24. What is language revitalization about? Some insights from Provence*

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James Costa
Sorbonne Nouvelle / UMR LACITO (CNRS), Paris


Should you find yourself in Provence this summer, you might wonder why some villages have bilingual signs at the entrance. Your surprise would be forgiven, since you are unlikely to have heard anything but French in most places, and likely a lot of English as you approach the Mediterranean. But if you listen more closely, observe more closely, you might come across a world that is fast vanishing, but that is still present. You might stumble upon a concert in a language that you cannot identify, or wonder why some street names don’t sound French. You might even hear people speak Occitan — for this is what it is, a language also known as Provençal, one which many locals will refer to as “Patois” (a derogatory term in France to refer to anything other than French traditionally spoken in the country).

This sort of experience might happen to you in Provence, but not only. Across the European Union, several million people speak a language that is not the official language of the state they live in. Across Europe, there are language advocates who defend and promote the right to speak one’s language. This struggle for language rights also extends to Latin America, North America, Australia, and many other places. This, many scholars assert, is a consequence of globalization—a backlash against uniformity if you like. A way of being oneself, of finding meaning locally in a world that seems to be getting smaller. In my recent book, Revitalising Language in Provence: A Critical Approach, I argue otherwise. Those movements are not a reaction to globalization—they are, on the contrary, a way of taking part in this process, on the very terms defined by those who define what globalization is (and not on their own terms, as Leena Huss [2008, 133] asserts).

But let’s start from the beginning. This book focuses on Provence, home to what is perhaps the earliest language reclamation movement, or at least one of the earliest. Poets had already started writing texts in defense of Gascon, Provençal or Languedocien (all dialects of what most scholars of Romance linguistics view as Occitan) back in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is perhaps a consequence of an increasingly aggressive move to promote French in all administrative domains at the expense of Latin and Occitan, which had been in use for official usage for centuries in what is now Southern France. But it was after the French Revolution Terror government (after 1793) sought to eradicate the “patois” that a genuine interest was born in various parts of France, resulting in the south in a rediscovery of the poetry of Medieval Troubadours and in a scholarly interest in the history of Provence and Languedoc before their annexation to France. It wasn’t, however, before the 1850s that an organized language-based movement was formed, under the aegis of poets such as Frederic Mistral or Joseph Roumanille.

The Felibrige was the name they gave to their movement, a name whose origin remains mysterious. The Felibres sought to revive the Provençal or Occitan language (which was still almost universally spoken in all of Southern France) through poetry and literature. And indeed, Mistral published a series of long, epic poems that were hailed across Europe as monuments of literature. Mirèio is probably his most well known poem, a love story set in the Crau region of Provence and an allegory of the language revival movement. Mirèio was acclaimed in Paris as a chef d’æuvre, and was prefaced by Lamartine.

I recount parts of the history of the movement in the book but for this article, suffice it to say that while successful on a literary level, it never succeeded in political terms. Provençal was long banned in education, and despite a strong Occitan movement throughout the 20th century, the use of Provençal continued (and continues) to decline. But the story I tell in this book isn’t the story of the language movement. Instead, following a 2 year ethnographic study in Provence, I ask why the movement was based on language at all, like so many others afterwards—but, crucially, none before, or at least none before the 1840s.

What struck me as I started the work on the PhD thesis that led to this book, back in 2006, was that anthropologists had long written about what they called “revitalization movements”. Anthony Wallace was perhaps the scholar who coined the term back in 1956, but others before him such as Ralph Linton had talked about nativist movements. Those movements, anthropologists argued, could use religion as their basis, or cultural elements, or political institutions. In 1943 Ralph Linton wrote: “The avowed purpose of a nativistic movement may be either to revive the past culture or to perpetuate the current one, but it never really attempts to do either” (Linton 1943, 231). In 1956, Wallace stated that revitalization movements are “a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture. Revitalization is thus, from a cultural standpoint, a special kind of culture change phenomenon: the persons involved in the process of revitalization must perceive their culture […] as a system […]; they must feel that this cultural system is unsatisfactory; and they must innovate not merely discrete items, but a new cultural system, specifying new relationships as well as, in some cases, new traits” (Wallace 1956, 43). For Wallace, Revitalization thus starts with a steady state period which gets shattered by an outside event (such as colonization), leading to individual stress and later cultural (collective) distortion which then prompts the revitalization process to happen, often triggered by a Prophet. In turn, revitalization is meant to lead to a new steady state.

Two elements (at least) interested me in this body of work. First, revitalization could happen to something other than language. Second, while the very fact that steady state periods ever existed is itself probably an illusion, what I did observe during my ethnographic fieldwork in Provence was that the language movement did tell a story that adhered closely to the pattern described by Wallace. Those two observations led me to ask two sets of interrelated questions:

  • If revitalization can be about many things, why language? When (and why) does language become something that one can revitalize? Is it, as many sociolinguists claim, because of the realization that many languages are now endangered, and on the brink of disappearance? Or is there something else?
  • Whatever actually happens in the revitalization process, aren’t the movements that generate and support revitalization primarily involved in creating a narrative of revitalization, in order to provide (and ultimately impose) a particular reading of the world? In that sense, aren’t revitalization movements not like most other social movements, seeking to provide collective interpretations for individual events, in this case using language as a focus to take part in a struggle over categorization (to use a term employed by Bourdieu [1991])? And if this is the case, which categorizations are those movements seeking to challenge?

In the book, I thus propose that if language revitalization movements should not be dismissed offhand as romantic pipedreams or as ethnic inward-looking enterprises, they shouldn’t be idealized either as leading a resistance against globalizing and uniformizing forces. Instead, they should be analyzed as human enterprises that seek to provide collective interpretations of the world, using language as a prism. Neither romanticized nor dismissed, language revitalization movements should nevertheless be studied more extensively as social movements. This needs to be done not with the aim of vindicating or extolling their actions, but primarily because their multiplication in the 21st century tells us something about what it means to be human, to struggle as humans, in the world.

I thus propose the following approach in order to problematize the types of social actions that actors involved in language revitalization engage with:

  • First, language revitalization movements are about “groupness,” to use a term coined by Rogers Brubaker to describe how groups are always collective projects. As he writes, “a group is a variable, not a constant; it cannot be presupposed” (Brubaker 2004, 4). Groups, in other words, are what we want to explain, “not what we want to explain things with” (Brubaker 2002, 165). In that sense, language revitalization isn’t about regenerating pre-existing groups, but about inventing new ones, on new terms, while drawing on a construction of those groups as timeless or ancient. What, then, are categories of language and groupness mobilized for, and by whom?
  • Second, language revitalization is fundamentally a struggle over classifications—“struggles over the monopoly of the power to make people see and believe, to get them to know and recognize, to impose the legitimate definition of the divisions of the social world and, thereby, to make and unmake groups” (Bourdieu 1991, 221). The struggles implied here concern what the group that is the object of revitalization is, what are its defining features, what counts as language, as legitimate language, and what rights and duties members have towards each other.
  • Third, language revitalization is a consequence of social contact. Such an approach allows us to shift our gaze from the group that the language movement apparently addresses to the interstices revitalization generates between the minority group and a majority group that gets constructed at the same time. The consequences here are twofold: revitalization is neither an inward-looking movement, nor a way to deal with oppression on the minority group’s own terms. Rather, it is a way to renegotiate the very terms of contact between groups that are created through contact, more often than not on terms imposed by the dominant group (as already suggested by Sanford 1974). In order to exist, in other words, minority groups have to appeal to categories that already have currency among those who they view as the majority. In order to address the cultural elite in Paris, Frederic Mistral had to appeal to categories that they viewed as legitimate: high literature and a codified language with a prestigious, legitimate past.
  • Finally, language revitalization is ultimately not primarily about saving languages, but it is perhaps essentially about finding a terrain to frame other types of claims and projects—social, political, related to land rights etc. In that sense, it is important to consider conflicts within language-based movements not as something that must be overcome, but as an indicator of tensions locally and globally over what the world should look like, who should be allowed to take part in its daily affairs, under what moral and political conditions.

In the book, using those preliminary propositions and applying them to the Provençal case, I seek to show how we, as scholars, can reframe questions relating to language revitalization. While the case is approached ethnographically, I intend to raise questions beyond revitalization in Provence, and to generate a wider discussion as to why so many language-based social movements have emerged worldwide since the 1990s. Because it has been so well documented over the past 150 years, the Provençal revitalization movement is a good point to start this discussion. What then, if anything, has this explosion got to do with the fall of the Soviet Union? If we accept that revitalization is about renegotiating terms of contact on terms imposed by dominant groups, what does this interest in language tell us about global ideologies of language? How does language, rather than, say, race, religion or politics, allow minority groups worldwide to frame their plight in a way that affords them a voice—through Unesco for instance?

* An earlier version of this note appeared in The Philological Society Blog (https://blog.philsoc.org.uk/about/)


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2002. “Ethnicity Without Groups.” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 43 (2): 163–89. doi:10.1017/S0003975602001066.

———. 2004. Ethnicity Without Groups. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press.

Huss, Leena. 2008. “Researching Language Loss and Revitalization.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Education, edited by Kendall A King and Nancy H Hornberger, 10: Resear:69–81. Springer.

Linton, Ralph. 1943. “Nativistic Movements.” American Anthropologist 45 (2): 230–40.

Sanford, Margaret. 1974. “Revitalization Movements as Indicators of Completed Acculturation.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16 (4). Cambridge University Press: 504–18.

Wallace, Anthony F C. 1956. “Revitalization Movements.” American Anthropologist 58 (2). Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association: 264–81.