...

Ruins of tombs and walls
Occitan?  I speak it in a low voice.  The books I carry with me - Lafont, Boudon, Aubanel, Miremont that I carry from home; Calhalon, more Boudon I got a bit ago.  The woefully insufficient bilingual signs speak it (a joke).  But the stones, the walls, the countryside, the landscape with its mountains and their wounded insides speak it too.  Castles, churches, medieval towns with their toothless walls speak it, once you take off the costumes that have been placed over them to better sell them to tourists; costumes that rob them of their dignity, like a circus bear that has been made to wear a pink miniskirt and little hat.  My friend from Roussillon speaks it, as does an Occitan friend.  It was also spoken by a timid shopkeeper when I bought a Macarèl t-shirt from him.

Do you know who else spoke it?  I was in Milhau, waiting for my lunch, in a Moroccan restaurant that is in the middle of a narrow street, the name of which I don’t remember.  I was reading poems by Calhalon, one of my latest discoveries.  From behind an old lady comes up to me.  She must have been 75, or thereabouts.  Perhaps she was younger, but she had destroyed her face with alcohol.  She was dressed in ridiculous clothes, garrish and dated at the same time, like a teenager from the 80s.  Dirty hair, teeth black and decayed, fading eyes and breath that stank of wine.  

Photo taken from the table where the old lady came up to me
She comes up to me and begins in French:
Pouvez-vous me donner trente centimes, s’il vous plait?” [Can you give me 30 cents please?]

Thirty cents!  Why exactly thirty cents?  Before I could react, she pores over my book, so that her head is quite literally hanging over my shoulder, as if she were a crane and I were the building she was constructing.
Qu’est ce que vous lisez?[What are you reading?]

I respond that it’s an Occitan poet, and that I want to learn Occitan.  And she reacts (switching to Occitan) when, maybe, she recognizes a word:
“Oh, patois! I can’t ever speak patois with anyone!  Patois is for worms to eat.  People now only speak French.  No one remembers it at all.  But it’s normal, that’s what life is like...”

I gave her a 5€ bill (and, man, I could really have used it!
).  I hoped she could get drunk with a slightly better wine that day.

A small bit of the mountains that circle Milieu
Bookstores?  I will speak another time of the sad experience of the bookstore of Rodés.  In Milhau I found a nice establishment where I bought the ones I mentioned, in the section that is invariably found under the humiliating name of “Regional Literature”, so that everyone is clear we’re talking about a second-class product.  It is necessary to mark the difference between it and what is really important …

Rodés, marvelous city, marvelous cathedral, marvelous people.  The friendliness, the sweetness, the flavor of Milhau is extended … Occitan continues to be invisible.  My heart continues to shrink.  I am ashamed of my lack of strength, of crying easily.  How does my friend put up with it?  How do her friends put up with it, who struggle alongside her?

Exterior of the cathedral at Rodés
Interior of the cathedral at Rodés
I begin one of the books by Bodon that I bought (Lo libre dels grands jorns).  I’ve been told that it’s strange, and from what I saw at a visit to the author’s house where they read a fragment of the ending to us, it's as though a time will come when he will return there.  For now, anyways, it is a very beautiful and sad text, where a man who has been given three months to live laments all the while the disappearance of his language.  It’s true that much of Occitan literature is a lament on this subject.  But what can be done?  In a café in Rodés a waitress came up to me and asked if anything was wrong.  “Nothing, the book I’m reading talks about things that make me want to cry” I heard myself say.

La Cobertoirada
Home of the author Joan Bodon
Rodés still.  Walking around the streets that have been robbed by French, a language that I have always loved too.  It makes me sad that it is such a terrible weapon here.  What a devastating force it has had!  It’s been made to play the part of a beautiful young princess that is set up as a public face, a cultural ambassador.  She doesn’t know anything, but is just a perfect instrument to cause submission - so perfect that those made to submit will protest against those who tell them the truth about what they are losing.  They’ll grab on to that cardboard idol, while their true gods will sleep amid cobwebs in the “Regional Literature” section …

The official crumbs of Occitan that dot the walls of Milhau
I walk and I walk, and I feel a lump in my throat.  I almost can’t breathe.  I can’t stand the enormous frustration of feeling too small to communicate everything the world is losing in this endeavor.  I go back to the hotel very tired and with my heart in pieces.  In that moment I feel a sadness bigger than when I came.  I went to Occitania and Occitania has affected me.  That’s what the territory of the secret language is like.  

A gloomy Citroën 2CV cementary in the countryside outside of Narbonne


  1. I feel very honnoured with this translation that makes my original text look better in so many ways. You did a great job, Stephen. Thank you very much!

  2. Thank you for providing such great material!

  3. What a lovely piece! I look forward to re-reading it sometime. Perhaps I will also attempt to wade through the original Catalan writing, too. STEPHEN I MUST VISIT YOU! And I hope to meet Florenci, too, someday. :)