Occitan is spoken in Italy, mainly in fifteen alpine valleys in the Piedmontese provinces of Torino and Cuneo but also in the regions of Liguria and Calabria (Guardia Piemontese, in the province of Cosenza). The Occitan community in Calabria was established by members of the Waldensian or Vaudois movement, who emigrated there to escape religious persecution in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The areas where Occitan is spoken lie in the highest valleys of the alpine regions, which means that there is an almost total lack of services such as law courts, primary and secondary schools, post offices, etc. The rather adverse economic conditions have meant that there has scarcely been any immigration into these valleys in the course of history. In addition, the shortage of work has resulted in considerable depopulation of these territories, the number of inhabitants having fallen by almost 50%. The economic circumstances of the region are well illustrated by the fact that some of the towns and villages of north-western Italy are among the poorest in the country and that many homes have no central heating, no bathrooms and even, in some cases, no electricity. Furthermore, the Occitan speakers seem to be even worse off than their neighbours. This contrasts with the overall economic situation of the regions in the north-west of Italy, which have the highest per capita incomes in the whole country.
As for the geographical distribution of the Occitan-speaking population, since there are no major economic centres (large or medium-sized towns) in the area, more than 50% of the population live in rural areas (isolated villages with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants), while the rest live mainly in semirural areas (villages with over 1,000 or towns with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants).
As far as the linguistic demography of the area is concerned, the lack of reliable data and the fact that a significant percentage of the population of the Occitan valleys do not live there throughout the year make it difficult to calculate the exact number of speakers. The 50,000 or so local people whose mother tongue is Occitan (out of a total population of some 180,000) use the language habitually in their everyday communications. Estimates from other sources of the number of Occitan speakers in the region vary between 35,000 and 80,000. However, most specialists agree that there is a marked decline in the use of Occitan among young people below 20 years of age, given that only 40 to 50% of them speak it habitually.
The presence of Occitan in the north-west of Italy probably derives from historical reasons that go back to the administrative divisions of the Roman Empire. In fact, from the time of the Roman conquest of the Alps, the frontier between Gaul and Italy followed a line that divided the Piedmontese plain along the first range of alpine foothills.
This ancient territorial subdivision was to exert its influence beyond the fall of the Western Roman Empire, either because the barbarian states established there were short- lived and possessed no internal cohesion or because the process of assimilating the various peoples did not occur until much later.
During the Middle Ages the marquisate of Saluzzo, a small Occitan community, enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy until the 16th century, when it was conquered by Savoy.
As regards the history of the language, the 14th and 15th centuries saw the so-called langue vaudoise - which was, in fact, an artificial language, since it did not correspond to any specific local variant of Occitan - become the language of the most important documents of the age in eastern Occitania.
From the 16th century, Occitan was to remain in very close contact with the Piedmontese dialect. The result of this was that Occitan lost more and more ground and was squeezed out of the lowest valleys by the increasing influence of the Piedmontese dialect and Italian, had its vocabulary and syntax altered by these other tongues in the middle valleys and only remained intact in the highest and most remote valleys.
Compulsory schooling has also inevitably increased the influence of the Italian language, with the result that for about ten years there has been an increasing number of cases in which children with two Occitan-speaking parents speak Italian as their first language. For all that, the only subjects of linguistic controversy have been the internal matters of codification of Occitan and the toponymy of the area.
There are various organizations and cultural centres for the promotion of the Occitan language, including Comboscuro/Centre Prouvençal, which unites various associations of the Occitan minority in Italy, the Centro Culturale detto Dalmastro in the valley of Castelmagno, the political organization MAO (Moviment Autonomista Occitano), Soulestrelh, Rafanhaudo, Valados Usitanos and ACOG (Associazione Culturale Occitano- Guardiola) for the Occitan-speaking community in Calabria.
Some of these associations' activities have received EC support, in particular for the production of a documentary and two ethnographic films, the publication of a record of traditional music and the organization of a musical composition contest. In addition, several researchers are working on a linguistic atlas under a cooperation agreement between the University of Turin and the Regional Government of Piedmont.
Article 6 of the Italian Constitution provides for State protection of the various linguistic minorities in the country, although that does not seem to have led to any measures of support for the Occitan language. During the eighties, the Chamber of Deputies studied the draft of a more effective law on the protection of linguistic minorities, but this was never approved and has not therefore entered into force.
At regional level, the Piedmontese authorities provide limited financial aid for Occitanian associations for the promotion and defence of Occitan.
There is no legal provision governing the presence of Occitan in education, which means that Occitan has no official status at the various levels of education in the alpine valleys, except at the primary school of Santa Lucia di Monterosso Grana, where Occitan is taught on an optional basis. In Calabria some optional Occitan courses were taught in the past to senior primary pupils and to pupils at the first stage of secondary education in the school at Guardia Piemontese (four hours per week outside official school hours). This initiative received some support from the provincial authorities, from the Comunità Montana dell'Appennino and from the local authorities.
In the Chisone valley, some optional courses in local language and culture have been organized outside the time set aside for compulsory subjects. Elsewhere, the Soulestrelh association, together with the Saluzzo education office, organized the first teachers' in- service course in Occitan language and culture in 1993.
According to the specialists we consulted, the law prohibits the use of any language other than Italian in court.
Occitan is never used by central and regional administrative bodies, although in some municipal councils certain members speak in Occitan (the session minutes, however, are always recorded in Italian). Numerous public employees - especially in post offices - use Occitan to speak to regular customers, and some municipalities have erected signs at village boundaries welcoming visitors in Occitan (generally alongside Italian). Numerous inn, restaurant, hotel and campsite signs, etc., bear the name of the establishment in Occitan.
Although there is no daily press in Occitan, there are numerous magazines, including Ousitano Vivo, a monthly political magazine with 20 to 30% of its content in Occitan, Coumboscuro, a monthly magazine of which 20% is printed in Occitan, Nouvel Temp, which appears three times a year and uses 20 to 30% Occitan, Soulestrelh, issued three times a year, Valados Usitanos, a cultural magazine that appears three times a year, 20 to 30% of which is written in Occitan, La Valaddo, produced quarterly with 50% of its text in Occitan, R Ni d'Aigura, a half-yearly magazine, 10 to 20% of which is in Occitan, and A Vastera, of which there are three issues per annum, with 10-20% of its content in Occitan.
The Piedmontese authorities allocate a grant of between four and six million lire to each of these cultural associations, which use this budget to finance all their activities.
Occitan is rarely used on television, and no public radio station broadcasts in Occitan. There is, however, one private radio station, operated by the diocese of Saluzzo, which broadcasts for a few hours per week in Occitan. Until 1993 the private radio station Radio Onde Azzure broadcast one weekly programme in Occitan, but the application of the new legislation governing private radio stations and a change of proprietor resulted in the withdrawal of that station.
Only three books have been printed in Occitan in recent years (a children's book, a novel and a religious work), although one of the aims of the various Occitan cultural associations is to publish books written entirely in Occitan, without an Italian translation. Nevertheless, some 25 bilingual books in Occitan and Italian have been published since the sixties.
By contrast, the traditional music scene is doing very well; there are numerous very active groups which enjoy a great deal of popular success and have produced numerous discs, such as the group from the Soulestrelh association, Li Troubaires de Coumboscuro, Lou Dalfin, Lou Senhal, the Suonatori di Robilante, I Esquiarzéé and Baret-Lageard, as well as the singer Sergio Berardo. The rare attempts to produce modern music with Occitan lyrics have all come to naught.
In the world of the theatre, there is an amateur comedy company at Coumboscuro (Lou Teatre Coumboscuro), which receives a grant from the regional authorities.
As far as the cinema is concerned, the RAI office in Turin produced a documentary in Occitan on the traditions of the alpine valleys and on working conditions there.
There are numerous cultural festivals, such as the Roumiage de Setembre in Coumboscuro, devoted to folk music, poetry and cultural activities in general, and the Rescuntre Usitanas, organized by the MAO movement. These gatherings are highly successful and draw increasingly large numbers of people from year to year. There are other gatherings too, such as the Baio, the biggest traditional Occitan festival, which is celebrated every five years in Sampeyre, and Uno terro, uno lengo, un Pople, an annual Provençal literature competition, the Festival delle Etnie d'Europa, which is held each year in the month of August, includes representatives of the Italian Occitan speakers and is organized by the Coumboscuro Association, and the I Noltre festival of Occitanian pastoral music.
The regional and local authorities provide economic aid to Occitanian cultural associations as well as grants for terminological and linguistic research projects.
Knowledge of Occitan is rarely a condition of employment. The language is mainly used orally by farmers, artisans and small traders. Some of the advertisements in the Occitanian magazines are in Occitan. The labels on organic products from the Pra-Chistel cooperative in Coumboscuro are printed in Occitan.
A considerable number of parents, it seems, still pass on Occitan to their children, although for about thirty years the number of families who only use Occitan has been constantly decreasing. From the mid-seventies, the use of Italian by children has increased dramatically to the extent that in some villages Occitan has been replaced by either Italian or the Piedmontese dialect.
In general the use of Occitan tends to be regarded as socially inferior, although the situation varies from one valley to another. Where there are higher degrees of linguistic awareness, for example, Occitan does not have an unfavourable image.
As far as ethnolinguistic vitality is concerned, the majority of speakers believe that Occitan will disappear within a generation, and speakers of Occitan as well as those who do not speak it consider the language to be of very little use nowadays. The precarious position of Occitan in France further complicates matters for the Italian Occitan speakers.
Occitan speakers from Italy attend and take part in festivals, gatherings, summer courses and concerts of traditional music in French Occitania.
The situation of the Occitan language in Italy is characterized by a marked contraction of its territory (Occitan speakers being increasingly isolated in the high valleys), as Italian and the Piedmontese dialect gain ground at the expense of Occitan, and by a new sociolinguistic development: despite the fact that many parents are still passing on the language to their children, Occitan is nevertheless being relegated to the role of a secondary language, especially among young people, who are giving it up in favour of Italian. Furthermore, this situation is made all the more serious by the fact that the economic recession which the region is experiencing and the lack of inherent dynamism in the population is forcing the Occitan speakers into the role of second-class citizens.
Lastly, for all the dynamism generated by the various Occitanian cultural associations, they are scarcely channelling any of this into the service of the community but are tending to dissipate their efforts in internal conflicts about the codification of the language.