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What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

On July 31st 2015, Cambridge University played host to its 5th Conference on Language Endangerment. Now a regular conference series, this year’s theme focused on new speakers of endangered minority languages.

Among the numerous interesting parallels that emerged between the papers during the conference was the issue of what new speakers label their language practices. For example, Nunes (Macau University) spoke about new speakers of Makista – a severely endangered language of Macao – where speakers native and new refer to it simply as [məˈkiʃtə], or, more commonly, [paˈtwa]. 

Conversely, Ferreira (CIDLeS) spoke about new speakers of Minderico – an in-group sociolect used by merchants of Minde; later becoming a regional variety – which, like their native speaker reference group, they refer too simply as [mĩnˈdʀiku]. However, issues of language ownership and authenticity abound in this context (a topic discussed in my previous blog post), and native speakers see the new speaker variety as different to their own, labelling it instead ‘modern Minderico’.

While these differing labels (or ‘glottonyms’) might seem insignificant on the surface, language denomination in fact plays a very important role in the process of identity construction, for the label assigned to a given variety is good indication of how that variety is perceived by the speech community.

Moreover, in a series of publications focusing specifically on language denomination, it has been established that the motivations involved in ascribing names to linguistic practices can be strikingly ideological (cf. Tabouret-Keller 1997; Adamou 2008; de Féral 2009).

The case of Francoprovençal

Take for example the context of Francoprovençal: the label first used by the linguist Ascoli (1878) to refer to a traditionally disputed grouping of Romance varieties spoken in parts of France, Switzerland and Italy. Owing to a long-standing debate over the status and linguistic borders associated with Francoprovençal, this is not the only label that has been proposed, and other include: Die Mittelrhônischen; rhodanien; français du sud-est; le lyonnais; bourgondien.

However, this debate among linguists has tended not to included traditional native speakers, who have never consciously embraced membership in a unified linguistic unit, and who have only ever referred their language as ‘patois’ (Sériot 1997: 183).

Recognising that ‘patois’ is in no way geographically locatable, and given the confusing nature of the label ‘Francoprovençal’ (which suggests some sort of French/Provençal hybrid, rather than a discrete and coherent linguistic unit), some new speakers have now adopted the alternative label ‘Arpitan’.

Arpitan, which is now very prominent on the Internet (where it has supplanted ‘Francoprovençal’ on Ethnologue), is a very good example of a glottonym derived for largely ideological purposes.

The label ‘Arpitan’ is derived from the mouvement Harpitanie – a 1970s Marxist group from the Aosta Valley. This group recognised a specific ethnic identity in the Francoprovençal region, and has militated in the past for the ‘unification’ of all Francoprovençal dialects:

la langue ethnique […] de la région […] est la langue franco-provençale qui […] existe sous forme de nombreux parlers, appelés […] patois ou dialectes. L’unification de ces parlers sera le but du mouvement […] La défense donc […] du peuple harpitan, signifie nécessairement la réanimation du franco-provençal […] De la fusion entre les langues valdôtaine, savoyarde, valaisanne, susienne […], sortira une langue « nouvelle » : la LANGUE HARPITANE [emphasis in original] (Harriet 1975: 66).

[The language […] of the region […] is Francoprovençal which […] exists in the form of a number of different varieties called […] ‘patois’ or dialects. The unification of these varieties will be the aim of the movement […] the defense of […] the Harpitan people therefore necessarily requires the revitalization of Francoprovençal […] From the unification of these varieties […] a ‘new’ language will emerge: the HARPITAN LANGUAGE].

The root arp- is itself ideologically loaded and anchored in a historical context: meaning ‘alpine pasture’, it is a common root form for many toponyms that surround the Mont Blanc region – a Francoprovençal heartland.

Secondly, there are clear parallels between ‘Arpitan’ and ‘Occitan’, perhaps because the language activists most clearly linked to the movement that propagates the Arpitan label wish to emulate Occitan’s success in revitalisation.

However, while ‘Arpitan’ appears to be making ground online, a recent sociolinguistic study (Kasstan in press) to appear this year in the 4th volume on language denomination (Éloy in press) reports very little up-take of this label among the native speaker communities, confirming findings from an earlier study using self-reported survey data (see Costa 2011).

It is clear, then, that the naming and renaming of linguistic practices is far from insignificant, and instead can suggest an interplay between a number of social processes involving the demarcation of boundaries, and identity construction.

We have even suggested briefly above that new speakers can in some cases reclaim a language, and repackage it as they see fit.



Adamou, Evangelia. (ed.) 2008. Le nom des langues II: Le patrimoine plurilingue de la Grèce. Leuven: Peeters.

Ascoli, Graziadio Isaia. 1878. ‘Schizzi franco-provenzali’, Archivio Glottologico Italiano, 3 (1), pp. 61-120.

Costa, James. 2011. ‘Patois, gaga, savoyard, francoprovençal, arpitan…Quel nom pour une langue ?’ Langue et cité, 6, p. 6.

De Féral, Carole. (ed.) 2009. Le nom des langues III: Le nom des langues en Afrique sub-saharienne: pratiques, dénominations, catégorisations. Leuven: Peeters.

Éloy, Jean-Michel. (ed.) in press. Le nom des langues IV: Le nom des langues romanes. Leuven: Peeters.

Harriet, J. 1975. Sur le « patois » et son processus pour devenir une langue de culture populaire : la langue valdotaine. In: J. Harriet (ed.), Ehtudio su la kuestion Harpitanha. Aosta Valley: Tipo Offset Musumeci, pp. 65-67.

Kasstan, Jonathan R. in press. Denomination and the ‘problem’ of Francoprovençal. In: Jean-Michel Éloy (ed.), Le nom des langues IV: Le nom des langues romanes. Leuven: Peeters.

Sériot, Patrick. 1997. Faut-il que les langues aient un nom ? Le cas du Macédonien. In: Andrée Tabouret-Keller (ed.), Le nom des langues I: Les enjeux de la nomination des langues. Leuven: Peeters, pp. 167-190.

Tabouret-Keller, Andrée. (ed.) 1997. Le nom des langues I: Les enjeux de la nomination des langues. Leuven: Peeters.

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