I’m still reading Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (see this post), and it’s so good that when we finished the latest Wodehouse novel and my wife was still awake, she asked me to read some of the Robb (which I was reading for myself), and she liked it so much that it’s become our nightly reading. I’ll quote some excerpts relating to language; from Chapter 3:
The paysans had no flags or written histories, but they expressed their local patriotism in much the same way as nations: by denigrating their neighbors and celebrating their own nobility.
The vast and vulgar repertoire of village nicknames is the best surviving evidence of this sub-national pride. A few flattering names have been officially adopted, like Colombey-les-Belles — now said to refer to the local women but perhaps originally applied to cows. But if all the nicknames had been adopted, the map of France would now be covered with obscenities and incomprehensible jokes. In one small part of Lorraine, there were the ‘wolves’ of Lupcourt, whose local saint was Saint Loup, the ‘greencoats’ of Remereville, whose tailor had once produced a batch of jackets in green cloth that never wore out, and the ‘big pockets’ of Saint-Remimont, whose tailor cut his coats much longer than anyone else. There were the ‘shit-arses’ (culs crottés) of Moncel-sur-Seuille, whose mud was unusually clingy, the ‘hoity-toitys’ (haut-la-queue) of Art-sur-Meurthe, who lived near the big city of Nancy, and the ‘sleepers’ of Buissoncourt-en-France, who dug a mighty moat around their village and lived in happy seclusion behind a drawbridge.
And from Chapter 4 (which has an amazing map of languages and dialects on pages 58-59):
The dormancy of the local language could create the impression — often a false impression — that it was disappearing. For the last hundred and fifty years, examples of ‘pure’ patois have been collected from people invariably described as ‘old’, as if a separate, senescent species somehow propagates itself and its language without ever growing young. Generation after generation, countless people said the same thing: that the old language was spoken only by the old people. A woman in the small Alsatian town of Thann told me this (in French) in 2004. She was probably born in the early 1970s. It turned out, however, that when she talked to her little daughter at home, she used Alsatian. The younger woman who was with her was introduced — and introduced herself — as an example of the generation that has almost forgotten the language and will see the last speakers of it die away. Yet she, too, spoke Alsatian with her mother and grandmother. She also took many of her school classes in Alsatian. She could easily have told me in Alsatian that Alsatian was dying out.