Really gone, the old French language? Pierre Rézeau preserves nevertheless the traces of it. He is, with a team of some twelve editors, editor in charge of the Dictionary of Regionalisms in France, a very large work which brings together the French vocabulary of the different regions of France.
Being interested in French across France is something in effect quite difficult, because France is a very varied place in many regards, the countryside is varied, the cuisine is varied, the churches, the cathedrals, the vines, all of that is varied and the French language also is different in the regions of France. All the regions speak French but it is French which is not the same colour if you are in the North, if you are in Strasbourg, if you are in Brittany, or in the south in Nice, and in the sunshine of Provence.
It has taken a long time to bring this project to its conclusion.
So what do we have? There is team from CNRS, from the National Centre for Scientific Research, which started a project for a dictionary of the varieties of French language, for the varieties of French lexicology. It is a project which was started about twelve years ago. Then we did field surveys. It is the first time that someone has done such field work across France. There were not a lot of them, but still about 500 investigations on the way in which people speak French. As well as the investigations, in parallel, we tore our hair out, as we say, on many works: novels, police novels, theatre plays, songs; good – very varied according to the region everything that we could collect. We also put in place, in order to study the history of these facts, we put in place meta lexicographical documentation. That is a big word that says documentation from all the glossaries, all the many dictionaries which have been made in this or that part of France.
And this was worth the trouble!
That allowed us to move on, let’s say, the main facts about linguistic variability and to make a huge work – it is huge, it weights 2.7 kg, it is heavy and which does not give all the varieties, or course, there are many of them which we left out because it would not have been finished you see. We gave the main forms, well, it is a work which has been very well received, with which many people have been very happy.
Does that mean that this dictionary is absolutely necessary to travel across France and that you are going to have to add nearly 3 kilograms to your backpack to negotiate bread, cheese and wine in farms?
Today when you travel across France it happens that you meet in some of the regions as soon as you get out of the big towns, you can meet people in a rural setting in particular, who not only speak French with a regional accent or with special words, who speak as we usually call it, who speak patois or who speak a dialect as we say. So that, that is not French, it is a way of speaking which is no longer, even if many want it, it is not a language, it is the remains of the way of speaking of another time, if you like, when the French language was constituted, the current French language, it was not made in a day, it came about slowly.
The present situation of patois is very diverse across France. To go quickly, we can say that they are very strongly on their way to extinction. We say that even if they are nearly dead or moribund, but we have been saying that for two centuries and they are still there.
There are many opinions if you like regarding these patois. You have the militant opinions. You have people who say ‘No, it is a way of communication absolutely alive’. Moreover the word ‘patois’ is refused by these people. They say that it is a language. These are languages like French, languages which have not had a chance, languages put to the side, marginalised, run-over if you like, but which have as much nobility and vitality as others, and that the schools ought to, they ought to teach some of its literature to help them, what’s more. So it is absolutely true that from the linguistic point of view they are in effect a true means of communication. But a language is not simply a linguistic label; it is also a social label. A language, it is necessary also so that it may exist, that it be spoken, that it be spoken by all generations. And we see still that the young generations, here and there, conserve not too badly as they can, but they can, keeping the patois. That allows them to communicate with their parents or their grand parents, and then, well, there is at this time, often, a little bit of a search for identity, a search for the assertion of a local linguistic landscape. So there is sometimes a sort of ‘revival’, a sort of revival fashion which comes back, but stays still in front of the road roller of the French language, or the television, or the newspapers, so that remains something, which, I think, goes on marginalising itself still more. But we cannot say that it is dead. We cannot say neither that it be very alive, right? So, if you like, you have, according to these people, you have these very militant opinions saying ‘no, no, it exists, but we are oppressed, we are run over. Why is it no longer alive? It is because we are prevented from speaking it. But what is really preventing it being spoken is the fact that the world has changed, so these patois are a lot of trouble from the point of view of vocabulary to happen again. They are victims; they are always obliged to borrow words from the French language.
The patois have their own words and also their own constructions, a syntax, a grammar.
Personally I know well, let’s say, the patois of my region for example, of Vendée. I have worked on that for long enough. It is sure that there are facts which are definitely distinctive in this patois. You have for example, a neutral pronoun which is several centuries old. We see it already appearing in the 13th century. It is a pronoun; it is the ‘o’, ‘o’ to say ‘it’, right? Instead of saying ‘it is raining’, we say ‘it wets’, the word ‘to wet’ in the sense of ‘to rain’, ‘it wets’. Got it? But before a vowel this ‘o’ will be ‘ol’ in this way if you say ‘there is a lot of it’, we say in patois ‘there is a lot if it’, right? If you analyse ‘le bé raide’, personally there was a time when I was a child when I did not know ‘bé raide’ for when I wanted to say ‘a lot’, and that says ‘a lot’ in patois, but let’s analyse it: ‘ol’ that’s ‘it’, ‘ol en a’, ‘il y a’, the ‘y’ jumps out, right. ‘ol en a’, ‘il y en a’ ‘bé raide’ that is ‘bien raide’ in fact ‘raide’ being as we said ‘raide dingue’. A ‘raide fou’ right! What does that mean? It is intensive ‘ol en a bé raide’, fine. Well let’s say that it is words like that which take longest to disappear. The vocabulary if you like, that, that is in effect very typical of the regions.
For example, you have a word – it has even passed into the French of the region – a word like, to name the white beans which in casual French we call ‘faillots’, the white beans in the region here we call them ‘mogette’. And in going down to Saintonge you have a very distinctive phenomenon with a definite aspiration. They say ‘mohette’, like in some parts of Quebec moreover. And the mogette, well it is a word, now it has even entered into the French language. It makes part of these words which for several years have left their homeland a little bit, let’s say, former or lifted from patois to appear in the French of the region of course. But go to the shops, you see on the shelf of tinned food, you see ‘mogettes from Vendée’. The word is written. It is on restaurant menus, right. That says that it has ‘oomph’, which is attractive if you like.
We could say that the different dialects are a reflections of the different mentalities according to the regions.
Not exactly. We often say ‘the people of some regions are hard working people, serious, and their patois shows well that they have a heavy enough accent, that they speak slowly… well you go to the region over there what do we find? No, there are people, they get easily angry, they are nervous, hard working and their patois conveys this. It is completely false, it is completely false. Music yes. Generally music is different in the south of France and to the north of the Loire. That is true. That is due to many phenomena if you like. All what is in the south of France, the many varieties of Occitan much more apparently song like, much more musical, at Lyon now you’ll notice it right, that in the north of France where the delivery is more, perhaps a little slower, certainly and less musical, I don’t know how to say it. But from one patois to another according to some conditions, let’s say 100 kilometres apart, there isn’t really a difference if you like. It is the same patois but with ?, in the past with people’s clothes with the hairstyles which were different then we could very well identify the villages with the patois also, when they recognized them, they could say that is from such and such a region, that is from the north of Vendée, that is from Charente. But we cannot say that there is a characteristic difference in the intonation, in the musicality, in the delivery. Isn’t it? It is instead in the phonetics sometimes, that we can see the difference, as just a moment ago I was saying to you, the example then of the work ‘mogette’ in Charente Maritime. Well there, we see that it is not the same phenomenon.
And then there are still of course – then there are some real languages – several all on the edge of France where you have languages like Basque in the area of Bayonne in the south west, in Brittany, Breton, in Alsace, the Alsatian dialect which is a variant of German. You also have a little Flemish in the north of France, you have the Corsicans who speak Corse, a language very close to Italian, and these are very different languages, quite distinctive from French and distinct from patois.
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