What does a French speaker from the Val D’Aosta region of Italy sound like?

By: | Post date: 2016-09-18 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Other Languages

Ah, French in the Val d’Aosta.

I don’t have a phonetic answer for OP. I do however have a sociolinguistic answer that I’m delighted to share, because I co-supervised an MA thesis on this subject. The facts are all from Genevieve Foddy (née Czarnecki). The snark is all mine.

The indigenous language of the Val d’Aosta is not French. Any more than French is the indigenous language of Brittany, or Alsace, or Gascony.

The indigenous language of the Val d’Aosta was Franco-Provençal. Which was also the indigenous language of Suisse Romande, and Grenoble, and the rest of the erstwhile Duchy of Savoy. “Franco-Provençal” doesn’t sound like much of a name for a language, so locals now prefer to call it Arpitan. The Val d’Aosta is now where Franco-Provençal survives the strongest. And “the strongest” is not all that strong.

Franco-Provençal never got taken seriously as a language. (I mean, have you ever heard of it?) The Duchy of Savoy, in fact, adopted Paris French as its official language, even before France did. In 1536.

That means that Paris French was a Roofing Language (Dachsprache) for Franco-Provençal. Meaning, it was the Official Language that you file the local dialect under. A roofing language can give you some shelter: you can claim the superior status of the roofing language as your own. But it also stunts your growth: literary Franco-Provençal was never going to amount to anything but cute stories about dales and goats, because French was the “real” language of anything outside the shepherd’s hut.

The Val d’Aosta became part of Italy, Grenoble became part of France, and Suisse Romande had already got rid of its Arpitan at the time of Napoleon. The Valdôtains protested they were French, but they were swamped by migrants from the Piedmont, and their dialect was on the retreat.

Before Mussolini. But of course, it was Mussolini that made martyrs of the Francophone Valdostans, such as Émile Chanoux.

Fast forward to the end of WWII. De Gaulle is doing some sabre-rattling on the French–Italian border. To smooth things over, Italy grants the Val d’Aosta autonomy.

Autonomy from Rome pays off bigtime economically. The Valdôtains achieve the highest standard of living in Italy. Which attracts a lot of migrants from elsewhere in Italy again—this time, from the poor South.

Like I said, Franco-Provençal is not doing that well: it’s steadily retreating. There may be revival efforts, but if you’re not in Palestine 1910, revival efforts seldom reverse language loss.

Franco-Provençal, once again, is not French. But Franco-Provençal is also not an Ausbausprache—an Official Language of the kind you can put in forms and legal documents and books. French is.

And the Valdôtains, dammit, are Savoyards. People who belong to the glorious lineage of the French-Speaking Nations.

So they learn French at school. Because they sure as hell don’t speak it at home.

And they get all their government forms in French as well as Italian.

And most of them, in reality, don’t speak anything but Italian. Some of them will speak Franco-Provençal in the villages, some of the time.

But remember: French is what makes them distinct, French is what makes them autonomous, French is what makes them part of la Francophonie. If it was just some mountain gibberish dialect that they spoke, halfway between French and Tuscan, well, Italy is full of those.

(Remember: the snark is all mine, not Genevieve’s.)

So, this is how the scenario plays out for Eustace-Marie de Valdôtain-Courmayeur, born and bred in the Vallé d’Aoste, pronounced [vale dɔst], sacré, not [daɔst].

(In Franco-Provençal it’s actually Vâl d’Outa, but remember: French. Because: French.)

  • We Valdôtains are Savoyards.
  • That makes us members of the glorious lineage of the French-Speaking Nations, who adopted French before Paris did.
  • We speak French, and that makes us autonomous from Rome.
  • The fact that noone in my family has spoken Franco-Provençal in three generations is irrelevant.
  • The fact that I only learned French in school is irrelevant.
  • The fact that I always fill out the Italian forms down at the town hall, and not the French forms, is irrelevant.
  • We speak French. And those southern migrants don’t. Because we are true Valdôtains.

Meanwhile, this is how the scenario plays out for Salvatore Mangia-Foccaccia, who has moved here from Reggio di Calabria.

  • The streets of Aosta are paved with gold.
  • The streets are paved with gold, because the Valle d’Aosta (pronounced [daosta], porca miseria, not [dɔst]) speaks French.
  • Any actual French they speak here, they learned at school.
  • … Hey hang on! I learned French at school!
  • Sure, Vive l’Aoste libre! Works for me just fine!

OP, this doesn’t really answer your question, but it is a warning to look at the claims carefully. It’s Arpitan, not French (hence the “distinctive features”), and the locals are motivated to exaggerate how much non-Italian Romance they speak. Arpitan is a second language in the revival now; but so is French.

I wish Arpitan well, as I wish all minority languages well. But Arpitan in the Val d’Aosta is not going to grow if it keeps calling itself French…

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