Picardy, and the Picard langue d’oïl. In 1845 Disraeli wrote, of Cassel (15 miles from Dunkirk), ‘few of the inhabitants, and none of the humbler classes, talk French.’ Even today there are 500,000 Picard speakers in France. It is recognised as a regional language in Belgium, but in France there is only one language; although the Ministry of Culture’s ‘Commission on the French Language’ has now added to its title ‘And the Languages of France.’ A government report in 1999 said that 24 languages indigenous to France would be recognised by the European Charter as minority languages, and that, ‘The gap has continued to widen between French and the varieties of langue d’oïl, which today would be called French dialects and must be accepted and placed on the list of French regional languages, and be known from then on as langues d’oil.’
As a language, Picard has stayed closer to Vulgar Latin (keval for cheval, from kabal, gambe for jambe from gamba), and has more influence from Frankish. But the most noticeable difference is that of pronunciation, often sounding like mispronounced French, ‘Ej n’caprinds poin’, for ‘je ne comprend pas’, hence the comedy in Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis. a film that promotes the acceptance of difference, and the notion that beneath the surface, all French are French.
As often happens, as local languages are dying out as the spoken language of the working class, there has been something of a revival of written Picard among the middle class.
Languages of France. On my ride I pass through four language areas: Flemish; langue d’oïl (of which there are five major dialects); langue d’oc (with five major dialects); and Catalan. Within each major dialect of oïl and oc, there are dozens of local dialects.
In 1539 the dialect of oïl spoken in the Paris area was decreed to be the official language of France. All other dialects, whether of oïl or oc (it was not realised until the nineteenth century that they were in fact different languages) were ‘patois’. This has always been a term of denigration. It is a thirteenth-century word meaning ‘grossness or coarseness of expression’. The 2007 Petit Robert dictionary still dismissively defines it as ‘a dialect used by a population, generally few in number, often rural, and of which the culture and level of civilisation are judged to be inferior to the surrounding milieu.’
The Academie Français was established in 1635 as the official authority on the French language. Its current dictionary has 32,000 words. (The OED has 600,000.) In 1794 a report was presented to the National Convention on ‘The Necessity and Means of Exterminating Patois and Universalising the Use of the French Language’. And yet at the Revolution hardly 10% of the population spoke French. In 1863 a third of departments were majority non-French speaking, and a quarter of army recruits spoke no French. French-speaking had increased after Napoleon introduced conscription, but even following compulsory education in 1882, with punishment for any child heard speaking patois in school, there were still cases in the First World War of soldiers shot by mistake because their comrades mistook their language for German. In the late 1970s, my neighbours in the Aveyron, in their fifties, spoke patois at home, with their children.
Paysan first appears in 1140, to describe the inhabitant of one pays. Pays is from the Latin, pagus, the smallest administrative unit in the Roman Empire. This in turn brings to mind Auden’s poem that begins, ‘Some thirty inches from my nose, the frontier of my person goes; and all the untilled air between is private pagus or demesne.’ Auden’s thirty inches would be for the paysan the area within the sound of the church bell, ‘in which everything was familiar: the sound of the human voice, the orchestra of birds and insects, the choreography of winds and the mysterious configurations of trees, rocks and magic wells’, as Robb puts it. Paysannat, the class of peasants, is as recent as 1935.
The term pays was revived in 1960s to promote local development and tourism, a vague and misty-eyed ‘Pays de la Loire’, or ‘Pays des Cathares’.
There has always been a friction, even a conflict of loyalty, between locality and country, between pays and patrie. Indeed, as seen in the Jacquerie revolt (see Day 6), the paysans’ loyalty was to the king rather than to France. Secret reports in 1860s show little patriotism among paysans. It is only after the trauma of 1871 that the Republic is finally established, with the tricolor, le Marseillaise, Bastille Day, and laïcité central to the definition and celebration of the French state.
Perhaps this disconnect between patrie and pays explains some of the contradictions in the French nature that de Tocqueville drew attention to. It is a country in which extreme centralisation is accompanied by an ongoing if intermittent disregard for the state. Salt smuggling to avoid the gabelle was a national pastime. And a friend living in Charente recently showed me the ‘white roads’, unpaved but drivable ways across the country that the police choose not to patrol, enabling those who had had one too many to get home undetected.
Graham Robb, The Discovery of France p28.