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Regional languages in danger – in Metropolitan France

Musi­cal crea­ti­vi­ty in the regio­nal lan­guages of France boasts a unique dyna­mism and inven­ti­ve­ness. But their lan­guages are still not reco­gni­sed by the French state and are dying out like endan­ge­red spe­cies. We hear from pio­nee­ring artists from Cor­si­ca (Jean Claude Acqua­vi­va), Brit­ta­ny (Erik Mar­chand), Occi­ta­nie (Manu Thé­ron) and the Basque coun­try (Beñat Achiary).

Lan­guages are like spe­cies : some are doing well ; others are dying out. While scien­tists agree in esti­ma­ting that around 7,000 lan­guages are cur­rent­ly in use around the world – in addi­tion to thou­sands of dia­lects – half of them are like­ly to disap­pear over the next two decades. Some unique and char­ming cultu­ral and musi­cal expres­sions are at risk of being swept away with them.

In this first article, we focus on regio­nal lan­guages in “Metro­po­li­tan France”. This reflec­tion will be fol­lo­wed by ano­ther article about regio­nal lan­guages in “Over­seas France”.


Obsolete teaching methods


In 2017, 25 coun­tries rati­fied the Euro­pean Char­ter for Regio­nal and Mino­ri­ty Lan­guages, put for­ward by the Coun­cil of Europe. Through their mem­ber­ship, these coun­tries are com­mit­ted to pro­tec­ting and sup­por­ting the pro­mo­tion of natio­nal lan­guages and mino­ri­ties. France is absent from the list of signa­to­ries, a wor­rying fact when it comes to the sur­vi­val of regio­nal lan­guages and cultures on French soil, most of which are in decline.


A Filet­ta



Jean-Claude Acqua­vi­va, choir­mas­ter for the Cor­si­can poly­pho­ny group A Filet­ta, makes his fee­lings clear : “The under­lying pro­blem is that we have lan­guages that struggle to find a sense of belon­ging because proxi­mi­ty struggles to find a sense of belon­ging. We find our­selves in a sys­tem in which we are increa­sin­gly asked to be effi­cient. And the thing that is most effi­cient is the most com­mon. Which is never very good, because if we trans­pose this to culture, it means we only eat or lis­ten to the things we consume the most of”.

Regio­nal lan­guages play a full part in diver­si­ty, but native spea­kers are disap­pea­ring across the regions. While some still main­tain a pre­sence in the aca­de­mic sphere, lear­ning methods are often dis­con­nec­ted from the eve­ry­day. J.C. Acquaviva’s daugh­ter is in Year 9 and taking les­sons in Cor­si­can : “They are given whole les­sons on 19th-cen­tu­ry Cor­si­can mar­riage cus­toms. That might be inter­es­ting to someone like me, at 55, but we need to pass a lan­guage on to chil­dren. We need to talk to them about things that mean some­thing to them at first glance, things in our eve­ry­day life and in eve­ry­day lan­guage. Ins­tead, we seem to be pas­sing on things that seem out­da­ted and don’t work.” 

And it’s not going to get any bet­ter. The recent reform of the bac­ca­lau­reate may dis­cou­rage even the most moti­va­ted stu­dents. Scores obtai­ned via regio­nal lan­guage options were pre­vious­ly cal­cu­la­ted accor­ding to coef­fi­cients bet­ween 1 and 3%, but with the Blan­quer reform, these have been lowe­red to 0.01%.


The sounds of languages


Beñat Achia­ry & Jose­ba Irazoki


In some regions (Brit­ta­ny, Occi­ta­nie and the Basque coun­try) asso­cia­tions have suc­cee­ded in crea­ting net­works of immer­sive lan­guage classes, in which les­sons are held exclu­si­ve­ly in the ori­gi­nal language.

Of all France’s regio­nal lan­guages, Basque Eus­ka­di is undoub­ted­ly in the best shape. Not only is it like­ly to be the oldest, but neigh­bou­ring Spain, where it is also spo­ken, has reco­gni­sed it as an inte­gral part of its natio­nal iden­ti­ty. When asked whe­ther these cultures bring with them an inward-loo­king iden­ti­ty or one of open­ness, eve­ryone we spoke to favou­red the second option. As far as the Basque sin­ger Beñat Achia­ry is concer­ned, it goes without saying : “I real­ly enjoy spea­king Basque, so I’m loo­king for the same sense of exci­te­ment in other lan­guages, in their rela­tion­ship with wri­ting, signs and, of course, sounds”.

He refers to the other great form of trans­mis­sion : music. In Brit­ta­ny, this is alrea­dy rela­ti­ve­ly well esta­bli­shed, as the sin­ger Erik Mar­chand reco­gnises : “Popu­lar music is a music of fes­tive dance. Young people from rural back­grounds who have become stu­dents have the abi­li­ty to share this in a friend­ly way through Fest-Noz fes­ti­vals (lite­ral­ly Night Par­ties, popu­lar balls of  Bre­ton tra­di­tion) that pro­mote recog­ni­tion of the lan­guage”. Like all regio­nal forms of music, Brit­ta­ny expe­rien­ced a gol­den age in the 1970s, with the huge suc­cess of Alan Sti­vell in par­ti­cu­lar. Crea­ti­vi­ty in the Bre­ton lan­guage conti­nues in live­ly fashion. Erik Mar­chand pro­duces plen­ty of rock along­side Rodolphe Bur­ger ; Denez Prigent has achie­ved wides­pread recog­ni­tion with typi­cal songs accom­pa­nied by elec­tro arran­ge­ments ; and in the youn­ger gene­ra­tion, Kris­menn stands out by mixing tra­di­tio­nal prac­tices (gwerz and kan ha dis­kan) with urban and human beat­box sounds.


Erik Mar­chand & Rodolphe Burger


Traditional music export much better 


Occi­ta­nie is also very active. Its gol­den age took shape in the 1980s along the Tou­louse-Mar­seille axis, with Les Fabu­lous Tro­ba­dors in the ville rose and Mas­si­lia Sound Sys­tem. Today, Manu Thé­ron, from Mar­seille, is one of the most dyna­mic figures in the South of France through his various for­ma­tions Gacha Empe­ga, with Sam Kar­pie­nia (Dupain, De la Crau), Sir­ven­tès, Chi-Na-Na-Poun, Poly­pho­nic Sys­tem with Ange B., and Hen­ri Maquet, from Arles. With Lo Cor de la Pla­na in par­ti­cu­lar, a poly­pho­nic and per­cus­sion choir, he has ins­pi­red a num­ber of groups, inclu­ding the female quar­tet La Mal Coif­fée and the sex­tet San Sal­va­dor from the Mas­sif Cen­tral, who nota­bly trium­phed at the last Trans Musi­cales. Lo Cor de la Pla­na have played all over the world, in pres­ti­gious Wes­tern venues such as Olym­pia and Car­ne­gie Hall, as well as on other conti­nents. Manu Thé­ron explains what he puts this suc­cess down to : “Before we got to Kuwait, they war­ned us : ‘The last time we hos­ted a French sin­ger, eve­ryone left half­way through the concert. Don’t wor­ry about it. Audiences here are like that’. During the concert, when we star­ted to play repe­ti­tive tur­na­rounds with the ben­dirs, we noti­ced that there was a real sym­bio­sis with the audience and no one left. What we had to say spoke to them. It wasn’t like French song, in which only the lyrics can bring the lis­te­ner in. We do some­thing that speaks to those who don’t have access to the lyrics in a fun­da­men­tal way. People from Mar­seille don’t know their lan­guage. We approach the stage by trying to bring in other­ness. So, when we tra­vel to forei­gn coun­tries, we have no trouble because we’re used to the situa­tion”. 

This would seem to prove that being inter­es­ted in a tra­di­tio­nal lan­guage moti­vates you to open up to the rest of the world.


Lo Cor de la Pla­na in Washington


Ben­ja­min MiNi­MuM par­ti­cu­lar­ly thanks Erik Mar­chand, Beñat Achia­ry, Jean-Claude Acqua­vi­va and Manu Thé­ron for the gene­ro­si­ty of their par­ti­ci­pa­tion in this article, but also Rodolphe Bur­ger, Roger Sif­fer, Yan­nick Jau­lin and Sébas­tien Ber­trand who have hel­ped nou­rish this reflec­tion, but whos inter­es­ting thoughts he wasn’t able to quote.


Benjamin MiNiMuM

Benjamin MiNiMuM was the editor-in-chief of Mondomix, an internet and print magazine evolving in the world music community from 1998 to 2014. He has since been a keen observer of the evolution of music and cultural diversity while working for various artistic and journalistic projects. He has joined AuxSons's editorial team in April 2020.

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