The Languedoc’s distinctive language of Occitan is an ancient tongue that is closely related to Catalan. The langue d’oc was once widely spoken across most of southern France, while the langue d’oïl was the predominant language spoken in the north (the words oc and oïl meant ‘yes’ in their respective languages).
Occitan reached its zenith during the 12th century, but it was dealt a blow when Languedoc was annexed by the French kingdom. Langue d’oïl became the realm’s official language, effectively relegating Occitan to the status of a language spoken only by the poor and uneducated.
Despite the best efforts of the ruling elite to wipe it out, Occitan survived as a distinct language, largely thanks to rural communities keen to hold on to their own regional identity. It enjoyed a literary revival in the 19th century, spearheaded by the poet Frédéric Mistral, who wrote in Occitan’s Provençal dialect.
Today Occitan is still widely spoken across southern France, with an estimated 610,000 native speakers and around a million others who have a basic working knowledge. There are six officially recognised dialects: Languedocien (lengadocian), Limousin (lemosin), Auvergnat (auvernhat), Provençal (provençau), Vivaro-Alpine (vivaroaupenc) and Gascon (gascon); the latter includes the Aranese sub-dialect spoken in parts of Spanish Catalonia.
Feature: Languedoc-Roussillon Architecture
The Languedoc landscape is strewn with spectacular structures that provide a fascinating insight into the region’s past.
During the 2nd century AD, the Languedoc was part of the province of Gallia Narbonensis, a strategically important region of Roman Gaul. As its name suggests, the province’s capital was Narbonne, but the most impressive Roman ruins are in Nîmes, including a wonderfully preserved Roman temple and a 24,000-seat amphitheatre now known as Les Arènes. Just outside the city, the three-tiered Pont du Gard aqueduct was built to transport water between Uzès and Nîmes, and ranks as one of the great achievements of Roman engineering.
Long after the Romans, the Languedoc remained a strategically important frontier. The legacy of this can be seen in the region’s numerous castles and fortified towns – most notably the fortress of Carcassonne, with its distinctive ‘witch’s hat’ turrets, and the lonely hilltop castles left behind by the Cathars, an ultra-devout Christian sect persecuted by Rome during the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade.
For much of the medieval era, the neighbouring province of Roussillon was Catalonian rather than French. In 1276, Perpignan became capital of the Kingdom of Mallorca, and it still has a mighty Spanish-style castle, the Palais des Rois de Majorque, where the kings and their families lived. A smaller fortress, the Château Royal, can be seen in nearby Collioure. Even today, Roussillon still shares strong ties with Catalonia, with férias (bullfighting festivals) an important part of the festive calendar.