The name for the language of the troubadours

The name for the language of the troubadours

‘You should know that French is better and more suitable for writing romances, retronxas, and pastorelles, but Limousin is best for cansos, sirventes, and verses. And for all the other varieties of our language, songs in Limousin have more authority than any other.’ (Ramon Vidal de Besalú, Razos de trobar, BdC, ms. 239, f. 25r)  

When we talk about the poetic language of the troubadours we usually refer to it as old or medieval ‘Occitan’. However, this term does not apply exclusively to their language, and nor is this language limited to just the poetic tradition: there are older witnesses as well as letters and administrative documents that are considered Occitan. Furthermore, the troubadours themselves never used this name.  Guilhem de Peitieu, the earliest known troubadour, called his language ‘romans’ (‘vernacular’); whereas east of the Rhône, in the territories of the old county of Provence, the language was given the name ‘proensal’ (‘Provencal’, ‘of Provence’), which led to the adoption of this term by extension or because the inhabitants of southern Gaul were considered ‘proensals’ in contrast to those in northern France, who were French (Paden 1998: 3). For his part, the Catalan Ramon Vidal de Besalú, in his Razos de trobar, chose the term ‘llemosí’ (‘Limousin’, ‘of Limoges’) for the language of the troubadours, even though he himself recognised that with this denomination he was including the poetic language of a much larger region (Bec 1992: 13; Bec 1997: 78).

We have seen that the same language has been called many different things over time; but how did the name ‘Occitan’ that we use today come about? Towards the end of the 13th century, in certain administrative documents written in Latin, we find the term ‘lingua de oc’, although it would appear that it was being used to refer not to the language but to the region where the language was spoken (understanding ‘lingua’ in the medieval sense of ‘nation’). Then, in the early 14th century, we come across the Latin expression ‘lingua occitana’, following the model of ‘lingua aquitana’ (from the region of Aquitaine), which was also used to refer to a region. Perhaps inspired by this nomenclature, in his treatise De vulgari eloquentia Dante formulated the famous distinction between the ‘oïl’ language (‘lingua d’oïl’), the ‘òc’ language (‘lingua d’oc’), and the ‘sí’ language (‘lingua de si’) —French, Occitan, and Italian, respectively— based on the languages’ word for the affirmative particle ‘yes’. The Occitan form ‘lenga d’oc’ was first recorded in 1323, although we do not know whether this referred to the region (thereafter Languedoc) or the language. The neologism ‘Occitan’, however, is even later: it appears under the French forms ‘occitanique’ and ‘occitanien’ in works published in the early 19th century, and is included by Frederic Mistral in his dictionary Lou Tresor dóu Felibrige (1885), as ‘óucitan’, ‘ouccitan’. Over time it was gradually adopted by scholars and specialists, keen to avoid the confusion surrounding the more commonly used ‘Provençal’ which is also the name of one of the constituent dialects (Paden 1998: 4).

Although the term ‘Occitan’ is the one most commonly used nowadays, in some historiographical traditions, especially in Italy, they still use ‘Provençal’ to refer to the language and culture of the troubadours. Two other terms, on the other hand, are now no longer used at all: ‘roman’ (‘Romance’), proposed by Raynouard in the early 19th century, and ‘raymondine’, after the Raymonds who were counts of Toulouse, used on several occasions by the poet Pèire Godolin (Bec 1995: 79).

M. Victoria Rodríguez Winiarski and Ivan Vera (2019)



  • 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.
  • Bec, Pierre (1992), «Constitution d’un occitan littéraire et véhiculaire», Écrits sur les troubadours et la lyrique médiévale (1961-1991). Orléans: Paradigme.
  • Paden, William (1998), An Introduction to Old Occitan. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
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