In the bird’s-eye view, one might have the comforting illusion that country borders are also language borders. Especially where the borders follow the ranges of high mountains that separate peoples, like the Alps or the Pyrenees. In Germany they speak German, in Italy Italian. In France French, in Spain Spanish (all right, in Catalonia Catalan). This is supported by the historical experience that in Eastern Europe, in the past century, the changes of state borders were usually followed by the forced resettlement or assimilation of peoples speaking other languages. So that, for example, on the two sides of the Ukrainian-Polish border, arbitrarily drawn in 1939, or of the German-Polish border, also so drawn in 1945, we can hardly find anyone speaking the language of the other side. However, when you happen to survey in the ant’s-eye view a more fortunate border zone, where neither the border nor the residents have moved very much over the past centuries, your experience will be quite different.
I want to go north from Catalonia’s northernmost region, the Boí Valley, one of the cradles of European Romanesque art, to France’s southernmost region, the Upper Garonne, to the pilgrimage church of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, which was for the inhabitants of the valley the nearest connecting point to the great Compostela pilgrimage road throughout the Middle Ages. The distance from Castilló de Tor, which guards the entrance of the valley, to the cathedral of Comminges, is just ninety kilometers, which you can cover in one hour and a half by car, including the obligatory slow downs.
The Spanish-language Wikipedia site of the destination, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges informs us (the French one does not), that the little town is called San Bertran de Comenge in the Occitan language. Why is this interesting? Because the inhabitants of the town, although declining in proportion, speak this language. Occitan – the lengua d’oc, as Dante called it after the word oc meaning “yes”, and as opposed to his own lingua de sì –, the original Latin language version of Southern France has been increasingly pushed into the background by French in recent centuries.
But Occitan is also divided into various dialects, from eastern Provençal to western Gascon, the latter being spoken here, in the region of Saint-Bertrand. This dialect is known to all of us, as one of its most famous speakers was D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, who, as a rookie in Paris, was mocked simply for his Gascon accent. The Gascons were excellent soldiers, they formed the backbone of the King’s musketeer guard, and also represented a peculiar linguistic patch of color in 17th-century Paris. Another famous Gascon speaker was none less than the Virgin Mary. At least, in 1858 she said to Bernardette Soubirous, the shepherd girl of Lourdes, in the latter’s native language: Que sòi era Immaculada Councepciou, “I am the Immaculate Conception”, which it still emblazoned on the pedestal of her statue in Lourdes. No wonder, then, that the locals are proud of their ancient tongue, and in more and more towns they operate a nursery and primary school in this language, although no version of Occitan is officially recognized in France.
Crossing the Spanish or Catalan border, you would expect to hear only Spanish or Catalan. But the first café in the town of Bossòst, over whose streets the peak of Tuc d’Aubas hovers like Mount Fuji, bears the proud name Er Occitan – The Occitan –, and moreover, as marked by the peculiar definite article neither in Spanish nor Catalan, but in the Occitan language.
And the main language of the information board at the town’s 11th-century Romanesque church – whose northern gate is adorned with the loveliest Romanesque relief of the Virgin Mary – is also not Catalan or Spanish. But yet another, which I can only assume, for lack of competence, is Occitan. The assumption is correct, but not precise.
In fact, a few towns away, on the gate of the Romanesque church of Vila a board announces the hours and languages of the Mass for the settlements of the neighboring Aran Valley. Even the language of the board and the names of the days are peculiar. And in the center of the valley, in the town of Vielha – which is called Viella both in Catalan and Spanish, for nevertheless the former version is written at the entrance of the town – they celebrate Sunday Mass in the Aranès language.
Aranès or Aranese is the version of Occitan, more precisely of Gascon, or even more precisely, of Pyrenean Gascon, which, as the name indicates, is spoken in Aran Valley. This small area, which falls to the north of the ridge of the Pyrenees, but still belongs to Catalonia, and is home to the source of Garonne River. The dialect of its inhabitants is closer to the adjacent Occitan than to Catalan, from which they are separated by the ridge. The number of its speakers is less than ten thousand, yet it is the official language of the valley. Moreover, in 2010 it was adopted by the Catalan parliament as the third official language of all Catalonia, in addition to Spanish and Catalan. Thus Catalonia is the only state where a variant of Occitan enjoys official status.
Crossing the mountain, we get back to Boí Valley. This is already in Catalonia, therefore, we might assume, they speak Catalan. Yes, but what kind? The language they speak among themselves in the shops and pubs is appreciably different from the one you hear in Barcelona: it is deeper, they often say -a or -au instead of -e, the -er at the end of the words is pronounced -é, like in French, and a lot of Spanish words are used. This is the Ribagorçan dialect, spoken on both sides of the Catalan-Aragonian border instead of the official Catalan or Spanish. Even if the great linguist Joan Corominas considers this to be the “most archaic and purest” form of Catalan, you would have to cross quite a few valleys going south-east to hear the standard version of Catalan.
Romance linguistics teaches that by walking across the former Roman Empire from Sicily to Normandy, every pair of neighboring villages can understand each other. It is nice to see how this really works on a small scale.