The Languages of Northeastern Spain: Aragonese, Catalan, and Occitan

Gus Love: No, the Aragonese language looks different. I might put up a sample sometime. This is Catalan. Occitan looks different but I’m not sure how different or in what way. I’ve seen quite a bit of Occitan writing but that was a while back.

This is Catalan. Occitan looks different but I’m not sure how different or in what way. I’ve seen quite a bit of Occitan writing but that was a while back. There is a type of Occitan, the western half of which is nothing but Catalan. The eastern half of that Occitan language is not fully intelligible with Catalan. This is the Occitan language that is spoken across the border from Catalonia. I am not talking about Northern Catalan or French Catalan. That’s also spoken across the border but that’s more over by the coast.

No, the Aragonese language looks different. Aragonese looks much more Castillian and it’s not nearly as Frenchified as Catalan. The Kingdom of Aragon never came under the influence of France. Aragonese is spoken in the Pyrenees on the west side of those mountains. On the French side it’s not even French. It’s Occitan. For instance, Aranese Occitan is intelligible with Comminghese Occitan across the border in France. The Pyrenees are very high mountains, and they probably served as a barrier to French influence.

There were different lects of Macro-Spanish spoken in the various kingdoms in France. Aragonese was spoken in the Kingdom of Aragon. Asturian was spoken in the Kingdom of Asturias. Castillian split away from all of them around 1100 and started expanding south from its homeland in Cantabria on the north coast. It was a crapshoot fora while which kingdom would come to rule Spain and supplant the others. It turns out that the kingdom of Castille and Leon won the contest but it could just as easily have been the kingdoms of Aragon or Asturias.

Asturian-Leonese has been split from Castillian for 900 years. Aragonese split off much later around 1600. It used to be spoken in all of Aragon but Castillian took over Southern and Central Aragon, and Aragonese was relegated to the hinterlands of the inaccessible Pyrenees Mountains where it still holds out. There are children coming to school as Aragonese monolinguals in one town to this very day.

 

The Languages of Spain

This is pretty nice for a rough draft, but I have a lot more information on all of these languages and dialects, including lots of links. But this should do for now.

Spanish or Castillian hit the other languages hard, but after the dictatorship things got a lot better.

Catalan is the official language of the region. Catalan is not part of Macro-Spanish.  Instead it is part of a larger family called Catalan-Occitan. I recently met several mostly-Castillian speakers from Catalonia and they told me that they all understood Catalan. Whether they spoke it or not was another matter. A young man there was a native speaker. Native Catalan speakers might be ~35% of the population, and many children are still being brought up in Catalan.

There are Catalan schools, Catalan media, Catalan as an official language in the government, etc. There is a huge pool of Catalan second-language speakers. There are probably not any Catalan monolinguals left, but if there are, it is some old lady in a tiny village in the mountains.

Island Catalan is a form of Catalan that is spoken on the Mallorca Islands in three different dialects. Some have difficult intelligibility with Catalan, and they are probably closer to Valencian. Whether these qualify as separate languages is not known. Mallorcan is one of these dialects of Catalan.

Valencian is spoken in Valencia and the Valencian speakers insist that they speak a different language from Catalan, although there is 94% intelligibility between the two. Catalan speakers do not want to break up the language. There is an Institute of the Valencian Language, an official orthography, etc. In particular, Valencians reject the Catalan orthography, as they say it does not suit the language that the speak. ~20% of Valencians speak Valencian. It is in much worse shape than Catalan. The Catalan authorities refuse to recognize Valencian as it is just a Catalan dialect, first, and second because they see Catalan as endangered and they do not wish to split it up.

Chapurillo is a form of Catalan spoken in La Franga and the Strip in Aragon that speakers say is a separate language. There are regular calls to have it recognized. However, Catalan speakers say that they understand this variety perfectly. Nevertheless, an attempt to call this dialect Catalan and have it translated into English resulted in a big mess. Its name is a variation on the term churro, etc. which means more or less broken Spanish or bad Spanish.

Many of the languages above are called churros or chapurros, and many Spaniards think they are just forms of broken Spanish spoken by poorly educated people. Even speakers of the languages often think that they simply speak broken Spanish or bad Spanish and are often ashamed of their speech and refuse to speak it. Speaking churro also implies ignorance, rural residence, poverty, lack of intelligence, etc. Any effort to get this lect recognized would run into a lot of opposition from the Catalan government, which would say is is just a form of Catalan, which in fact it is.

Aragonese is still spoken in Aragon. It is not fully intelligible with Castillian, and it is a separate language. This region was under the crown of Aragon, hence a different speech evolved here. It sounds a lot like Spanish. There are 30,000 Aragonese speakers. It is an official language in the state of Aragon, but Spain refuses to recognize it as it is seen as Macro-Spanish, which it is. It was formerly spoken in three forms like Extremaduran, and like that language, only the remote northern form survives.

Otherwise Southern Aragonese and Central Aragonese turned into dialects of Spanish called Aragonese Spanish. Aragonese is spoken in the very high mountains of the Pyrenees in villages that are often almost totally depopulated. There are still children being brought up in Aragonese though, especially around the Benasquesque-speaking region. The children show up at school as Aragonese monolinguals.

Churro is a Spanish dialect called spoken around La Franja on the border of Aragon and Catalonia. It is probably the most diverse dialect in Spain. It seems to be a form of Aragonese Spanish with a lot of Catalan or Valencian mixed in. It is not known how widely spoken this dialect is anymore. It’s apparently intelligible with Spanish, but an attempt to call a Churro text Spanish and translate it into English resulted in a complete mess.

Basque is actually doing quite well. ~20% of the population are native speakers, and there are quite a few second language speakers. There are Basque schools, Basque media, Basque signage, on and on. I recently met a young college-aged man who was a Basque native speaker. Quite a few children are still being brought up in Basque. I am not sure if there are any Basque monolinguals left. Basque is not related to any of the languages spoken in Spain. It is the remains of the original language of the area before it was conquered by the Romans. Basque is recognized as by the Spanish government.

Souletin is absolutely a separate language from Basque Proper or Official Basque. There are other dialects including Guipuzcaon and a few others which may also be separate languages, but that is much less clear. Souletin is spoken in France, where Basque is spoken by only 10% of the population.

Asturian-Leonese is a major language spoken in northern to northwestern Spain between Basque and Extremaduran and Galician. To the south, it extends to the Portuguese border. It consists of two major dialects, Asturian and Leonese and countless dialects therein. However, comprehension appears good between all of the Asturian and Leonese dialects, except that part of Eastern Asturian in the north and Eastern Leonese in far south have turned into a separate language called Extremaduan-Cantabrian.

Asturian one part of the Asturian-Leonese language. It is still very much alive, although it is not an official language of Spain. It is an official language of the state of Asturias. ~20% of Asturians speak Asturian and I believe there are children still being brought up in Asturian.

Leonese is the same language as Asturian spoken to the south and is in much worse shape. It is also not an official language of Spain, but it is an official language of Castille and Leon where it is spoken. Amazingly, there are still Leonese monolinguals in the high mountains in Northwestern Castille and Leon. Leonese was their first language and they learned Spanish in school but subsequently forgot Spanish and now speak only Leonese.

There are still children being brought up in Leonese in the tiny depopulated villages in the mountains of Southeastern Castille and Leon near the Portuguese border. This form of Leonese is often called Porteno, and it is quite close to the Mirandese language spoken in Portugal. Asturian-Leonese is seen as part of the general Castillian language family, but this is not really true.

Mirandese is spoken in a small part of northwestern Portugal by 15,000 people. It is a form of Asturian-Leonese that came under heavy Portuguese influence and became a separate language. It is similar to the Porteno form of Central Leonese spoken near the Portuguese and Galician borders of Castille and Leon.  Mirandese proper is spoken in Portugal, but other dialects of it are spoken in a few small villages on the Spanish-Portuguese borders. Most of these are considered to be extinct, but recent field trips found that they are still spoken in a few of these places.

Rio de Onorese is a tiny lect spoken in Rio de Onoro, a village on the Portuguese border. Half of the village is in Spain, half of the village is in Portugal and all residents are fluent in both languages. Everyone thinks this language is extinct, but if you go to the village, you will see it is still spoken there. It is a form of Mirandese spoken in Spain and should be recognized. It is a form of Asturian-Leonese as Mirandese is part of that language family. As a form of Asturian-Leonese, this is not recognized by the Spanish government. However, Mirandese is recognized by the Portuguese government.

Eonavian-Ibino is a separate language spoken between Asturian/Leonese and Galician. Locally it is referred to as fabla. It is a completely separate language but no one will recognize it as such. It even has an organization for the standardization of the language. The name Eonavian is a reference to the Eo and Nava rivers in the area where it is spoken. Ibino is this same language spoken in the southern part of the Eonavian area and it borders Leonese instead of Asturian.

Galician speakers cannot fully understand Ibino. It is closer to Galician but it is not Galician. At one time, maybe 75-100 years ago, this was a Galician dialect, and the older generation still understands Galician completely. The younger generation does not understand Galician so well, as they have not been exposed to it as much. So in a sense this is a new language or an emergent language. There are still many native speakers of Ibino and Eonavian.

As is usual in such cases (see Benasquesque below) the language institutes of both the Asturian/Leonese language and the Galician language have claimed this language. It’s certainly not Asturian/Leonese. A much better case can be made that it is Galician, and it was a Galician dialect until quite recently. However, Eonavian informants state that when they go to Galicia, they speak Castillian to Galician speakers results in too many misunderstandings. Since both Asturian/Leonese and Galician claim this lect a dialect of their languages, Spain does not recognize it.

Galician is is a separate language spoken in Galicia that is close to Portuguese. It is still doing quite well. ~35% of the population of Galicia speak Galician. Almost all also speak Castillian. It is an official language of Galicia and Spain. There are Galician schools. There is some Galician media but not nearly enough. You hear Galician a lot more in the rural areas than in the big cities.

A very Castillianized Official Galician is used in the media, and it has high intelligibility with Spanish of 78%. A much harder Galician is spoken in the villages in the mountains where intelligibility with Spanish is as low as 40%. The form of Galician spoken in the far south on the border with Portugal is not intelligible with Portuguese or the rest of Galician and is not understood outside the region. It is actually a separate language, though no one will recognize it.

Minhoto is a form of Galician that is spoken in and around the Minho region of Portugal and the part of Galicia neighboring it to the north. It is generally not understood outside the region. It appears to be an aberrant form of Galician that perhaps came under heavy Portuguese influence.

Fala is a language spoken in the far northwest of Extremadura near the Portuguese border. It is spoken in four different dialects in as many towns. It is still very widely spoken as a native language in all of these towns. This is Old Galician from the 1200’s that got isolated from the rest of the language and underwent heavy influence from Leonese, especially the Asturian-Leonese language spoken in Portugal called Mirandese.

Technically this is not a separate language as Galician speakers understand it perfectly, but it is nevertheless recognized as a language by SIL. Fala speakers reject the Galician orthography as far from what they speak, adding ammunition to the notion that this is a separate language. Spain does not recognize this language for whatever reason, but if it is a part of Galician, it should at least be recognized as that.

Portuguese is spoken in a few places in Spain on the border of Portugal, mostly in the South around Extremadura and Bajadoz. These are forms of Old Portuguese dating from the 13th to the 16th Centuries. However, they all seem to be fully intelligible with Portuguese. They are mostly spoken by the elderly now.

Oliveno is a form of Portuguese heavily mixed with Spanish that is spoken on the border of Portugal. It’s not Portuguese; it is actually a separate language. It still has ~3,000 speakers. It is spoken in a single village. Officials refuse to recognize this language, and Portugal says it is just Portuguese, but Portuguese speakers can’t understand it at all. Spain refuses to recognize it for whatever reason, but if the argument is that it is just a form of Portuguese, then it should be recognized.

Extremaduan-Cantabrian is a language spoken to the east of Asturian in the north and to the south of Leonese in the south. These are parts of Eastern Asturian-Leonese that got isolated in the mountains of Cantabria and Extremadura and split off from the rest 500 years ago. In the north, it went into Cantabrian and in the south, it turned into Extremaduran.

Extremaduran is still spoken in Extremadura by 100,000 speakers. It is a highly Castillianized form of Eastern Leonese that got cut off from the rest of Leonese 400-500 years ago. Otherwise Eastern Leonese is nearly extinct. However, it is not intelligible with Asturian-Leonese. Extremaduran speakers say that if they go to Oveido in Central Asturias, they will not be understood. Nevertheless, this is part of the same language as Cantabrian, and these same speakers say that if they go to Cantabria, their Extremaduran will be understood. It is spoken in the mountains in tiny depopulating villages, which is where it originated.

One of my Castillian-speaking informants actually grew up in the region and has been hearing Extremaduran all his life, and he can only understand 17% of it. The accent is wild. There is much confusion, as Extremaduran is also called Castuo. Extremaduran is the northern form of Castuo from the mountains that survived, while Southern Castuo and Central Castuo turned into dialects of Spanish.

However there may be some “Extremaduran” spoken in the south too, as an informant has a word list from a tiny village in Bajadoz, and he said he could only understand 50% of the lexicon. This may be some far southern form of Extremaduran. Southern and Central Castuo are just Spanish dialects, albeit odd ones, but they are heavily spoken and often confused with Extremaduran because people refer to both by the same term. Extremaduran is an official language in Extremadura, but Spain refuses to recognize it because it is seen as part of the larger macro-Spanish although it is actually Asturian-Leonese.

Cantabrian is part of the same language as Extremaduran. This is the Asturian form of Asturian-Leonese that got cut off from the rest of Asturian 400-500 years ago and became very Castillianized. Cantabrian is not fully intelligible to Spanish speakers. It is still alive in the mountains where the children come to school as Cantabrian monolinguals, and the teachers from outside the region say that they can’t understand these children.

Mantegno is spoken in La Mancha and is part of a “Southern Castillian” that ranges to Andalucian and probably also includes Murcian. When Mantegno speakers go to Madrid, they say they are not understood. This is probably also a separate language. When spoken in rapid speech, intelligibility even with Castuo is 50%. Of course it is not recognized by the state as even native speakers hardly realize that it is a separate language.

Andalucian is mostly a Spanish dialect called Andalucian Spanish, albeit an extremely divergent one. However, there are a few villages in the mountains in the south where a hard Andalucian is spoken that is not intelligible even to other Andalucians. It would be valid to regard this form of Andalucian as a separate language, but no one is going to split it off.

There is also a hard Andalucian of the street associated with criminals and other street types. People from Northern Spain say they can’t understand it at all. There have been efforts to get Andalucian recognized by the state, but they always fail because all that remains is a Spanish dialect, and even if it were a separate language, Spain would argue that it is part of Macro-Spanish, which it is.

Murcian, spoken in Murcia, is mostly a Spanish dialect called Murcian Spanish, albeit quite a strange one. There are regular calls to have it recognized as an official language, but they go nowhere because it’s not really a separate language.

However, there is a hard form of it called Panocho spoken in the remote mountains in Eastern Murcia that cannot be understood outside the region. Andalucians cannot understand it either. It is probably a separate language. It has 6,000 speakers. There are efforts to get this recognized by the Spanish state, but they never go anywhere as what they try to legalize is simply a Spanish dialect called Murcian Spanish. The harder Panocho form would also not be recognized by Spain as they would see it as part of Macro-Spanish, which it is.

Aranese is a form of Occitan spoken in the tiny state of Andorra. It is still spoken by people of all ages, and children show up at school speaking Aranese. Although it is intelligible with the Occitan spoken directly across the border in the French Pyreneees, it is not fully intelligible with the rest of Occitan. It is not well understood by speakers of any of the surrounding speech forms. Aranese is actually recognized as a separate language by Spain.

Benasquesque is a form of speech spoken on the border of Catalonia and Aragon in the very high mountains that cannot be definitely shown to be either Catalan or Aragonese. It is certainly not Aragonese. It could be Catalan, but a Catalan informant told me that this lect is absolutely not Catalan. However, the official language institutes of Catalan and Aragon both claim these speech forms.

But as is usual in these cases, they are both wrong and it is a separate language altogether. This is a very remote mountain region. This is a sort of microlanguage transitional between Aragonese and Catalan. Since both Aragonese and Catalan language institutes claim this language, it is not recognized by Spain and there are no attempts to get it recognized.

A Bit on Breton and Other Minority Languages of France

@SHI, responding to this post:

Sounds like Welsh or something in the Celtic languages family.

Perhaps, Breton or any other minority languages? I think it’s spoken in modern France.

Yes, it is Celtic. Good job for getting that.

Nope, it’s not Breton. Yes, Breton is spoken in Brittany in France at the far northwestern part of the country. It stems from a migration by Welsh speakers to that part of France in 1300, so it’s close to Welsh. Apparently they can’t really understand each other though. I would guess ~30% intelligibility, if that.

Both languages are part of a branch of Celtic called Byrthonic. Believe it or not, 2,000 years ago, Byrthonic languages were the only languages spoken in England and Wales. They’ve gone extinct now except for Welsh, Manx, and Cornish.

The other branch is called Goidelic and includes Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

Although Breton has 500,000 speakers, it’s not in very good shape because France tries to destroy every non-French language spoken in the country. Most speakers are older and there are few young speakers.

However, a number of private schools have been set up to teach children. The teach them a new form called Unified Breton, which oddly and comically enough is so different from the other Breton languages spoken that the older speakers cannot understand these New Breton speakers.

France has even attacked the other langues d’oil, of which French (Parisien) is only one. Parisien happened to be the langue d’oil spoken in Paris, so it became Standard French. However, in WW 1, 80% of French troops could not speak French! Can you imagine that?

They spoke the other langues d’oil, the various Occitan languages (perhaps as many as 18),  Arpitan  or Franco-Provencal (which may also be u to 20 languages), Souletin Basque, Breton (four different languages), Alsatian (German), or West Flemish. Incredible, isn’t it? The other langues d’oil are in horrible shape, though most have not gone extinct yet.

They split from Parisien and the other langues d’oil from Old French around 1,000 years ago, so they are very divergent. Intelligibility between Poitevin and Lorraine is estimated at 1%! Believe it or not, Poitevin still has monolinguals in their 60’s. A form of Norman spoken on the border of Normandy and Brittany also has monolinguals, usually farm workers in their 40’s and 50’s. Isn’t that incredible?

SHI: It’s clearly not Manx or Cornish.

Ha ha, what makes you so sure about that second opinion, my man?

Most of the Languages of the Iberian Peninsula Are Halfway Between Two Other Iberian Languages

Or Asturian-Leonese, Galician, and Oliveno are halfway between Castilian and Portuguese, better. Or Catalan, like Occitan, is halfway between Spanish and French, better.

Getting even fancier, Extremaduran-Cantabrian is halfway between Asturian-Leonese and Castilian. Or how about Mirandese and Rio de Onorese, halfway between Asturian and Portuguese. Getting even crazier, how about Murcian and Andalucian, halfway between Mozarabic and Castilian. Or Eonavian-Ibino, halfway between Asturian-Leonese and Galician. Or Fala, halfway between Galician and Asturian-Leonese.

I’m not quite sure what to do with Manchengo and Aragonese. They’re just splits off the Castilian trunk. The latter is for sure a separate language. The former, could be.

The Spanish from the south of Spain is quite different from the Spanish of the north of Spain. Castilian actually came from way up in the north in Cantabria and spread south after 1100, taking out the Kingdoms of Leon, Asturias, Aragon, etc. as it moved south. The Kingdom of Castile is simply the kingdom that came out on top, so it’s language got to be the standard.

Leonese, Asturian, and Aragonese are simply the forms of Iberian Romance that were spoken in those Kingdoms.

Interest fact, Portuguese is actually a dialect of Galician and not the other way around! Not only that but Portuguese and Castilian were one language until Galician-Portuguese split off in 1300. Galician and Portuguese did not split until ~1500. The split between the two is analogous to the split between Scots and English.

Aragonese didn’t split from Castilian until later, I believe in the 1600’s. That’s why it is so close to Spanish. Asturian-Leonese and Castilian probably split ~1300 also.

Answers to the Languages of Spain Post

Map of the languages of Spain.
Map of the languages of Spain.

There are nine languages in the map above.

You folks were not able to answer all nine of them correctly, so I will give you the answers.

Pink – Catalan

Light green – Aranese or Occitan (no one got this one)

Purple – Aragonese (no one got this one)

Aquamarine – Basque

Red – Castillian

Green – Asturian-Leonese

Yellow – Galician

Dark green – Extremaduran (no one got this one)

Brown – Fala (no one got this one)

Aranese is the Aranese dialect of Occitan which is either a separate language or a dialect of Occitan depending on how you look at it. Fala is actually a dialect of Galician but it is considered a language for sociopolitical reasons. There is another part of the dark green Extremaduran language which is typically not recognized. This is Cantabrian, spoken to the east of the green Asturian-Leonese area and to the west of the aquamarine  Basque area.

Mutual Intelligiblility in the Romance Family (Reading)

Just a personal anecdote. I have been reading a lot of Italian lately (with the help of Google Translate). I already read Spanish fairly well. I have studied French, Portuguese and Italian, and I can read Portuguese and French to some extent, Portuguese better than French.
But I confess that I am quite lost with Italian. This is worse than French and worse than Portuguese. A couple weeks of wading through this stuff hasn’t made me understand it any better.
Portuguese and Galician are said to be so close that they are a single language. I don’t agree with that at all, but they are very close, much closer to Spanish and Portuguese. Intelligibility may be on the order of 80-90%.
Nevertheless, the other day I tried to read a journal article on Galician. It looked like it was written in Portuguese, and who would write in Galician anyway? I copied the whole thing into Google Translate and let it ride. I waded through the whole article, and I must say it was a disaster. I had a very hard time understanding many of the main points of the article.
Then I remembered that Translate works on Galician now, so I decided on an off chance that the guy may have written the piece in Galician for some nutty reason. I ran it through Translate using Galician as target. The article went through perfectly. You could understand the whole thing. It was then that I realized how far apart Portuguese and Galician really are.
You can try some other experiments.
Occitan is said to be nearly intelligible with Spanish or maybe even French, better if you know both. There’s no Google Translate for Occitan yet, but I had to deal with a lot of Occitan texts recently. I couldn’t make heads or tails of them despite by Romance reading background. So I tried using Translate to turn them into Spanish or French. French was a total wreck, and there was no point even bothering with that. Spanish was much better, but even that was a serious mess.
Now we come to the crux. Catalan and Occitan are said to be so close that they are nearly one language. Translate now works in Catalan. So I ran the Occitan texts through Translate using Catalan. The result was a serious mess, but you could at least understand some of what the Occitan texts were about. But no way on Earth were those the same languages.
People keep saying that if you can read Spanish, you can read Portuguese. It’s not true, but you can see why people say it. Try this. Take a Spanish text and run it through Translate using the Portuguese filter. Now take a Portuguese text and run it through Translate using the Spanish filter. See what a mess you end up with!
Despite the fact that I can read Spanish pretty well, I have tried to read texts in Aragonese, Asturian, Extremaduran, Leonese and Mirandese. These are so close that some even say that they are dialects of Spanish. But even if you read Spanish, you can’t really read any of those languages, and they are all separate languages, I assure you. Sure, you get some of it, but not enough, and it’s a very frustrating experience.
There are texts on the Net in something called Churro or Xurro. It’s a Valencian-Aragonese transitional dialect spoken around Teruel in Aragon in Spain. It also has a lot of Old Castillian and a ton of regular Castillian in it. Wikipedia will tell you it’s a Spanish dialect. Running it through both the Spanish and Catalan filters didn’t work and ended up with train wrecks. I doubt if Xurro is a dialect of either Catalan or Spanish. It’s probably a separate language.
There is another odd lect spoken in the same region called Chappurriau. It is spoken in Aguaviva in Teruel in the Franca Strip. The Catalans say these people speak Catalan, but the speakers say that their language is not Catalan. Intelligibility with Catalan is said to be good. So effectively this is a Catalan dialect.
I found some Chappurriau texts on the Net and ran them through Translate using Catalan as the output. The result was an unreadable disaster, and I couldn’t really figure out what they were saying. Then I tried the Spanish filter, and that was even worse. I am starting to think that maybe Chappurriau is a separate language as its speakers say and not a Catalan dialect after all.
I conclude that the ability to cross read across the Romance languages is much exaggerated.
Not only that, but many Romance microlanguages, transitional dialects and lects that are supposedly dialects of larger languages may actually be separate languages.

Dying Minority Languages and Standardization: Some Problems

I have been studying some of the minority languages of Europe lately. One thing that they have in common is that in a number of cases, there have been proposals made for centralization and standardization of the language. Dying languages very much need standardization. This is because in many cases, these languages are split up in a number of dialects. These dialects are typically quite different, and in many cases, they are flat out separate languages with poor intelligibility with other dialects.

If everyone just goes on speaking their dialects, they won’t be able to talk to other speakers much, and the language will soon die, because most dialect speakers are 35-60+. It’s not a useful solution. Sure, the dialects are very interesting and it might be nice to preserve them, but it seems to be a lost cause. Further, most dialects are not being passed on to children anymore. For the languages to survive, the dialects must all die.

For instance, Occitan has a multitude of dialects, 23 of which are actually separate languages. A unitary Occitan has been created based on Languedocien, one of the largest Occitan macrolanguages. The problem is that this new neo-Occitan is nothing like the Occitan spoken by  Auvergnat, Croissant, Limousin and Gascon speakers.

Further, the unitary spelling and writing style does not represent the way that these languages speak. For instance, a particular word may be written in a unitary way in neo-Occitan, but the graph for that word would look nothing like the way the word is pronounced in the speaker’s language. The word “bricklayer” might be written something like “frondyard.” Ridiculous or what?

Children are being taught neo-Occitan in special language schools. The neo-Occitan is regarded as an abomination by speakers of traditional dialects, and neo-Occitan speakers can’t understand traditional dialect speakers.

A similar thing is going on with the Breton language in Brittany in northwest France. This is actually a Celtic tongue similar to Welsh that is strangely enough spoken in France. Breton is actually made up 4 major dialects that are frankly all separate languages. Intelligibility is poor between the four Breton lects, but the lects are not being passed on to children and most speakers are over 50 anyway.

In schools called Diwans the children are being taught a neo-Breton, an invented “language that no one speaks.” The neo-Breton speakers come out of the schools, and they can’t understand speakers of the traditional Breton lects. And speakers of traditional dialectal Breton can’t understand neo-Breton. Kids and their elders are speaking the same language, but they can’t understand each other. Sad situation.

In the Basque country, a similar situation is going on. The schools are teaching a neo-Basque, a fake language made up of the amalgamation of all of the major Basque dialects plus a lot of made-up neologisms. Speakers of traditional dialects have a hard time with neo-Basque, and neo-Basque speakers have a hard time with traditional speakers.

Nevertheless, there is no way around standardization. Teaching every group of children the separate small dialect of their region is useless. It will create new generations of speakers that can’t even communicate with most of the speakers of the language. If they are taught the unified language, at least they will be able to communicate with all other speakers of the language, at least when the older dialect speakers die off.

Languages must be standardized. It’s essential. Not only so everyone can talk to everyone, but so that everyone can read everyone. Can you imagine what chaos it would be if every writer of English wrote English phonetically in exactly the way that they speak it. You might have millions of different Englishes out there. Yet this is the way that nonstandardized languages are typically written, phonetically.

Further, spelling must be standardized. There must be a correct way and an incorrect way to spell most any given word of English. This makes reading faster and communication transparent. If you don’t like English spelling rules, then don’t write in English!

It’s easy to understand why typical dialect speakers regard the neo-languages are some sort of abomination. Let us use an example from English.

Suppose there was an attempt to unify all of the Englishes on Earth into some sort of World English.

This language would include speech and writing based on the phonetics of various types of British English, Scottish English, African English, Indian English, Singlish, Australian English, Canadian English and New Zealand English.

As if that were not bad enough, the speech and writing would also be based partly on various US Englishes: Southern English, Ebonics, New York English, Boston English and Appalachian English.

If you turned on the TV, the announcers would be speaking in some insane English based on all of the English dialects listed above. Any English writing would also be phonetically based on a mixture of all of the above dialects. The new language would also have a ton of new terms derived from slangs of the various Englishes.

Could you imagine how furious we speakers of US English would be? This is the way traditional dialect speakers feel about the unified neo-languages slated to replace their dialects.

Does Language Learning Carry Over to New Languages?

Not nearly as much as one might think.

For instance, I am relatively well versed in the Romance languages. I can read Spanish quite well, but not fluently. I can read a bit of French. And I have studied reading Italian and Portuguese for a bit.

So one would think that with all that Romance under my belt, I could just jump right into some new Romance languages and read them just like that, right?

Not so fast now.

Lately I have been going through lots and lots of Occitan texts on the Net. Occitan is approximately between Spanish and French. Honestly, I can’t make heads or tails of Occitan. Sometimes I can pick out a bit of information that I am looking very hard for, but mostly I just throw up my hands. My online translator calls Occitan “Catalan” and tries to translate it into English. Some say that Catalan and Occitan are one language. According to my translator, that is not so. Running the Catalan translator through Occitan fixes it up a bit, but it still leaves a gigantic steaming mess on the page. It’s nearly useless.

With Portuguese, Spanish and French, one would think Catalan would be a breeze, right? Think again. My translator is almost always able to grab it, but sometimes it can’t. When it can’t, I am stuck with Catalan and I am well and truly lost. Once again, I just throw up my hands. Obviously, it looks like some kind of Iberian language, but it’s so screwed up and crazy that you just don’t want to bother with it.

It’s said that Aragonese is nearly a Spanish dialect. Intelligibility is on the order of 80%. But try reading an Aragonese text sometime. It’s clearly derived from something like Spanish, but it’s so screwed up and crazy that you just want to run away from it. Try to read it and you are quickly lost and angry. My online translator thinks that Aragonese is Spanish. Run Aragonese through the Spanish translator and it fixes it up a bit, but it still a crazy mess and you can’t make a lot of sense of it.

Galician is a sort of Portuguese-Spanish hybrid that is often intelligible to many Spanish speakers. But don’t bother with trying to read Galician texts. They’re a frustrating mess. I dipped into it a bit, but it’s so screwed up and confusing that I quickly gave up.

One would think that with a bit of French under the belt, one could pick up on the various French patois of the langues d’oil. Forget it. It looks like a chaotic disaster on the page. The translator calls the various patois French. Running them through a French translator in general doesn’t really improve matters all that much. It’s still a messy disaster.

The moral to the story is don’t think that semi-getting a few languages under your belt is going to help you even with reading closely related languages. Things are not so simple.

Reclassification of Occitan: A Massive Update

My post on the reclassification of the Occitan language* has received a massive update. The piece has doubled in size to 59 pages. In addition, I increased the number of languages from 12 to 22. This was a ton of hard work, and it was hard to find good data on these questions. Unfortunately, most of the good data was in the French language, which luckily I can sort of read. Quite a bit was also in Occitan, which honestly I can hardly read at all.

Occitan, a sort of cross between Spanish and French, is spoken in the south of France. It is in extremely bad shape, although it has up to 3 million speakers. It receives no support at all from the Jacobin government in France. “French is the official language of the state,” it says right there in the Constitution. France can’t ratify the EU Charter on Minority Languages because it violates the French Constitution.

*Mostly of interest to people into linguistics, France or the Occitan language.

Check Out Occitan – North Auvergne Dialect

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLCxYpn-OQQ&feature=player_embedded#!]

This is Occitan, strange language that borders Spanish and French. In different regions, it sounds like different languages. In the Aran Valley of Spain, Occitan is so heavily influenced by Catalan, Spanish and Aragonese that it seems I can almost understand it. But here, North Auvergne is under heavy French influence. Honestly, this just sounds like French to me, but every now and then it sounds so odd that you think that could not possibly be French. Might be interesting to see if any French speakers can understand more of this than I can.

Despite the fact that my Spanish is pretty good, I could not understand one single word of this.

Language Death Can Occur Very Rapidly

Case in point, Pyrenean Gascon spoken in the High Pyrenees of France. It is apparently a separate language, unintelligible even to the Gascon spoken on the plains. Gascon is a language within Occitan that is spoken in southwestern France near the Spanish border in a region called Gascony. Gascon is probably at least 3 separate languages in itself. Gascon is often said to be quite healthy, with up to 500,000 speakers.

However, these figures are very misleading as the language is in bad shape in France. In Spain, where a dialect called Aranese is recognized as an official language of Spain in the Aran Valley west of Andorra on the French border, the language is in much better shape as it is still spoken by children.

For instance, in the High Pyrenees, only 20 years ago, 40% of the population spoke Pyrenean Gascon. That sounds like a lot, until you look at population figures for the region. Nearly 40% of the population at that time was elderly, as demographics collapsed and young people moved away from the dying rural area to the cities. Only 20 years later, the % of the population speaking the language had dropped from 40% to 1%!

How did this happen? Nearly half the population was elderly, and so were 99% of the speakers of the language. By 2011, in a space of only 20 years, nearly all of that 40% of the population that spoke the language was dead. Once the overwhelming majority of your speakers are over age 65, your language is going to collapse in about 20 years. Think about it.

Amazing. Language speakers collapsed from 40% to 1% in only 20 years. But if you understand demographics, it makes complete sense.

*Note: Careful with the links. Some of them are in French. I can sort of meander my way through French, but you may not be able to.

Threatened Languages of France

The French Constitution declares that French is the only language of France. Although France has declared some regional languages to be language of France, France is prevented from ratifying the EU Treaty on Minority Languages due to its Constitution.

A UNESCO report on endangered languages ​​shows that French is seriously threatening 26 languages ​​or dialects in France, including: Basque, Burgundian, Breton, Champenois, Corsican, Flemish, Franche-Comté, Moselle Franconian, Rhine Franconian, Francoprovençal (Arpitan), Gallo, Ligurian, Lorrain, Norman, Occitan (Auvergne, Gascony, Languedoc, Limousin, Provençal), Picard and Poitevin-Saintonge.

Of these, the following are langues d’oil, related to French: Picard, Gallo, Burgundian, Champenois, Franche-Comté, Lorrain, Norman,and Poitevin-Saintonge. These are actually separate languages or patois. They are not dialects of French. Many of them split from langue d’oil long ago. In general, they are quite incomprehensible to French speakers. Let’s look at them:

Burgundian is spoken in Burgundy around Dijon. It is not in good shape, but it still has a lot of speakers. Not intelligible with Standard French. It has about 2,000 native speakers.

Champenois is spoken in Champagne around Reims and in neighboring Belgium, where it is a regionally protected language. I don’t have much information on it, but it’s probably not in good shape. Not intelligible with Standard French.

Franche-Comté is still spoken in Franche-Comte around Besancon. It still has some elderly speakers, but it’s probably not in good shape. Not intelligible with Standard French. It has 3,700 speakers in Switzerland. Figures for France are not known.

Gallo is spoken in eastern Brittany around Rennes. It is still in reasonably good shape. Not intelligible with Standard French. 28,000 speakers. 200-400,000 with at least passive knowledge.

Lorrain is spoken in the northwest of France in the Lorrain region around the city of Nancy, the Vosges Mountains and even into Belgium. Not intelligible with Standard French.

Norman is spoken on the coat of Normandy around Le Havre and on the Channel Islands. This is actually several separate languages. It is not doing well, and is doing especially poorly on the Islands where the influence of English is very strong. Not intelligible with Standard French. Up to 243,000 speakers.

Picard has about 700,000 speakers in far northwest France around Calais, Lille and Dunkirk and in Belgium. It is probably actually two separate languages. Not intelligible with Standard French.

Poitevin-Saintongeais is spoken on the west-central coast of France and around Poitiers. Eleanor of Acquitaine was actually a Poitevin speaker. This is actually two separate languages. Saintongeais is still widely spoken. Poitevin is doing well and has 150-500,000 speakers.

There are actually other langues d’oil, but I won’t list them.

Basque is spoken by only about 10% of the population of the French Basque country. This area is a huge tourist destination, and that has really hurt the Basque language badly in France. Basque is in much better shape in Spain. French Basques are rather quiet and not particularly militant, but there was an armed group at one point. Mostly the French Basque country is used by ETA radicals from Spain as a hideout from the law.

Breton is the Gaelic language related to Welsh that is spoken in Brittany on the northwest edge of France. This language does have 200,000 speakers, but most of them are over age 50. There are also 500 schools or diwans teaching the language. Although this sounds promising and Breton is in better shape than the other languages listed here, there are a lot of worries about this language. For one thing, the French won’t allow it to be taught in French schools.

Corse is spoken on the island of Corsica by about 40% of the population. It is not in good shape. There is a large independence movement in Corsica with huge support. Corse is really just an ancient Tuscan Italian dialect from about ~1500. Speakers of Standard Italian, based on Florentine Tuscan, can understand Corse easily. 100,000 speakers, 1/3 of the island, but many of them are older. Some young people are learning it, but it starts too late – by high school. Instruction needs to start earlier.

Flemish is still spoken by about 20,000 speakers in the far northwest of France around Dunkirk. It is not in good shape at all.

Francoprovençal or Arpitan is an old language with 112,000 speakers that split away from the langue d’oil at about the time it was first becoming consolidated around 800-900. Arpitan split from Catalan-Occitan around 600. This language is also spoken in Italy and Switzerland. It is probably actually 10 or more languages, since there is poor communication among the dialects. It is spoken in the part of France near Switzerland, in the Savoy and around Lyon, Grenoble and St. Etienne to the west of Switzerland.

This language is doing very poorly in France but was still very widely spoken until the 1970’s and 1980’s. It probably resembles French more than any other language.

Ligurian is a Gallo-Romance language similar to a cross between French and Italian. It is mostly spoken around Genoa in Italy, but it is spoken in several dialects along the coast of southeastern France near the border with Italy in the Maritime Alps. Up to 2 million speakers total, but the language is still thought to be in poor shape because few young people are learning it.

Moselle Franconian is spoken in an area of the Alsace-Lorraine on the border with Germany. The variety spoken in France is called Lorraine Franconian and is not in good shape. This German language is not intelligible with Standard German. 78,000 speakers.

Occitan (Auvergnat, Gascon, Nissart, Mentonasque, Monegasque, Languedoc, Limousin, Cisalpine, Provençal dialects) is spoken in the south of France by up to 7 million people understand the language, and 1 million speak it as a first language. It is probably doing better than most of the languages listed in here, but it does not have a secure position.

This is the ancient language of the Troubadours and it is closely related to Catalan, having split from Catalan around 1000. Catalan-Occitan started to split away as a separate language around 800. Occitan itself split from langue d’oil in the 800’s. From 1000-1600, Catalan and Occitan evolved along similar lines.

It is quite unintelligible to French speakers. Sort of a cross between French and Spanish. The question of whether or not the dialects can understand each other and to what degree is a thorny one that does not have good answers. Nissart, Gascon, Limousin, Cisalpine and Languedocien are definitely separate languages.

Rhine Franconian is spoken in France in the same general region as Moselle Franconian, except a bit to the west. It is intelligible with Standard German or with Moselle Franconian. It is not doing very well.

In 1880 in France…

It was said among Army recruits that only 20% could speak the actual French language. The French language itself was codified around 1800 based on the Parisien dialect, spoken around Paris. So modern French is just Parisien the same way that modern German is just Upper Saxon and modern Italian is simply Florentine Tuscan.

What were the rest of the soldiers speaking? Many of them may have been speaking patois. Patois are generally other langues d’oil, related to Parisien. There are many of them, but they are dying out. In general, patois are not intelligible with Standard French.

Many also spoke Occitan, a language between Spanish and French spoken in the south of France. Further, some Occitan dialects are hardly even understandable to other Occitan speakers. French speakers are quite lost when listening to an Occitan speaker.

130 years ago, there were probably many speakers of Breton in Brittany. Breton is related to Welsh, and a French speaker can’t understand a word of it.

Surely, there were many speakers of Basque in the southwest of France. Basque is incomprehensible to a French speaker.

In far northeast France, Flemish is still spoken, and it was much more spoken 130 years ago.

In the part of France near Luxembourg, varieties of German are spoken, Moselle Franconian, Lorraine Franconian and Luxembourgian. These are actually three separate languages. They were much more commonly spoken 130 years ago.

To the south, Alsatian was spoken in the Alsace Lorraine. A traveler to this region wrote that in some areas people speak German, in others they speak French, and in others they speak some language that is neither German nor French. Alsatian is a German dialect that is declining. But it was very widely spoken 130 years ago.

In the far southeast of France, Nissart, Monegasque, Montenasque, and Intermelian are spoken. The last two are dialects of Ligurian, a language spoken in Italy. The first two are Occitan dialects with a heavy Ligurian mixture. All of these were spoken much more 130 years ago.

In Corsica, Corse is spoken. Corse is related to Standard Italian. It is declining, but was widely spoken 130 years ago.

In the area near Switzerland, a language called Arpitan or Franco-Provencal is still spoken. It was much more widely spoken 130 years ago.

In the far southwest of France in Rousillon, Catalan is spoken. It is dying out, but was probably widely spoken 130 years ago.

As you can see, the notion that only Standard French is spoken in France is quite mistaken. It was even less true 130 years ago, when only 20% of the population spoke the standard language.

Yet More Romance Intelligibility Figures

From here.

I happen to agree with these figures. The figures involve the intelligibility of various Romance languages, spoken and written, for speakers of Spanish.

Intelligibility for Spanish speakers, oral: 77% of Galician, 55% of Catalan, 54% of Portuguese, 25% of Italian, 1-5% of French and many Italian dialects.

Written: 93% of Galician, 90% of Catalan, 85% of Portuguese, 50% of Italian, 16% of French.

As you can see, the figures are much higher for written than spoken language. This makes a lot of sense. With my fluent Spanish and some knowledge of Portuguese, French and Italian, I can pick up a fair amount of the written text of any Romance language.

Orally though, I’m typically pretty lost. The best ones are those that are closest to Spanish, such as Andalucian dialect, Aragonese, Asturian and Galician. Leonese is a lot different, heading towards Portuguese. You get to Catalan and Occitan and I start having lots of problems. Portuguese is way harder than you might think, even with my rudimentary Portuguese. Standard Italian as spoken slowly by say a documentary narrator is a bit better.  Street Italian is nearly useless to me, as is Spoken French, Romansch, Romanian, Italian dialects and hard Andalucian.

It’s very interesting that Spanish speakers can understand Galician better than they can Portuguese, but it makes sense. After all, Galicia split off from Portugal long ago and came under the influence of Castillian. I am not sure which Galician they are referring to here. There is a soft Galician that is used on Galician TV which has very heavy Castillian influence. Even I can pick it up pretty well. But there is a hard Galician of the street and the rural areas that is much harder to understand.

The figure for Catalan is much lower than for Galician because Catalan has so much French influence. Look at the dismal figure for spoken French and you can see why Spanish speakers have a hard time with it.

25% intelligibility of Italian sounds about right to me. Spanish speakers can understand Italian much worse than they can understand Portuguese. The figure for French is shockingly low, but it makes sense, as previous studies have shown that nobody can understand the French.

I would agree that Standard Italian, especially spoken slowly by a professional speaker, is much easier to understand than many Italian dialects, which are actually spoken languages. I’ve seen them on Youtube and I can’t make out a single word.

With my Spanish, my figures for written intelligibility of Romance are not as high as those above, but I’m not really fluent as far as reading Spanish goes. I’m a lot better at speaking it and hearing it. Others have given much lower figures than the one above for Spanish speakers reading Galician, but it probably improves very quickly in a short period of time.