Aranese and the Val d’Aran.

Back in 2013 we discussed Aranese pretty much in the abstract, the post being based on Norman Davies’s ill-informed and misleading description of it as “a unique language that mixes Basque and neo-Latin elements”; Richard Collett has a nice piece at BBC Travel that describes both its history and its place in today’s world:

Borders are supposed to be simple in the Pyrenees. On the southern side of the mountain range, you’re in Spain. On the northern side, you’re in France. Visit Val d’Aran, though, and geopolitics takes a more complicated turn. Val d’Aran is on the wrong side of the mountains. Geographically, this small mountain valley with its population of 10,000 people should be in France. But Val d’Aran is the only community within Spain’s contiguous borders that’s located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees.

Officially, Val d’Aran is within the administrative boundaries of Catalonia, but despite being caught between larger kingdoms and nation-states for centuries, Val d’Aran has never surrendered its local identity. Key to that local identity is the Aranese language, which alongside Catalan and Spanish, is officially recognised as the third language of Catalonia. […]

Aranese is a distinct dialect of the Occitan language, which, in its medieval heyday, was spoken from the Pyrenees to Piedmont, located in what is now northern Italy. “This was the territory of the Occitan language,” Sans Socasau said proudly, pointing at a historical map. “And it was the territory of the Troubadours.” […] In Val d’Aran, the Occitan language survived as Aranese, and government figures suggest that around 4,000 Val d’Aran residents – about 40% of the population – can read, write and speak Aranese. Despite being suppressed most recently during the Francisco Franco regime, which lasted until the dictator’s death in 1975, Aranese received official recognition when Val d’Aran was granted autonomy by the Catalonian government in 1991. And in 2010, Aranese was proclaimed to be co-official alongside Spanish and Catalan, not just in Val d’Aran, but everywhere in Catalonia.

School children in Val d’Aran study in Aranese; there’s a wealth of Aranese literature and articles; and radio shows and news programmes are broadcast in the language. “The language still lives here, in our valley,” said Sans Socasau, whose daughter tours across Europe singing and songwriting solely in the Aranese language. “And this is the only place where the language is protected, where it is official.” […]

Carla del Valle, an expert in medieval studies and director of the Musèu dera Val d’Aran, […] explained how Aranese has survived despite the influence of other languages, of which there are many in Val d’Aran. Del Valle, like most Aranese I met in the valley, is a polyglot. She joked how she spoke four and a half languages: Aranese, Catalan, Spanish, English and a bit of French. In the museum, information boards were written in three languages, Aranese, Catalan and Spanish. Displayed next to one another, the similarities and differences between the three Romance languages became more apparent. The most obvious difference was in the prepositions. For example, the phrase “Artistic Legacy” was written in Spanish as “El Legado Artistico”. In Catalan, this became “El Llegat Artistic”, while in Aranese, it was “Eth Legat Artistic”. […]

“Not enough people speak Aranese,” Sans Socasau said. “Only around 20% of people in Val d’Aran speak the language regularly, at home. The language is in danger, and in 20 or 30 years, it might not even exist.” Del Valle sees things differently. Even if she speaks Spanish or Catalan as a way to communicate with tourists or newcomers, she also speaks Aranese at work, and she knows the second generation of migrant families settling in Val d’Aran all learn and are taught in Aranese at school. Indeed, the government estimates that around 80% of people who live in the valley understand Aranese, even if they don’t always speak it.

“If you talk to the president of the Aranese language society,” del Valle told me, “he will say that Aranese is about to die. But Aranese is an official language in all of Catalonia. That gives our language some power, and even though we might speak Catalan or Spanish in the valley to understand each other, I don’t think Aranese is in danger, at least not anytime soon.”

There’s a lot more about the region and its history at the link, as well as some gorgeous photos. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Another piece of Spain on the ‘wrong’ side of the Pyrenees. This seems to be Catalan-speaking.

    (Note the weasel words “contiguous borders”. Llivia is an exclave. Also there’s Andorra sitting on the border.)

  2. Thanks, that was entertaining and educational! (Also: words matter!)

  3. Etienne says

    Another set of weasel words: “Occitan language”. Aranese is unequivocally a dialect of the Gascon language, and the case for treating Gascon as separate from Occitan is just as good, if not indeed better, than treating Catalan itself as a separate language from Occitan. But I could see that for the Aranese, whose language today is at the bottom of the linguistic pecking order in the area, claiming themselves as the linguistic heirs of a once-prestigious, trans-regional language of literature (i.e. Old Occitan, as opposed to Gascon) must seem a cheap enough way to boost the prestige of Aranese, including (perhaps especially) among its native speakers.

    Also, the name “Garona” is odd: the river is normally known in English (quoth Wikipedia) as the “Garonne”. Is this a slip on the author’s part, or is this part of the trend of using the native form of a place-name (city, province, river…) wherever possible?

    Finally, whatever form of its name we care to use, it is noticeable that Aranese is spoken at the source of this river: intriguingly, another small Romance language, Romansh, is spoken at the source of the Rhine (there is a partial causal link, of course: at its source a river is quite impossible to use for navigation, and as a result human settlement close to the point of origin of even major rivers are isolated in a way that would seem impossible to river-dwellers who live further enough downstream, where the river can be used for navigation, and indeed has been so used for centuries if not millennia).

  4. Is this a slip on the author’s part, or is this part of the trend of using the native form of a place-name (city, province, river…) wherever possible?

    I would guess the latter. I have mixed feelings about that trend, which becomes sillier the more well-established the traditional English form is.

  5. Garonne “a length of 529 km (329 mi),[3] of which 47 km (29 mi) is in Spain (Val d’Aran); the total length extends to 602 km (374 mi) if one includes the Gironde estuary between the river and the sea. ”

    How’s it called at the French end near the Pyrenees? In Toulouse, for example, “region of Occitanie”.

    Yes far better known to this English-speaker (and holiday-maker in the Dordogne region) at the Boulogne/Gironde end as “Gironne”.

  6. Gironne/”Garonne”.

    How’s it called … near the Pyrenees?

    I guess they’ll pronounce the trailing ‘e’. Just as with the trailing ‘e’ in “vingt”, in the Dordogne.

    (I remember the grandmother at the farm of the gite we stayed in, as she pressed shots of illicit hooch on us to give us ‘courage’ for the drive back to Blighty. “Ce ne pas contre la loi, c’est à côté de la loi.” This was the opposite of helpful with tackling the autoroute.)

  7. “especially in prepositions”, followed by an example without a single preposition. Gotta love it.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    It looks to me like Julienne Rose has edited a longer text mentioning the article eth (the example) and prepositions (no example / examples deleted). Here is a quick view of preposition differences based on section 5 of the linked grammar below:
    en = Fr. dans/en, Cast. en
    per = Fr. par / pour, Cast. por / para
    damb = Fr. avec, Cast. con
    enquia = Fr. environ, Cast. acerca
    Cast. a, Fr. a = Ar. a / (en)tà

    Maybe to Fr/Cast speakers damb and enquia sound exotic, and the splitting of a seems arbitrary.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Is this a slip on the author’s part, or is this part of the trend of using the native form of a place-name (city, province, river…) wherever possible?

    In order to mark how well-travelled and well-informed they are, intellectuals from New Amsterdam like to do this, also well-paid actors from El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles.

  10. I suspect PlasticPaddy is right and the text has been edited to produce absurdity. I apologize on behalf of my former profession.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    That’s [sich] fremdschämen, aka cringe ! It was big here for a season, but has done gone passé. Do try to keep up !

    [Spoiler: the article discusses the phenomenon with soporific German Gründlichkeit, which enhances the fun. From Citizen Kane’s girlfriend to brain scans.]

  12. Peter Erwin says

    also well-paid actors from El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles

    You mean El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles sobre el Río Porciúncula, of course.

  13. The discussion of the use of a local name for the Garonne set me musing about the related problem of how to refer to entities that are important enough to have proper names in other languages, but which do not have such names in English. In the course of these ruminations, I coincidentally happened upon a link to the English Wikipedia page for “Peaceful Revolution”—which is not, as one might expect, about nonviolent revolutions in general. The page is actually specifically about the revolutionary events that began in Germany in 1989. However, I don’t think I have ever heard anybody refer to those events as a “peaceful revolution” except has a purely descriptive term. The whole sequence of events has a name in German: “Die Wende”; and that’s how I refer to it, even in English, since in my mind that is its proper name. The Wikipedia article seems to be trying to give an equivalent proper name in English, but I don’t think such a proper name exists—not for the whole extended process of protests, reform, and reunification. Instead, in English, people who do not also speak German tend to refer to the entire sequence of events metonymically by mentioning one of the two most salient occurrences, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the reunification of Germany.

  14. Wende
    Tangential to Brett’s point, but I never liked that designation and try to avoid using it. For me the word is associated with the geistig-moralische Wende (“mental and moral turnaround”) Kohl announced when he became Chancellor in 1982; basically an assortment of conservative Thatcher/Reagan-lite policies. These were mostly referred to, often satirically / ironically, as die Wende, and that spoilt the word for me, as a word that’s not adequate to the importance and significance of the 1989/90 events.

  15. “Peaceful Revolution” is a really stupid name for that page — nobody calls it that! — and if I hadn’t lost my (always minimal) appetite for Wikiwars, I’d be talkin’ on the Talk page.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    I would agree that no one (in my experience) calls it that in English. The German wiki page begins with what seem to be four different naming options (“Als Wende oder friedliche Revolution in der DDR (auch Wendezeit oder Zusammenbruch der DDR) …”) but I have no sense of how common “friedliche Revolution” is in practice and in particular if you will be understood utter that phrase “cold” without previous context in the discourse indicating that you’re talking about the 1989ish time period. I suppose one could come up with more polemical alternatives, like “die Befreiung der Sowjetzone.” Or I suppose “die Sowjetzonebefreiung” might be a perfectly cromulent compound noun?

  17. Brett nails it: “in English, people who do not also speak German tend to refer to the entire sequence of events metonymically by mentioning one of the two most salient occurrences, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the reunification of Germany.” There is no other, more general term, no matter how much one thinks there should be. Stop trying to make “fetch” happen!

  18. I have no sense of how common “friedliche Revolution” is in practice and in particular if you will be understood utter that phrase “cold” without previous context in the discourse indicating that you’re talking about the 1989ish time period.
    You wouldn’t be understood in that case, at least if you don’t add “in der DDR“. The unambiguous one-word terms would be Wende (as much as I hate that term), or metonymically Mauerfall or Wiedervereinigung.

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    For a second I thought “Mean Girls” had been directed by John, not Mark Waters. A missed opportunity for a rather different film?

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    Günter Grass (I think) referred to an Anschluss, but for some reason, that did not catch on.

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    We have Catalan friends with a house in Canejan, in the Val d’Aran but almost in France, which we have stayed in. According to them, and I have no more authoritative source, Aranese survived Franco’s efforts to suppress it on account of its geographical isolation. Before the tunnel was opened, it was inaccessible from the rest of Spain during the winter months. It was easily accessible from France, but the French authorities didn’t care what people spoke in the Val d’Aran. I found the information signs reasonably easy to understand. (I’m not sure if I heard it spoken, but I would probably have found it more difficult than Catalan.) The word “eth” is a dead giveaway that some text is in Aranese.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    The unambiguous one-word terms would be Wende (as much as I hate that term)

    There’s much to hate. It makes me think: why not go full-on soppy Heidegger with Kehre ?

  23. @PP: Yes, well, Grass was a good writer, but his politics often were the kind of intellectual left-wingery that professes to have the people’s best interests at heart but accepts their choices only when they coincide with the intellectual’s ideological preferences.
    @Stu: Too Southern for me; that noun is only in my passive vocabulary.

  24. David Marjanović says

    These were mostly referred to, often satirically / ironically, as die Wende

    Funnily enough, Austria’s conservatives took it up to refer to their coalition with the xenophobes in 2000 and were mighty proud of it.

  25. Makes me think of Stalin’s Great Break (Великий перелом).

  26. Lars Mathiesen says

    Anschluss: I’ve used that talking to a German when I forgot the other word, and the reaction was more “it sort of was but we don’t call it that” than “it was totally not the same thing.” FWIW.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    That was when East Germany officially became an Anschlußlicht.

  28. I also normally refer to the former East Germany as “the Zone” (English) or “die Zone” (Deutsch). I think I picked this up from interviews I heard with Germans during the early stages of der Wende, though it was confirmed by a friend whose mother was German. I remember my high school German teacher, just a couple years after reunification, being surprised when I referred to “die Zone” in class. He looked taken aback, then gave me a funny look, then let the whole thing pass without further comment. Ironically, the only students at the school who had actually grown up in Germany were former Ossis from Berlin, so they didn’t refer to the DDR that way.

  29. Short for “the Soviet Zone,” I presume.

  30. Stu Clayton says


  31. Non-native speaker should be cautious about using words like Anschluss or die Zone; they’re not neutral and have their political implications. Anschluss either implies that the people of Eastern Germany were forced or duped into reunification (a view popular among certain left-wing circles who can’t imagine that anyone would want to turn their back on a Socialist Workers’ paradise) or that they got a raw deal out of the implementation (a view held more widely, also among many Eastern Germans). During the years when Germany was divided, (Ost)Zone was the designation preferred by conservatives who didn’t want to give the DDR the recognition of calling the area DDR. After unification, it became a rather mocking or humorous designation, and Zoni “inhabitant of the Zone” even more so. It can be used by Easterners in a firm of humour that is self-deprecating or dismissing the former regime, but it’s used more often by Westerners in a spirit of “they’re all stupid over there / don’t know how life works and whine all the time / when do we finally get the wall back”. So, be careful when using these words.

  32. Thanks for those useful explanations.

  33. David Marjanović says


    Gregor Gysi had the best wording: Es war ein Beitritt der DDR zur Bundesrepublik – it joined Germany the way countries join the EU; not as a symmetric unification*, but not the way Austria joined Germany in 1938 either.

    * Germany’s constitution still isn’t called Verfassung “constitution”, but the unique term Grundgesetz “basic/fundamental law”, because it was planned that a permanent “constitution” would emerge after unification… though it’s a perfectly fine constitution in practice.

  34. Trond Engen says

    I’m not sure about that. The Norw. grunnlov “constitution” has been called Kongeriget Norges Grundlov et sim. since it was signed in 1814. In the early years Grundlov and Constitution may have been used interchangeably as a generic term, but not for a long time now.

  35. @Hans: Yeah, I probably should have said that calling it “die Zone” was very much about denying the legitimacy of the DDR. Moreover, I would never use Zoni, which is just an epithet—and an epithet that I, as a non-German, have absolutely no business using.

    @David Marjanović, Trond Engen: We previously discussed non-“Constitution” constitutions, in the Bundesrepublik and elsewhere.

  36. Beginning (pretty much) with John Cowan’s 11:52 am comment.

  37. Lars Mathiesen says

    Denmark has a grundlov as well, but we use forfatning to speak about the constitutions of other countries. Sweden’s författning consists of five separate grundlagar, for historical reasons — I think that qua grundlagar all five are specially protected and can only be changed by parliamentary supermajorities combined with plebiscites, but I don’t know in which of them that is stated.

  38. “basic/fundamental law”, because it was planned that a permanent “constitution” would emerge …

    Hong Kong similarly has ‘Basic Law’, intended to bridge the period of ‘One Country Two Systems’.

    Hong Kong would continue its capitalist system and way of life until 2047.

    Yeah, right.

  39. I remember watching live news coverage of some of the immense public celebrations in Hong Kong in the summer of 1997, when the province was ceded back to China. I thought the celebrants were being hopelessly naive. (It did make me wonder whether the people of Hong Kong would have been more wary of their rights under CCP rule if Hong Kong had been freer* under the British to begin with. I recall reading a story about the power transfer in one of the major news magazines** that July, with the sub-hed: “The least free part of the British Empire is now the freest part of China.”)

    * The spelling of “freer” was discussed at Language Log a couple years ago.

    Also, in chapter IV of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, the Christom [sic.] religious leader in Erl is introduced under the title “the Freer”:

    Thence Alveric and Lirazel went to the holy place of the Freer. And when they found him Alveric asked the Freer to wed them with Christom rites. And when the Freer saw the beauty of Lirazel flash mid the common things in his little holy place, for he had ornamented the walls of his house with knick-knacks that he sometimes bought at the fairs, he feared at once she was of no mortal line. And, when he asked her whence she came and she happily answered “Elfland,” the good man clasped his hands and told her earnestly how all in that land dwelt beyond salvation. But she smiled, for while in Elfland she had always been idly happy, and now she only cared for Alveric. The Freer went then to his books to see what should be done.

    For a long while he read in silence but for his breathing, while Alveric and Lirazel stood before him. And at last he found in his book a form of service for the wedding of a mermaid that had forsaken the sea, though the good book told not of Elfland. And this he said would suffice, for that the mermaids dwelt equally with the elf-folk beyond thought of salvation. So he sent for his bell and such tapers as are necessary. Then, turning to Lirazel, he bade her forsake and forswear and solemnly to renounce all things pertaining to Elfland, reading slowly out of a book the words to be used on this wholesome occasion.

    “Good Freer,” Lirazel answered, “nought said in these fields can cross the barrier of Elfland. And well that this is so, for my father has three runes that could blast this book when he answered one of its spells, were any word able to pass through the frontier of twilight. I will spell no spells with my father.”

    “But I cannot wed Christom man,” the Freer replied,” with one of the stubborn who dwell beyond salvation.”

    These misspellings are part of the Dunsany’s pattern of play around the idea of whether “the fields we know” are really our own world or not.

    ** There were three wide-circulation, profitable news magazines published in America a quarter century ago. Can you believe it?

  40. John Cowan says

    Es war ein Beitritt der DDR zur Bundesrepublik

    That’s accession in English, a word with a complex political history. Originally, sovereign states acceded to a confederacy, by which they retained full sovereignty but agreed to limited forms of cooperation. Later on, it took on the technical sense of signing a treaty in whose negotiations a state had not participated, and this is the sense in which states accede to the EU (technically, the ten or so treaties that constitute it).

    As far as I can tell, the sense ‘agreement to be absorbed by another state’ first arises in connection with the 565 princely states of the Indian subcontinent which had neither been conquered nor annexed by the East India Company or its successor, the U.K. government. When India and Pakistan were granted self-governing dominion status in 1947, the princely states could not be partitioned in the same way, as they were not British territory. Instead, each prince was issued an Instrument of Accession indicating that prince’s irrevocable intent to join India or Pakistan as the case might be.

    Most of the accessions went smoothly with no more than the usual amount of bribery and coercion customary on such occasions, with two major exceptions. Hyderabad State was the largest and wealthiest of the princely states, it was a mostly Muslim polity in the middle of South India, and the Nizam decided to sign neither version of the instrument in order to play both sides against each other. However, a great deal of Hyderabad, specifically Telangana (the Telugu-speaking part), is under the control of a Communist insurgency that has booted the local aristos out and is doing a far better job of governance than they ever did. So Nehru decides to invade, hoping to crush both the Communists and the Nizam, which he manages to do fairly easily. Hyderabad was fragmented in the 1950s along linguistic lines like most of South India, merging Telangana with Telugu-speaking Andhra State to its northeast, a merger that was undone in 2014. The other case, of course, was Jammu and Kashmir, where the ruler acceded to India, with Pakistan claiming he had done so under duress and the accession was invalid.

    (Similarly, India conquered Goa in 1961 despite the indisputable Portuguese talking points that Goa predates the Company Raj and therefore India as the successor state has no title to it, and that it is an external part of Portugal and not a colony.)

  41. the immense public celebrations in Hong Kong in the summer of 1997,

    I remember those as the formal handover ceremonies, with a fireworks show thrown in. “celebrations”? I don’t think so. HK’ers would always enjoy a fireworks show.

    Are you sure the “celebrants” were HK’ers? Or bussed-in Mainlander rent-a-crowd?

    I was working in HK late ’80’s/early ’90’s, when Margaret Thatcher was selling them down the river/’Fat Pan’ (Chris Patten) was going about trying to be popular/pretending he’d been elected. Nobody was celebrating/everybody was well aware of the freedoms they’d be losing. Those who could were desperately trying to get Residency in any English-speaking country (Australia was popular) — not because they wanted to live there, but as a bolt-hole.

  42. @John Cowan: Arguably, Nepal and Bhutan are princely states that never acceded to become part of India. Their physical locations, far north and high up, meant that they were less under British control that most of the states; their situations were somewhat similar to that of Jammu and Kashmir (nor coincidentally, another northerly state)—in that many of the governmental functions that had been completely taken over by the British in most of the princely states were still in local hands.

    In Jammu and Kashmir, the maharaja, Hari Singh, dragged his feet about the accession question, and the state didn’t actually join India until October, 1947, a couple months after Indian independence. Undoubtedly, he was under a lot of pressure from various interests as he made the decision. However, although his realm had a substantial Muslim majority, Singh was a Hindu, and that may have been what ultimately prompted him to decide to join India.

    @AntC: Of course, I have no way of knowing how authentic the festivities were in Hong Kong that summer. However, I did know several students from Hong Kong who were also at MIT in 1997, and their responses were mixed. At least one was thoroughly in favor of the handover, while I remember another one who was much more concerned about whether the freedoms she had grown up with would survive. (This was not out of line with the range of opinions I also heard from Taiwanese students about their own country’s relationship with communist mainland China. The Taiwanese community on campus was split between two different students organizations over the issue—which is something I was alluding to here.)

  43. Gregor Gysi had the best wording: Es war ein Beitritt der DDR zur Bundesrepublik
    Which is, AFAIK, also how constitutional law views it – no wonder, Gysi is a lawyer after all.

  44. Rodger C says


    In English “Zonie” is a not-very-nice word for an Anglo-American raised in the erstwhile Panama Canal Zone, like the late Senator McCain. They regarded themselves as archetypal Americans but were in fact, of course, very peculiar. Having been stationed there in 1970-71, I’m pretty sure that this is where McCain got his notion that typical Americans were as militaristic as he was.

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