A troubadour literary koiné?

A troubadour literary koiné?

One of the questions that generates a certain amount of debate in troubadour studies is the existence of a literary koiné: a common literary language, different from the spoken one, that the troubadours used in a more or less deliberate way when writing their poetry and that then came to be adopted for writing poetry in other regions, like Italy and Catalonia. Scholars today have still not reached an agreement on this issue.

Map of the Occitan language at the end of the 12th century. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ancien_occitan.png

On the one hand, it is accepted that the common traits of the language of the troubadours cannot be identified with a single medieval Occitan dialect area, but rather that the influence of several discrete varieties can be detected. These cannot always be justified by the author's or copyist's place of origin (Paden 1998: 4). On the other hand, it has proved impossible to determine with certainty either the causes of these common traits within the evolution of this language or the level of awareness of the troubadours when using it (Meliga 2005: 34–35). It is therefore difficult to establish whether or not we are dealing with a koiné, in particular for the earliest troubadours. It is important to remember that we are talking about a poetic output that evolved over more than two centuries, with its first written witnesses coming later and, in most cases, copied somewhere other than where they were written (Italy, Catalonia, northern France). They are regions —and this is a crucial point— where the poetic language of the troubadours was different from the native language.

There are other factors that further complicate the debate: the troubadour period coincides with the time when vernacular languages are beginning to gain ground against Latin and are used more frequently for writing (as can be seen by the new output of administrative, legal, and literary texts in the vernacular). Indeed, the troubadours are key players in this change as it is they who, for the first time in Western Europe, use the vernacular to write poetry within an educated and fairly well-defined movement (Zumthor 1995: 15).

The first troubadours wrote in a linguistic variety that they called simply ‘lenga romana’ (‘vernacular language’) to contrast it with Latin, the literary language par excellence. To adapt their spoken language to writing and poetry they must have had a certain level of knowledge of Latin language and rhetoric, and perhaps also of the first examples of writing in the vernacular: translations of Latin works, religious texts, and epic poems. This situation only raises further questions. What was this primitive literary language like? Does it correspond to any of the varieties of Medieval Occitan, or is it a mix of several? Was it created specifically for poetry? Another factor makes it difficult to answer all these questions: Guilhem de Peitieu, the first troubadour part of whose work has survived, was probably not the first to write troubadour poetry. Perhaps that is why the poetic language that he used was not based on his mother tongue (from Poitiers), even though it has some similarities with it (Meliga 2005: 35).

However, it seems clear that the troubadours, right from the start, considered themselves part of a tradition and made a conscious effort to compose poems that could be recognised as belonging to it (Bec 1977: 85), by using not just thematic, metrical, and rhetorical elements, but also linguistic ones too. It is important to stress, at the same time, that this tradition had as its linguistic foundations elements from several language varieties of the region that today we refer to as Occitania, as well as some traits shared with other types of texts that originated in these territories (letters and administrative or legal documents). Is it therefore possible that we are dealing with a koiné?

If we consider the term koiné in the strict sense of a ‘language variety that emerges out of intense contact between dialects of a language, resulting, after a generation or so, in reduced dialectal differences and the elimination of vestigial irregularities and markedly local forms’ (Field 2006: 38), is it clear that this is not the case with Occitan because other non-literary texts contemporary with the first troubadours (like letters, legal documents or other literary texts) have sufficient dialectal traces to tie them to a specific location. Even if we reduce the existence of a koiné to the exclusive area of poetry, among the first extant pieces by the earliest troubadours, even though they were copied centuries later, we find sufficient dialectal differences to made us doubt the possibility that there was a koiné.

However, if we rule out the koiné theory, how do we account for those common elements that led Dante to recognise a ‘lingua d’oc’? And how do we explain the uniformity that we find in the songbooks? Remember that the first grammatical treatises on the language of the troubadours appear some time after the date of the first extant troubadour works, and that these treatises were written outside their linguistic domain and intended for a foreign readership who wanted to understand this language of prestige, and use it for their writing. Similarly, the majority of the songbooks were compiled outside the Occitan linguistic sphere, also with a significant chronological lag with respect to the poetry. This ‘standardisation’ is, then, much later than the earliest troubadours and can only have affected the latest troubadours. On the other hand, it had a crucial influence on the songbooks (Meliga 2005: 36).

So what was the language of the troubadours? One hypothesis is that it all began with a foundational linguistic form that the speakers of other language varieties imitated and adapted with relative facility (bearing in mind that linguistic variations were the norm rather than the exception at that time); this then led to a need for standardisation, thanks to the success of troubadour poetry outside the linguistic domain of the ‘oc’ dialects, thus generating a kind of koiné a posteriori (Chambon, 2012: 207), not created by the troubadours themselves but rather by their imitators and compilers. Researchers today are still trying to reach a consensus that is supported by the data, the problem being that this data can be interpreted in different ways, none of which to date has been able categorically to refute or corroborate the majority of current hypotheses.

Nonetheless, an increasing emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach to troubadour studies, as well as a consideration of medieval Occitan beyond this literary tradition, among other factors, have opened up other possibilities. In this respect we can detect a certain evolution within the troubadour koiné debate, in particular a tendency to regard the poetic language of the troubadours not as a koiné or as a concrete language created artificially for poetic expression, but rather to suggest that, from the outset, the poets composed their works, inspired by the linguistic form of the first troubadours (even earlier than Guilhem de Peitieu). It could be said that they were following a tradition without there being an agreement, much less a set of rules, regarding the use of a specific language, whereby they accepted the variants used by each troubadour in their evaluation of the piece as a more global artistic representation (Field 2006: 47–48). In short, the troubadours were imitating the language of the classics, following the fashions of the time, with influences from their mother-tongue dialect, and without there being a specific set of rules created on the basis of the common elements of all the linguistic varieties of the Occitan lands.

M. Victoria Rodríguez Winiarski (2019)

To see what some scholars think about the troubadour koiné question, follow this link.



  • Bec, Pèire (1995), La langue occitane (The 1st ed. is from 1963; there is a Catalan translation: La llengua occitana, Barcelona: Edicions 62, 1977). París: PUF.
  • Chambon, Jean-Pierre (2012): 'Développement et problèmes actuels des études occitanes', Revue de Linguistique Romane, T. 76Strasbourg: Société de linguistique romane. 
  • Field, Thomas (2006), 'Troubadour Performance and the Origins of the Occitan “Koine”', Tenso, V. 21, no. 1-2.
  • Meliga, Walter (2005), Philologie et linguistique de l’occitan médiéval, La voix occitane, Actes VIIIe Congrès de l’Association Internationale d’Études Occitanes (réunis et édités par Guy Latry), I. Bordeaux: Presses universitaires de Bordeaux.
  • Paden, William (1998), An Introduction to Old Occitan. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.  
  • Zumthor, P. (1995), 'An Overview: Why the Troubadours?', A Handbook of the Troubadours (edited by F.R.P. Akehurst and Judith M. Davis). Berkeley [etc.]: University of California Press.  
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