I’ve just arrived in the city, so it takes me a while to work out why. The station names come first in French – that much I can handle – then in a similar but more elastic dialect; French spliced with an offshoot of something a little rawer. Fontaine-Lestang becomes ‘Font de l’Estanh’. Borderouge twangs into ‘Bordaroja’. I’m stumped. What tongue is this?
It’s only later in the day, flicking through a local magazine above ground, that I ascertain an answer: Occitan. I’d been dimly aware of the name of the language as something old and continental, but essentially I knew nothing about it. I certainly hadn’t realised it was still flourishing in Toulouse. It turns out it isn’t.
“Sadly, no. It’s really not spoken much in the city anymore,” says Jerome Thourel, whose Librairie Occitania bookshop stands on one of the narrow, high-shouldered streets leading off from Toulouse’s main square. “For that matter, it’s not spoken much in the countryside either.”
His bookshop, despite its name, is comprised almost entirely of French-language titles. Only a small section of shelving towards the back actually stocks books in Occitan. But Jerome tells me that a good number of village schools in the wider district still teach the language to children – “three hours a week in some places” – and that a dedicated community radio station continues to broadcast, in Occitan, 24 hours a day.
Its adherents say that culturally, it can’t be allowed to die. Occitan is a Romance language dating back at least 1,200 years and is still spoken – to some degree – in parts of southern France and nearby pockets of Italy, Spain and Monaco. It’s known as ‘lenga d’òc’ by speakers (hence the region’s old provincial name Languedoc). One statistic claims that in 1860, it was being spoken proficiently by as many as 39% of the French population. Today’s figure has plummeted to the paltriest fraction of that.
At the same time, it seems to be enjoying an unlikely sort of revival. It’s spoken as a first language by only a dwindling few – and its six sub-dialects are listed variously as ‘definitely endangered’ and ‘severely endangered’ by UNESCO – but the Toulouse city council introduced bilingual street signs in 2001, then in 2009 commenced Occitan announcements on metro trains. These seem sentimental rather than practical gestures, but hugely important nonetheless. After all, where does a language go to die?
Barely 10 minutes after leaving Jerome’s shop, I’m walking past the city’s broad Hotel de Ville when a sudden commotion whips up – loud urgent drums, piped horns, whooping and chanting. The sounds are thrillingly, unmistakably North African. A wedding has just taken place, and a group is spilling into the square. The young bride and groom, under a hail of rice, are dancing with arms aloft at the centre of a tight knot of some two dozen guests as the drums get faster and harder.
There is singing but, again, I can’t catch the language. A crowd of onlookers gathers, clapping in time as the wedding guests continue to chant and celebrate. It’s a fabulous scene. When the tune finishes I approach one of the horn players and ask where the music is from. “Algérie,” he says, smiling. I take the scene as assurance that, come what may, there will always be various lingos swirling around Toulouse.
I’m on the metro again the following day, and make a point of listening carefully to the stations being read out in Occitan. Even in the pre-recorded tones of the PA system, there’s a bouncy mellifluousness to the names. Will bilingual announcements still be playing here in 20 years’ time? Fifty? It’s a nice thought. They remain for now, even if it’s not entirely obvious who they’re for.