Provençal is a language spoken by a minority of people in the Provence region of south-east France. It has its roots in Old Occitan, the language of the trobadors and trobairitz: composers and performers of lyric poetry in medieval Occitania.
Due to a history of policies by the French government meant to suppress regional minority languages (see vergonha, meaning "shame"), it is now only spoken by a few hundred thousand people, mainly among the older generations, and could be in danger of dying out.
I first became interested in the language when I started studying the south of France for a novel I am writing, but I found resources scarce and of limited use or clarity—a profusion of dialects in particular muddies the water—so I decided to research and compile my own notes to help me learn, and maybe help others as well.
Table of Contents
- Next article in the series
- All articles in the series
- Before we get started
- Dialects and writing systems
- Figure: Comparison of Norms
- Hello, Provençal!
- Nouns and grammatical gender
- Figure: Indefinite and definite articles
- Aver: To have
- Attribution and belonging
- Èstre: To be
- I a: There is or there are
- Figure: The colors
- Pronouns and politeness
- Possessive pronouns
- Voler: To want or to like
- Far and anar: To do and to go
- Ongoing actions
- Nouns and grammatical gender
Before we get started
I am not a native speaker, nor any kind of authority on Provence or the Provençal language. I'm compiling these notes from limited and fragmented resources as a way to teach myself, and while I've made every effort to be as accurate and in-depth as possible, mistakes are bound to happen.
I try to verify and weigh information against multiple sources, but something may ultimately come down to a difference between dialects or individual speakers. If you have any comments or corrections, please contact me, including your source(s) and/or credentials.
For now, consider this a work-in-progress.
Dialects and Writing Systems
Depending on who you ask, Provençal is either a dialect of modern Occitan or a separate language in its own right. While I am of the view that it is technically a dialect, I often find it more natural to refer to it colloquially as a language.
There are six major dialects of Occitan: Gascon, Limousin, Auvergnat, Lengadocien, Vivaro-Aupenc, and Provençal, all of which are championed by some as separate languages. More rarely, Catalan is sometimes considered part of the Occitan family as well, though it is usually recognized as a separate but closely related language. Provençal itself has three major sub-dialects: Rodanenc around the lower Rhône river, Maritime around Marseille, and Niçard within the historical County of Nice.
In addition, two writing systems (norms) are in common use: Mistralian norm, first developed around 1853–54 by Joseph Roumanille and Frédéric Mistral with the goal of making Provençal spelling more consistent with French spelling; and Classical norm, developed as a pan-Occitan standard around 1935 by Louis Alibert. While both norms work with any dialect of Occitan, Mistralian norm is primarily associated with Provençal.
My focus will be on the Rodanenc sub-dialect using the Classical norm. Rodanenc is the dialect most relevant to my novel and therefore to my present interests, and I personally find the Classical norm clearer. I also think the Classical norm helps to underscore that Provençal (and Occitan as a whole) is "its own language" and doesn't have to cozy up to French to be accessible.
The notes on pronunciation below are intended as a quick guide and reference. Keep in mind that many subtle differences may not be reflected here. All phonetic transcriptions use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
|a||[ɔ]||In the unstressed ending -a.|
|In the unstressed ending -as.|
|In the unstressed ending -an.|
|In the unstressed diphthong au.|
|[e]||In the unstressed diphthong ai.|
|b||Silent||Before t and d.|
|At the end of most words.|
|[p]||At the end of some loanwords and names.|
|c||Silent||At the end of words.|
|Before t in some words.|
|[s]||Before e and i.|
|ç||Silent||At the end of words if it follows a diphthong or an r.|
|cc||[s]||Before e and i.|
|ch||Silent||At the end of words.|
|d||Silent||At the end of words.|
|e||Silent||In the plural endings -ei and -eis.|
|[i]||In the unstressed groups elh and enh.|
|[ɛ]||In the triphthong ueu.|
|g||Silent||At the end of words.|
|[d͡ʒ]||Before e and i.|
|gu||[g]||In front of e and i.|
|gü||[gw]||In front of e and i.|
|i||[j]||Before a vowel except in the diphthong iu.|
|After a vowel except in the plural endings -ei and -eis.|
|k||[k]||The letter k mostly appears in loanwords.|
|m||[ŋ]||At the end of words.|
|n||[ŋ]||At the end of words.|
|nh||[n]||At the end of words.|
|o||[we]||In the diphthong oi.|
|p||Silent||At the end of words.|
|pn||[pn]||In technical terms such as pneumonia.|
|ps-||[s]||In technical terms such as psiquiatre.|
|r||Silent||At the end of words if it follows a diphthong.|
|In the endings -er, -ier, and -dor.|
|In the endings -ar and -ir of infinitives.|
|[ɾ]||Between two vowels|
|s||Silent||At the end of words if it follows a diphthong, the word is plural, or in certain other words such as: pas, pus, ges, dins. However, if the next word begins in a vowel, the normally silent s is pronounced [z].|
|[z]||Between two vowels.|
|sc||[s]||In certain words.|
|t||Silent||At the end of words.|
|Before l and n, except in certain words such as Atlantic and etnic.|
|tg||[d͡ʒ]||In front of e, i|
|tj||In front of a, o, u|
|tz||[d͡z]||Between two vowels|
|[s]||At the end of words.|
|u||[ɥ]||Before a vowel.|
|[w]||After a vowel.|
|[œ]||Elsewhere. Other dialects use [y] exclusively, but at least some speakers of Provençal pronounce it [œ] in some (but not all) cases. I have been unable to find any hard rule for this.|
|w||[w]||The letter w mostly appears in loanwords.|
|x||[js]||Before a vowel.|
|[gz]||In the prefix ex- before a vowel.|
|[s]||In front of a consonant.|
|y||[i]||Depends on the word. The letter y mostly appears in loanwords.|
|z||[s]||At the end of words.|
Regular stress falls on the last syllable of a word if:
The word ends in a consonant: occitan.
The word ends in a vowel + -u or vowel + -i: provençau, verai. It's important to note that gu and qu are considered consonants (see the table above), so gui and qui should be seen as consonant + i not consonant + ui.
There are a few exceptions to the above. A word receives regular stress on the second-to-last syllable if none of the above, or:
The word ends in a vowel + -s: virus .
The word is a third-person plural verb ending in a vowel + -n: parlan .
- The word is a plural ending in -ei: aquelei .
Some words have irregular stress which doesn't follow the rules above. Here stress may be indicated by an accent mark on the stressed vowel: cafè , aquí .
Let's go ahead and introduce ourselves to the language.
Nouns & grammatical gender
In Provençal, all nouns are either masculine or feminine. For example: arange ("orange"), jorn ("day"), cavau ("horse"), and aucèu ("bird") are all masculine while poma ("apple"), nuech ("night"), vaca ("cow"), and abelha ("bee") are feminine.
Masculine nouns use the indefinite article un ("a/an") while feminine nouns use una: it is un arange ("an orange") and una poma ("an apple"), never
una arange or un poma, because arange is masculine and poma is feminine.
Masculine nouns use the definite article lo ("the") while feminine nouns use la: it is lo cavau ("the horse") and la vaca ("the cow"). However, both become l' in front of a vowel: l'aucèu ("the bird") and l'abelha ("the bee"), never
lo aucèu or la abelha.
It is important to distinguish between the gender of the noun itself (grammatical gender) and the gender, if any, of that which the noun refers to, such as a person or an animal (semantic gender).
While the gender of nouns such as òme ("man") and femna ("woman") are what you would expect (masculine and feminine repectively), most nouns aren't as obvious. While you can find certain rules of thumb to guide you, there is no completely reliable rule for what gender a noun is: most simply have to be learned by heart.
Some nouns are semantically gender neutral or agnostic: un enfant ("a child") may refer to un dròlle ("a boy") or una dròlla ("a girl") or something else, or we may not know the child's gender from context, but the grammatical gender of the word enfant is always masculine: it is never
una enfant even if the child is known to be a girl.
Other nouns have different masculine and feminine forms, for example cat (masculine, meaning "cat") and cata (feminine, also "cat"). In this case, the masculine form is used both when we don't know or don't specify the cat's gender and when the cat is known to be male, while the feminine form is used only when the cat is explicitly female.
This distinction isn't always made: rata ("mouse") is grammatically feminine but the mouse itself may be any gender, or we may not know its gender. The word rat is not the masculine form of rata but in fact means "rat" whatever the rat's gender may be (rata actually can be used to mean "female rat", but rat doesn't mean "male mouse"). A more common word for "rat" is garri (masculine), and an alternative word for "mouse" is fura (feminine), avoiding the confusion of rat and rata.
A few words like torista can be either masculine or feminine without changing their form: un torista refers to a tourist, either explicitly male or gender agnostic/neutral, while una torista is explicitly a female tourist.
Nouns generally gain an -s in the plural and use the definite article lei, which becomes leis in front of a vowel, regardless of grammatical gender:
- Lei cats e lei ratas
- The cats and the mice
- Lei pomas o lei peras
- The apples or the pears
- Leis aucèus e leis abelhas
- The birds and the bees
The table lists all the basic numbers in Provençal.
Between 17 and 19 and between 21 and 29, an e ("and") is inserted between the two numbers: dètz-e-sèt (17, "ten-and-seven"), dètz-e-uèch (18), dètz-e-nòu (19), vint-e-un (21, "twenty-and-one"), vint-e-dos (22), vint-e-tres (23), and so on.
Between 31 and 39, the numbers are constructed same as in English: trenta un (31), trenta dos (32), trenta tres (33) and so on. Same for the forties, fifties, etc: quaranta un (41), cinquanta dos (52), seissanta tres (63), setanta quatre (74), etc.
The hundreds and thousands are counted the same as in English, except that "one" is left out: cent ("one hundred"), dos cents ("two hundred"), tres cents ("three hundred"); mila ("one thousand"), dos mila ("two thousand"), tres mila ("three thousand"). Notice also that cent gains an -s in the plural but mila does not.
In English we count millions, billions, trillions, etc., but in Provençal it's milion, miliard, bilion, biliard, trilion, triliard, etc.: un milion ("one million"), dos milions ("two million"), tres milions ("three million"); un miliard ("one billion"), dos bilions ("two trillion"), tres biliards ("three quadrillion").
When talking about millions, billions, or even larger numbers of something, a de (d' in front of a vowel) is added before the noun: we say mila personas ("a thousand people") but un milion de personas ("a million people"), un miliard d'ans ("a billion years").
Aver: To Have
In English we say "I have", "you have", "he/she/it has", "we have", "you have", and "they have": the verb "to have" changes in the third-person singular but otherwise stays the same in present tense. Verbs in English don't change much.
In Provençal, verbs change a lot more. This has the side effect that we rarely need the pronouns ("I", "you", "he", "she", "it", "we", and "they"). In fact, they are only used when an emphasis or distinction must be made, otherwise they are left out.
Consider the verb aver ("to have"): ai un can ("I have a dog"), as un can ("you have a dog"), a un can ("he/she/it has a dog"). Notice how there are no pronouns in the Provençal sentences, because they are implied by the form of the verb.
|I have||you have||he/she/it has||we have||you have||they have|
Notice also how singular and plural "you" are different, unlike in English where it's the same whether you're referring to a single "you" or multiple "you" (unless you use "y'all", "all y'all", "youse" or other such phrases for the plural).
Consider: As un fiu ("You [a single person] have a son"), avètz una filha ("You [two or more people] have a daughter").
Attribution & Belonging
In English we say "the girl's apple". In Provençal it's a bit different: la poma de la dròlla (literally: "the apple of the girl").
The word de together with the masculine definite article lo becomes dau, except in front of a vowel:
- La dròlla a la poma dau dròlle
- The girl has the boy's apple
- Literally: "The girl has the apple of the boy"
- La barba de l'òme
- The man's beard
- L'uòu de l'aucèu
- The bird's egg
Together with the plural definite articles lei and leis, de becomes dei and deis:
- Lei flors dei dròllas
- The girls's flowers
- Lo mèu deis abelhas
- The bees's honey
We've seen the word de before, in the section on numbers. It's a word that shows up a lot, and doesn't always have an equivalent in English. However, it often means, or can be thought of as "of" or "from":
- Un veire d'aiga
- A glass of water
- Un talhon de fromatge
- A piece of cheese
- L'òme a la bièrra d'Alemanha
- The man has the beer from Germany
- The man has the German beer
- Una tassa de tè de China
- A cup of tea from China
- A cup of Chinese tea
- Una botelha de vin de França
- A bottle of wine from France
- A bottle of French wine
We'll encounter other uses and meanings of de as we go along.
Èstre: To be
|I am||you are||he/she/it is||we are||you are||they are|
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
- Siáu la maire de Marià
- I am Maria's mother
- Siás la filha de Pèire
- You are Pierre's daughter
- Òc, Jacòb es lo paire
- Yes, Jacob is the father
- Siam de França
- We are from France
- Siatz aicí
- You are here
- Non, son de Grand Bretanha
- No, they are from Great Britain
It isn't always the case that "to be" is translated as èstre. In some cases, the verb aver ("to have") must be used instead:
- Ai paur de sèrps
- I am afraid of snakes
- Literally: I have fear of snakes
- Avèm caud, mai an freg
- We are warm, but they are cold
- Marià a fam
- Maria is hungry
- Jacòb a set
- Jacob is thirsty
- As rason, ai tòrt
- You are right, I am wrong
Negating is simple: just add pas after the verb:
- Èstre o èstre pas
- To be or not to be
- Avèm pas paur de cavaus
- We are not afraid of horses
I a: There is/there are
Another situation where aver is used where in English we would use "to be", is when we say "there is" or "there are":
- I a una mosca dins la sopa
- There is a fly in the soup
- I a pas de café
- There is no coffee
The i in i aver means "there", referring to a place. In the first sentence above, think of someone saying, "Look there, it [the soup] has a fly in it". Literally, the sentence says, "There [it] has a fly in the soup", which may sound strange to anyone who doesn't speak a Romance language like Provençal, but don't think too much about it and just remember that i a means "there is" or "there are".
Notice the de in the last example. In English we would usually just say "I have coffee" and "There is no coffee", but in Provençal it's ai de café and i a pas de café. It can be helpful to think of de in these cases as either "some" or "any": "I have some coffee" and "there is not any coffee".
The i aver construction is also frequently used for talking about the weather:
- I a de soleu
- It is sunny
- I a de plueja ara
- It is raining now
- I a de vent uei
- It is windy today
Simple yes-no questions are made from statements simply by changing the tone of voice. To ask, "Do you have children?" you simply say "You have children?" in an interrogative (rising) tone of voice:
- As d'enfants?
- Do you have children?
- As un fraire o una sòrre?
- Do you have a brother or a sister?
As a general rule, adjectives appear after the noun they describe, unlike in English where they appear before: la taula redona ("the round table"), un òme urós ("a happy man"), lo tapis roge ("the red carpet").
Adjectives must also agree with the number and gender of the noun they describe. Consider the adjective "busy": ocupat (masculine singular), ocupada (feminine singular), ocupats (masculine plural), and ocupadas (feminine plural). In action: un vibre ocupat ("a busy beaver"), una abelha ocupada ("a busy bee"), dos òmes ocupats ("two busy men"), dos femnas ocupadas ("two busy women").
A few adjectives are invariant, meaning they do not change form depending on the gender and number of the noun. For example, the colors brown and orange: una aranha marron ("a brown spider") and cinc fruchs arange ("five orange fruits").
And while adjectives tend to appear after the noun, there are exceptions. Where other Occitan dialects are more consistent about placing most or even all adjectives after the noun, Provençal has more of a French influence. As a rule of thumb, adjectives describing Beauty, Age, Number, Goodness, or Size (BANGS) tend to appear before the noun:
- Un polit jardin
- A pretty garden (Beauty)
- Un vièlh cat
- An old cat (Age)
- Lo premier mot
- The first word (Number)
- Un bòn moment
- A good time (Goodness)
- Lo pichòt det
- The little finger (Size)
This rule is sometimes broken for emphasis, insistence, or poetic effect: una polida femna ("a pretty woman", describing beauty), una femna polida ("a pretty woman", emphasis or insistence on her beauty). In some cases, such as when talking about the beauty of a woman, the more poetic form may even be preferred.
In some cases, the position of the adjective can also change the meaning of the sentence: un grand òme ("a great/important man"), un òme grand ("a tall man"), un bèu ostau ("a beautiful house"), un ostau bèu ("a great house").
Pronouns & Politeness
Remember that the (nominative) personal pronouns are rarely used except where an emphasis or distinction is required; usually, they are implied by the conjugation of the verb. In this section I will include them solely to make certain concepts clearer.
The third person singular and the first- and second-person plural pronouns all have two forms depending on the gender of those who are being talked about.
The singular feminine ela is used only when it refers to a feminine noun or when the one being talked about is explicitly female. The singular masculine eu is used in all other cases.
- [Eu] es un enfant
- He/she is a child.
- [Ela] es una dròlla
- She is a girl.
- [Ela] es urósa
- She is happy.
- [Ela] es una poma? Non, [ela] es una ceba
- Is it an apple? No, it is an onion.
In the first example, we use eu because we don't know the child's gender. In the second example, we use ela because we're talking about a girl. In the third example, we use ela because the adjective is feminine and therefore must refer to a girl or a woman (or conversely, the adjective must be feminine because we used ela). In the last example, we use ela twice because both poma and ceba are feminine nouns.
The feminine plural pronouns (nosautras and vosautras) are used for groups composed entirely of women, girls, females, and/or feminine nouns. The masculine plural pronouns (nosautrei and vosautrei) are used for all other groups.
- [Nosautrei] siam enfants
- We are children
- [Vosautrei] siatz dròlles e [vosautras] siatz dròllas
- You are boys and you are girls
You may also encounter the shortened forms nautrei, nautras, vautrei, and vautras.
The singular you has two forms: tu and vos. The latter is the formal or polite form (similar to French vous), used (very roughly speaking) when talking to superiors, elders, and strangers. The former is the familiar or informal form (similar to French tu), used (very roughly speaking) when talking to friends, family, and children. The vos pronoun is special: while it is used to refer to a single person (singular you), it uses the plural verb forms (same as vosautres/vosautras).
Because these pronouns are usually left out, including vos, the second person plural verb forms are used both to refer to a group of people generally (or politely), and when speaking politely to a single person: Siatz de França? can mean two things:
- [Vosautrei] siatz de França?
- Are you from France? (Asking more than one person)
- [Vos] siatz de França?
- Are you from France? (Asking one person politely)
- [Tu] siás de França?
- Are you from France? (Asking one person informally)
The gender of the pronoun must match that of the noun, regardless of the gender (if any) of the owner: we say son libre ("his/her book") and never
sa libre even if the owner of the book is a woman.
There is one exception: the singular masculine pronouns (mon, ton, and son) are also used for feminine nouns when those nouns begin with a vowel: mon enfància ("my childhood"). Enfància is feminine but uses the masculine pronoun because it begins with a vowel.
The plurals likewise add an -s before a vowel: nòstreis aucèus ("our birds") but nòstrei can ("our dog").
Notice also the ambiguity in the third person singular and plural: sa poma ("his/her apple" or "their apple") and son can ("his/her dog" or "their dog").
- Luc, siáu ton paire
- Luke, I am your father.
- Ai vòstrei libres
- I have your books.
- Lo fraire de ta maire es ton oncle
- The brother of your mother is your uncle.
Voler: to want or to like
|I want||you want||he/she/it wants||we want||you want||they want|
- Beatritz vòu un grand can.
- Beatrice wants a big dog.
- Vòle dètz pomas d'amor verdas.
- I want ten green tomatoes.
The term poma d'amor ("tomato", literally "apple of love" or "love-apple") seems to be unique to Provençal. The word tomata is also be found.
The phrase voler ben is used to express fondness for a person: Beatritz vòu ben Marià ("Beatrice likes Maria"). This is used only of people, and in the non-romantic sense of "to like" rather than "to love".
Far and anar: to do and to go
|I do||you do||he/she/it does||we do||you do||they do|
Just like aver is sometimes used to talk about the weather, so is far ("to do"):
- Fai freg.
- It is cold.
- Fai bèu temps.
- The weather is nice.
Far is also used to talk about time:
- Fai dos ans.
- It was two years ago.
- Fai vint ans.
- He/she is twenty years old
Notice the ambiguity: both sentences can mean two different things.
|I go||you go||he/she/it goes||we go||you go||they go|
- Vau a la polícia.
- I go to the police.
- Anam a la glèisa.
- We go to church.
- L'enfant vai a l'escòla.
- The child goes to school.
Notice in the two last examples, in English we often drop the article ("go to church" and "go to school", not "go to the church" and "go to the school"), but in Provençal the article is required in these cases.
The word a ("to") + lo becomes au, except in front of a vowel, and a + lei and a + leis become ai and ais respectively.
- Van au parque.
- They go to the park.
- Van ai lacs
- They go to the lakes.
- Anam ais aubres
- We go to the trees.
The infinitive of a verb is its "canonical" or unconjugated form. For example, èstre ("to be") and voler ("to want") are both infinitives while siatz and vòlon are conjugations of these. The infinitive is used when "chaining" verbs. In these cases only the first one is conjugated:
- Van èstre celèbres.
- They are going to be famous.
- Vòle pas anar a l'escòla.
- I don't want to go to school.
In English, we can say "I go" or "I am going". Both are present tense, but "I go" is more immediate while "I am going" is an ongoing action (think: "I am in the process of going somewhere").
In Provençal, vau au parque can mean either "I go to the park" or "I am going to the park". If you want to make the distinction clear, use èstre a plus the infinitive of the verb: siáu a anar au parque ("I am going to the park").
- ^ I use the spelling trobador instead of the standard English troubadour for the sake of being consistent with other Provençal words and phrases in this text, including the feminine trobairitz. See the section on Dialects & Writing Systems, including the difference between Classical and Mistralian norms. English, for whatever reasons, uses Mistralian spelling for the masculine but Classical spelling for the feminine.