Marseille History: An Introduction to Provençal

When looking at modern Europe, there are many subcultures within the borders. The region of Provence remains today the home of Provençal, a once common language and piece of the greater Occitania region (Southern France). This dialect was widely spoken for centuries, before being phased out of mainstream society in the 20th century. Despite this, traces of the language and culture remain prominent today in Provence culture. In this article, I ask my dad, who has studied Occitan and Provençal, a few questions about the language and its history.


Modern flag of Occitania. Courtesy of

-Salut Papa. To begin, what is Provençal, and what is the connection with Marseille?

Provençal is one of the languages that emerged from Latin, after the breakdown of the Roman Empire, along with French, Spanish or various Italian languages. Of all such languages, it is closest to Catalan. More specifically, Provençal is one of the forms of Occitan, spoken from Nice to Bordeaux, and from the Pyrenees to approximately Clermont-Ferrand (so the southern third of France, certain valleys in the Italian alps and the Val d’Aran area in Catalonia).

Marseille is the largest city in the Provençal area of Occitan, and in fact in the entire Occitan area.


Map of the Occitan region. Courtesy of

-Is Provençal in daily use these days?

Not anymore, as French has largely supplanted it in daily life. However, in the scheme of things, this change is fairly recent, more or less the first half of the 20th century. This change was driven through school, where speaking Provençal was discouraged, and through social intimidation, by equating use of the language with backwardness, just like we did here (USA) with Native American culture.

Interestingly, the Marseille accent is nothing but French spoken with the cadences and the vocal stresses of Provençal as it was commonly spoken in Marseille. So you could say that Provençal survives that way, even with people who never spoke the language.

It also survives in certain words used daily. For example, degun means nobody, and I don’t have to explain what “On craint degun” means. Degun is an Occitan word, which for some reason Marseillais are keeping in their daily use in French.

You can also find Provençal in the names of neighborhoods. “L’ Estaque” is a stake dug in the water to build a pier; “Les Arnavaux” comes from the Provençal Arnaveus, hawthorn, a species of shrub. Another plant, esparto, also known in English as halfah grass, has given its name to the Vallon des Auffes, one of my favorite areas in Marseille. Outside of Marseille, the name of the region, Languedoc, translates to “Oc Language” or “Language of Occitan”.

A video of two Marseille personalities, talking about OM. While speaking, both of them display certain elements of the “Marseillais” accent.

-For people interested in learning more about Provençal Marseille culture, which books or music would you recommend?

Frédéric Mistral is the best-known writer and a Nobel Prize award winner in literature in 1904. His main work is “Mirèio”, a long poem; and a huge dictionary of Provençal words which is a reference today. I’ve read his autobiography translated in American; he comes across as this very likable guy, honest, fun-loving, and very attached to the place where he grew up, Maillane.

Victor Gelu is the best-known writer specifically from Marseille, but I haven’t read his stuff yet, so cannot talk about him well. Maybe one of the readers of your blog can comment.

On the music side, you have to listen to Massilia Sound System, a reggae/ragga group who are an absolute phenomenon and have strong ties to OM, and Còr de la Plana, a fantastic a capella group. You can buy their music on iTunes. I have also recently discovered Rodin, a poet who has had some of his work converted into songs ( Absolutely terrific stuff.

-Does it make sense to be interested in Provençal culture today?

It doesn’t make any more sense than falling in love makes sense. Yet does it mean we should not fall in love? You don’t have to have grown up with the language or culture, or even have grown up in Provence, to want to find out more about them. If this is where you can find a sense of home, shouldn’t you go there?

Simple Google searches of “Provencal” and “Occitania” will yield many helpful links about the language/culture. There are also sites that describe microcultures within Europe, which could make you look at the map of Europe differently. Thanks for reading!


A classic image of Provence. Courtesy of


One thought on “Marseille History: An Introduction to Provençal

  1. GMann February 20, 2016 / 12:39 am

    Very interesting!


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