Saturday, 21 August 2010

Dancing with Cats (3)

A few months after buying a house in France I joined the local choir at the suggestion of the estate agent, who sang in it himself. It was a choir of about 50 based on the cathedral of St Pons de Thomières, a little Languedoc town which - as Dr Johnson once wrote of the small Scottish town of Nairn - if once it flourished, was then in a state of miserable decay. I hadn't sung in a choir for years, but as a general hack musician I found the ability to read music at sight a very rare, if not unique, accomplishment and in due course, after about four weeks, I was appointed deputy choirmaster.

Someone in a stratum of music-making miles above my head then decreed that the St Pons choir should take part in a multi-choir effort involving a set of songs in a language whose existence I was hardly aware of. Some called it Occitan, some Languedocien, but the deepest-rooted local people called it the patois. Here's an example of it:

O Magali ma tant aymado
Mettez la teste al fenestroun
Presto l'aureil a quel' aubado
De tambourins et de violoun:
Lou cel es prets d'estello dor e l'air es calmo,
Mé las estellos paliroun quand te veroun.

[O Magali (girl's name, very pretty) my so beloved
Put your head out of the window
Lend your ear to this aubade (morning serenade, a bleeding nuisance)
Of drums and violin:
The sky is sparkling (a guess, this) with stars of gold and the air is calm
But the stars will pale when they see you.]

There's no set spelling for Languedocien, and there are as many dialects as there are valleys for them to flourish in. Anyway, Magali and the other songs in the collection were pushed my way, mainly because the head choirmaster didn't do rhythm, and eventually we got them under our belt. Not without sometimes violent argument breaking out: some from one neighbourhood would assert that 'chibal' (i.e. 'horse') was pronounced 'chival', while others from across the river said rubbish, it was pronounced 'chibau', while a sturdy group of backwoods basses insisted on 'chivau'.

I thought of taking a vote on this and similar differences, but then I thought no, you folk can't do this without me, and although mightily aware of the ironies involved in me, a Brit, coming to teach these people their own songs, I said in kindly manner, having selected a reasonable compromise pronunciation and chancing my arm no little, you'll do it my way or not at all. After that there was a smouldering, uneasy peace and we got on with it.

All this is really to introduce the idea that all round the Western Mediterranean basin there exists a little-known family of languages which are really the descendants of popular Latin. One day I would love to explore them fully. If anyone has ever written a comparative analysis of them, I would be so pleased to hear about it. In France the correct umbrella term is Occitan, which incorporates, travelling east to west, Niçard (from around Nice), Provençal, Languedocien and, as you approach the Spanish frontier, Catalan, which is easily the most widely spoken.

I know there are other variants in Corsica and Sardinia, and that the Balearic Islands have their own dialects. There's a similar dialect spoken along the Italian Riviera, where it's called Ligurian, but I wonder if the same basic language with its rainbow dialects continues down the inside leg of Italy and across to Sicily?

Meanwhile here is a very useful if unexciting phrase in Catalan which you (especially I,LTV and Mel and other caffeinds) shouldn't hesitate to trot out any time you find yourselves in Barcelona:

Dos cafés amb llet si's plau

(Pron. 'Doss caffess amb yet seess plough')


patroclus said...

Lou cel es prets d'estello dor = "the sky is a field/meadow of gold stars"?

I have a book called Toponymie Occitane which has quite a bit of (very academic) background about the history and etymology of the various linguistic strains in the region, if that helps?

Christopher said...

*slaps brow in frustration at own imbecile doltishness*

Of course! It's the same word as you get in e.g. Prats de Mollo. Thank you. I didn't know you had Top. Occ. and would very much like to have a look at it post partum. Would this be OK?

Dave said...

My linguistic accomplishments would astound you.*

*the phrase 'astronomical lack of' seems to have slipped out of this comment during the editorial phase.

Christopher said...

Sorry, Dave - just so there's no uncertainty: did you mean 'astronomical' or 'gastronomical'?

- and this reminds me of a major astronomical poem I wrote once:

O gastric sac,
To you I sing.
You shall not lack
For anything

patroclus said...

By all means. You'll be pleased to know that the illustration on the cover of Toponymie Occitane is a map that includes a place called Ste Eulalie, who was also once the subject of a major poem of yours.

patroclus said...

To wit:

Écoute ma prière, o Ste Eulalie
Que je ne sois entière
Conductrice doolally

Christopher said...


Crumbs, did I write that?

I could at least have enjambé'd the 3rd line to read

Que je ne sois entière-
ment conductrice doolally

What a load you have to bear.

Vicus Scurra said...

Strangely, I failed to predict at the beginning of the day, that I would be showing an interest in this topic.

Christopher said...

You can surely be excused, Vicus, given the nature of other sporting diversions that have only this moment come to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.

Dave said...

Oy! If you are referring to matters cricketal, those of us without access to SKy watch the highlights at 7.15 on Channel 5, and so don't want to know the result.

I chose to believe you were referring to Vicus' performance for BMCC this afternoon. Or the Australian election.

Christopher said...

Cricket? No, I was referring to the 3.55 at Chester, where Vicus had failed to put his last remaining shirt - the collar and buttons had already gone - on a horse called 5th Commandment, with which I'm sure you're familiar.

Rog said...

Dialects abound in the region of South Wales where they are much needed in maintaining the overhead power supplies.

Dave said...

Dialects would have taken over the world, if it weren't for Dr Who.

Christopher said...

Well here's you lads with the bit between your teeth and Vicus without a shirt to his back.

dinahmow said...

Aside to Dave: don't mention the election, please!

And, back to linguistic tangles - we used to sing a song at school about some maid called Marguerite, who apparently, dallied with the lads after the vendange.
A clashing mix of Franglais as we learned it, but I came across a dialect version in an old text book about Langeudoc.The teacher looked at it and said:"Peasants' language. Put it away!"

Christopher said...

DM: No, not a word to Dave about the election. Actually, I did want a word with him about being apostrophized 'Oy!' above and wanted to refer him to Pilate's (Pontius Pilate, that is) question in John 19,35.

Marguerites still function at vendange time and are even now girding their loins. Most come from Spain or Eastern Europe now.

And many of the older people locally remember how at one time speaking the patois was forbidden in school.

Do you have a government yet, or are you essentially ungovernable?

Vicus Scurra said...

On the subject of elections, my word verification is "clotwins".
'Twas ever thus.

Dave said...

Do you mean John 18: 35?

Christopher said...



Christopher said...

'Clotwins'. Yes, a good each way bet.

I, Like The View said...

cheers! (chinks coffee cup with anyone else who's drinking coffee at six in the evening)(UK time)

word ver: bacomsho. . . an interesting Japanese/Basque biscuit hybrid which is perfect with a later afternoon/early evening caffeine drink

Christopher said...

Cheers, Jax. We're just away to a concert given by three Swiss sisters, something we shouldn't have any difficulty in pronouncing as long as we stick to coffee.

Sarah said...

Sorry.....did I nod off? apologies, how rude.

Christopher said...

Don't think you missed much, really. I should go back to sleep if I were you.

dinahmow said...

No, we still have no decision. Perhaps we are, as you say, ungovernable.
"clotwins" made me splutter me coffee.

Spadoman said...

I've hesitate to jump in here, as the onlynword I am familiar with that is even close to Languedocien is Linguica, the name of a Portuguese sausage. (A few places serve a derivitive around here surprisingly)
I know there are dialects in my Italian heritage, as this is common with most languages. Even here in "merica you can hear the Chicagoan speak to the Texan about the New Englander. They would all sound different, but you could understand it as American English. China is a whole fifferent ball game with dialects so different, you need an interpreter.
Anyway, my two-cents. Always worth the visit here.


mig said...

'Of drums and violin'.
What? Simultaneously?
When my eldest first went to Uni in Lancaster he was nicknamed Nesh which is local dialect meaning 'unusually susceptible to cold weather'. Not because he was normally either of those but because he caught pneumonia in his first term.
It's fascinating how dialects have words which have no corresponding word in the main language of the country.

Christopher said...

Thanks, Spadoman. Always good to see you, too.


Mig: It's what the lyric says. And you pronounce the final S in Languedocien, so it must be what the poet meant. A very nasty noise, especially to wake up to, even if it is your lover(s) playing beneath your balcony.