‘Binvinyête’ said the welcome signs in Bulle as it prepared to host the international festival of patois speakers. Not the welcome you would ordinarily find anywhere in Switzerland, but this was not an ordinary event.
The participants had come to the small western Swiss town from France and Italy as well as Switzerland – places where they speak, or used to speak, the language commonly known as patois. The stalls in the hall where they met were selling CDs of songs in patois, patois dictionaries and books about patois – but the language being spoken all around was French.
Patois, known to linguists as Franco-Provençal, and called Arpitan by some of its speakers, has been on the retreat for years.
It is now at its strongest in northern Italy – where it is one of several recognised minority languages – but even there it is struggling. Almost everywhere, few people other than the very old speak it as their mother tongue.
In many places it has died out completely. In some areas schoolteachers were ordered to stop children speaking it not only at school, but even, as far as possible, at home too. Many of the participants at the festival recalled regretfully that their grandparents were often ashamed of it.
Even in Italy, the language did not have an easy ride. When Floran Corradin was at school in the 1960s in the Aosta Valley, the country was experiencing an economic boom.
“My generation had to exist in the context of the Italian state. Italian was the dominant language. And our parents, who wanted us to have successful careers, warned us not to insist too much on our patois, because we’d have big problems with Italian at school,” he explained to swissinfo.ch.
The population shift from rural to urban areas has not helped either.
Bernard Papaux, who always spoke one of the dialects of canton Fribourg with his grandparents, admitted that his own children had not been interested. “They didn’t have friends who spoke patois. I moved from Treyvaux and Laroche, where patois is widely spoken, to Corpataux, where it is practically extinct.”
Even if few people now learn it at their mother’s knee, there has been an increase in interest, mainly among older people.
“I’ll be retiring soon, and lots of people have asked me to give patois courses when I have more time,” Papaux said.
Nicole Margot is a typical learner. Her grandfather spoke the patois of canton Vaud, but not her parents. It was only when she retired that she started to learn it seriously – and loved it.
“I speak quite fluently, but I’d like to speak better. Often I put in French words, for example. And I certainly make lots and lots of grammatical mistakes. But I think it’s important to speak, even so,” she told swissinfo.ch.
Alain Favre lives in Chambéry, the capital of the French département of Savoie. He heard patois from his grandparents and father, but only got them to teach him seriously when he was an adult. He thinks he is now practically the only speaker in the town, and that the dialect of his own particular village is more or less dead.
Franco-Provençal is a Latin-based language; as such it is related to French, but it belongs to a different sub-family.
It was spoken in the area stretching from Lyon in central France into what is now French-speaking Switzerland (apart from Jura) and the Aosta Valley and parts of the Piedmont in northern Italy.
There is also a small pocket of speakers in the Apulia region of southern Italy, presumed to be the descendants of mercenaries.
This language never had a standard written form; it is broken up into numerous different spoken dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.
Even by many speakers it is commonly referred to as “patois”, although in French this has a pejorative meaning: “patois” is defined in Le Petit Robert dictionary as “a dialect with a small number of often rural speakers whose culture and level of civilisation are regarded as inferior to that of the surrounding population who speak the standard language”.
In recent times some speakers have started to use the name Arpitan, and there have moves to bring the dialects together, for example through a standardised spelling system.
Estimates of the total number of speakers vary considerably. The latest figures quoted on the website of the Endangered Languages Project of the University of Hawaii give 100,600 mother tongue speakers in 2010.
The Swiss census for 2000 put at about 16,000 the total number of patois speakers in French-speaking Switzerland, a drop of over one quarter since 1990.
The Minority Rights Group International puts at about 66,500 the number of speakers in the Aosta Valley.
A report published by the French Institut national d'études démographiques in 2002 put the number of people in France handing down some knowledge of Franco-Provençal to the next generation at less than 15,000.
The way forward
Favre’s way of tackling this problem throws up an important issue for the survival of patois: adapt or die – but then how to stop it becoming an ungrammatical mish-mash?
“I’ve kept the basis of my language, but I am internationalising it,” he explained. “I speak my own personal language. I’d say three-quarters is my own patois, but what I don’t know, and words that don’t exist in it, I get from somewhere else, mainly in the Aosta Valley, which is very rich.”
When you are the only speaker, in the last resort you are more or less free to do as you please with the language. Joel Rilliot is more unusual still: on the basis of intense research he has single-handedly resurrected the patois of Neuchâtel which died out in the 1920s, and always speaks it to his children. For modern words he does the same as Favre: “pinches words from other patois”.
“There’s a problem with swear words,” he admits. “Unfortunately at the end of the 19th century when the material I used was collected, people couldn’t talk about things like sexuality in the way we do today. So I borrow them from other patois, and by now I have quite a lot. Even so, I am probably one of the politest patois speakers in Switzerland!”
Enthusiastic learners can influence the language in the opposite way as well. Jacques Mounir – or Dzakye Monire, as he writes his name in patois – discovered words in his research which the surviving native speakers of his dialect – that of Savièse in canton Valais – had forgotten.
“My vocabulary dates from the 1960s. People still had patois as their mother tongue in 1950, but ever since starting school they have been immersed in French. So now they hesitate over words, and it’s easier to use the French one. Since the previous generation is no longer there to remind them what it should really be, the French displaces the patois word,” he explained.
Among the examples he cited was the “really ugly” word “bócóu” – clearly from French “beaucoup” – which has pushed out “prou prou”, the old expression for “a lot”.
With so few speakers scattered over a wide geographical area with many different dialects, there is a tightrope to be walked between maintaining the old and exploiting the new if patois is to survive.
The example of Hebrew, the main language of Israel, resurrected out of classical Hebrew in the late 19th century but incorporating influences from various other languages spoken by Jews in different countries, inspires many patois speakers to believe that even a moribund language can revive and flourish.
“It’s very important to go back to our roots,” Margot told swissinfo.ch. “But it’s also important that it should be a living language, so sometimes it’s not exactly the same as the one our ancestors spoke.”
Margot is one of those who are keen that speakers of different dialects should get together, and admits that the adoption of French words, especially in modern contexts, helps here, although naturally they share plenty of vocabulary anyway.
But she accepts that there are different views, and that some speakers put more emphasis on preserving their own dialects.
Maurice Michelet of Nendaz in canton Valais, now aged 60, learnt the language as a child. He is the secretary of the Valais Federation of Friends of Patois, and told swissinfo.ch that the festival was a chance to create “new synergies” between dialects, but was much less optimistic than Margot.
“People in our valleys tend to be individualists, attached to their own patois,” he admitted.
He gives courses in the Nendaz dialect, but while young people may be curious about it, few take that any further.
Does that mean patois is going to disappear?
“I think so. Perhaps I shouldn’t say it, but I don’t want to lie. How many more generations will it last? They say a language isn’t dead as long as just one person still speaks it.”