History of the Vigneron: Languages Part I: Patois de bourguignon

View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)

View of Paris by Pieter Casteels II (fl. 1673–1700)

A thousand years of patois

by Dean Alexander

It is ironic that history speaks so little about language, because other than extreme weather, the issues of communication, miscommunication, and the lack of communication, have likely shaped history more any other single factor. Indeed, these issues of communication are often difficult to pinpoint, and their consequences are often lost to history. However, this does not excuse histories which take slight note that on the eve of 1789’s French Revolution, eighty-eight percent of the population of France could not hold a conversation in French, or did not know any French at all (slmc.uottawa.ca). Nor is it sufficiently impressed that there were dozens of different patois spoken across France.

Tower of BabelMany histories gloss over the issue of language with no more than an occasional reference to ‘terms’ which were “in the patois of the region“. This leaves the impression that patois was no more that a colorful piece of slang, rather than itself being a distinct language or dialect. Such casual references do not convey any difficulty of communication within a population which had spoken an estimated six to seven hundred dialects (10th century), derived from three distinct mother tongues (slmc.uottawa.ca). Another (rather poor) estimate, was provided in a 1794 report by the revolutionary bishop of Blois, Henri Grégoire. He wrote that  with “thirty different patois, we are still, as far as language goes, at the Tower of Babel“.  That the bishop underestimated the number of dialects so grievously, suggests how little he really knew about these languages and the people who spoke them. Some modern scholars estimate there were as many as fourteen patois in Burgundy alone.

Whatever the number of patois, it is staggering that percentage of the population which did not speak French, and it invites a number of questions when considering the history of the vigneron. What was the history of language within Burgundy, and why was the French language so slow to be adopted there (and across the country)? How did the monarchy effectively overcome linguist differences? When did the français language arrive in the Côte d’Or, and what was its societal impact? What do we know about the regional Burgundian language; and lastly, does the Burgundian patois survive today? 

Note: for the remainder of this article, I will refer to the language of French by its French name, français. The primary reason for this is français was simply just one of many languages spoken in France.  A secondary reason for this spelling is all of the other language names have no English equivalent, it seems natural that the French language should be represented in the same format. I reserve the right to use the word ‘French’ to represent the language, when refers to its current day usage, or it allows me to avoid an awkward sentence construction. Also challenging was the decision whether or not to capitalize all of the languages and titles. In English we capitalize everything, but not-so-much in French. I opted for the later if the term was in français, but I did capitalize if it was an English usage. I’m sure I did plenty wrong on this account. Editing is not a strength of mine.

Part three of this article will deal with the development and history of français – it is integral to the French story, but secondary to the story of Burgundy. 


Language and the Côte d’Or during the ancien régime and beyond

The patois of Burgundy has traditionally been referred to by French writers as“bourguignon-morvandiau”.  That bourguignon comes from the same mother tongue as français, the langue d’oïl, does not mean that communication was easy between those who were purely bourguignophones, and those who were purely Francophones.  How difficult was this communication? An indication may lie in the fact that someone who spoke both français and a patois was said to be bi-lingual.

Along with hundreds of words which were decidedly different from français, some of which can be viewed here, the pronunciation of the words common to both français and bourguignon-morvandiau could itself cause one to have to listen carefully. Speakers of bourguignon  rolled their “r“s liberally when compared to that of the French speaker, and the “a”, “eu”, and “to” sounds are very marked, or exaggerated, in their pronunciation. The patios spoken from the Burgundy border north of Dijon, down through Nuits, and Beaune to the southern most vineyard area of the Côte d’Or was a bourguignon dialect called chalonnaise (Léonard and Barot 2012).




The Morvan

Patois bourguignon-morvandiau

The name “bourguignon-morvandiau” suggests that the language originated in the hills Morvan Massif, lies roughly 40 kilometers west of the Côte d’Or. This implications can be quite misleading, but the Morvan is really not a such a bad place to begin this story.

It is a rugged region of wooded peaks and high valleys. With the quasi-isolation the terrain presented in terms of accessibility, both communication and trade, in and out of the Morvan has always suffered. This has meant that the population, in addition to being quite poor, has been correspondingly under-educated. These factors have made this one of the last places where the ancient patois of Burgundy is still being spoken.

The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.

The Dorsale boisée is in brown, with Chateau Chinon pop. in 1876 was 2668, today pop. 2086.

The Morvan’s quaint villages and small farms dot the region’s meadows, or were cut from its forests in an era of uneven logging regulation. As logging intensified to meet the nations demands for lumber, the population of various villages swelled by as much as forty percent between the years of 1840 and 1900.* The region’s resources, which included cheap, unskilled labor, were, as vividly described by Jean-Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot, absorbed “ruthlessly by the belly of Paris”.

It was from this poor and bloated population, which identified itself by its humble patois, that the daughters of the Morvan were sent to Paris to work as nannies and nursemaids. And over the decades, as thousands of young Morvan girls had worked in the capital’s wealthiest homes, awareness of the patois bourguignon-morvandiau grew outside of the region. It was only a matter of time before bourguignon-morvandiau would become synonymous with the patois of burgundy.

Over the centuries, it has been abundantly clear that the peasants of the Morvan have clung to their language as an integral part of the their identity. And although morvandiau has been a long-established written language, only a minority of its speakers ever learned to read or write it. That français has finally supplanted the regional patois as the primary language spoken is significant, but it is representative of the regression of patois all across France.

The biggest threat to morvandiau, is the Morvan’s increasingly diminishing population. In some of its larger villages, the population is a third or less in number than its 19th century levels. Because of this, it is impossible for “morvandiau” to retain the dynamic vibrancy which it displayed in the past.

(*) from levels established by the census of 1793

(**) 1793 was the first census by the new revolutionary government

(***) The population change shows the boom and bust economy during this period. Moux-en-Morvan in 1793 population was 1089, in 1872 the population swelled to 1688, and today (2013) Moux-en-Morvan has 564 people who live there.  Montreuillon lies along a feeder canal to the Canal du Niverais, allowed good transport for logging operations.  In 1793 had a population of 855, and it grew to a peak population of 1272 in 1976, whil today it has shrunk to only 286 inhabitants in 2013.


ijon skyline, source planetware.com

The Dijon skyline. photo: planetware.com

Dijon and the wine villages of the Côte d’Or

Approximately 40 kilometers east of the Morvan, lies the Burgundian provincial capital of Dijon. As the provincial seat of government, and as a major ecclesiastical and intellectual center, it was necessary to speak français by anyone of social position during the ancien régime. This was also true for commoners who aspired to gain wealth, or rise to a position of prominence.* As such, by the early 18th century (if not before), the bourgeoisie of Gevrey, Vosne, Nuits, and Beaune, would have all spoken français. This was a nécessité in order to conduct business with the right people in Dijon, Paris, or to meet with merchants of the great trading cities along the Atlantic coast.

The arrival of the français along the route des grand cru indicated that a new stratification was occurring at a societal level. There had always been a class difference between the nobility and the common man, but now, the knowledge of français created a new and important social demarcation between members within the third estate (Forrest 1991). There were now two major classes of commoner, a group which includes peasants, laborers, and artisans on one side, and the educated bourgeoisie on the other. One could easily tell them apart, if not by the clothes that they wore, but by the language they spoke.

 (*) This timing would coincide with the drive by Versailles to subdue the nobility and attain an absolute monarchy.


Across the Saône River: the Gallo-Romance language of Franco-Provençal 

Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikpedia

Franco-Provençal or Arpitan. Difficult intelligibility among dialects was noted in the early 18th century. Wikpedia

For centuries, the Côte d’Or sat at a crossroads of two mother languages of patois: Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal (also known as Arpitan). In much of the three Burgundian departments of Yonne, Nièvre, and the Côte d’Or, patois in which the langue d’oïl was primarily dominant. But as one moved south and within Nièvre, and east within the Côte d’Or, the words and pronunciation typical of franco-provençaux became increasingly strong.  This was particularly true along the banks of the Saône River, which bordered the department of FrancheComté.

In the department of SaôneetLoire, which is home to the vineyards of Rully, Bouzeron, Mâcon, and Pouilly-Fuissé, the patois there are said to be transitional, conveying varying degrees of both the Langue d’oïl and Franco-Provençal. Nearby, just across the Saône River, in the Franche-Comté, Franco-Provençal  was the primary tongue.   In 1807, one French linguist, Jean-Louis Grillet, wrote that communication between various Franco-Provençal dialects was “difficult” (wikipedia). This comment instructs us on other linguistic challenges that at one time certainly existed within Burgundy, and across the realm.

Dissecting the ‘langues des bourguignons’

To study the dialects of a century ago requires that patois were literate, meaning there was a written version of them. As  James R. Lehning writes that the patois of the Loire had “apparently deteriorated in the course of the nineteenth century.” And in the arrondissement of Roanne,” patois existed in only an “attenuated” form (Lehning 1995). This is to be expected, as the use of français extended its reach into rural communities. But if this was already happening in the 1800’s, it is relatively impossible for us to know the extent of the changes which had already been made to patios by this period, and how much communication had already improved.

References to the patois of Burgundy is typically viewed as a single dialect. An example of this is found on the website of a group self-titled as Défense et promotion des langues d’oïl, – which interprets Burgundian patois as being bourguignon-borvandiau.

The English language pages of Wikipedia names the Burgundian patois bifurcates Burgundian patois into two dialects. The first is morvandiau which they define as a base of the d’oïl of central France, but with a stronger Germanic influences than standard français, and is peppered with hollandaise terms. These were no doubt picked up in trading wine with the Dutch. The second regional patois identified by the French language wikipedia is a hybrid oïl-franco-provençaux language, which it terms charolais-brionnais. This is the patois the SaôneetLoire, which lies on the southern border of Chassagne-Montrachet. While this is a more complete explanation, the reality is yet more complicated.

However, the French language version of Wikipedia (fr.wikipedia.com) breaks down the languages of the Morvan Massif itself as four dialects.*  Dialect breaks between areas of the Morvan show in pronunciations such as “ç’ost” vs. “y’ost” to say “there is”.  Other differences, in the northern part of the Morvan to take water is said as “gaujer” north, while in the south it it becomes “gauyer”.  For a speaker of français, who would say“prendre l’eau”, either pronunciation would be unintelligible.

This is not the only explanation however, as linguists often do not necessarily agree. Some regional sociolinguists have replaced the overarching morvandiau designation with 13 distinct regional dialects, that stretch across the four departments of Burgundy (Léonard, Barot 2012). The northern and western patois are primarily oïl with varying amounts of franco-provençaux influences, but as one moves southward, particularly into the department of SaôneetLoire, the langue franco-provençaux becomes increasingly dominate.

A less obvious, due to its distance from Burgundy, are the influences of the Occitan languages, once called lenga d’òc (or langue d’oc in French). Occitan, along with the langues d’oïl and franco-provençaux, are France’s holy trinity of Gallo-Romance languages. This Gallic-Roman mother tongue, forms the basis of many patois stretching from Spain’s Pyrenean Val d’Aran in the west, across the Languedoc, to Calabria Italy in the east. Although its area of use is separated from Burgundy by the Central Massif and the Limousin forest, there are numerous occitan words and inflections present in several of the southern bourguignon patois.


(*) There is no additional information regarding these divisions however.


map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)

map adapted from: Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot (Langues de Bourgogne)

The following are the fourteen patois of Burgundy

  • Morvan-Autunois was the dialect spoken in north-western Morvan.
  • DB is the label given to long diagonal swath through the length of the province, running through the heart of the Morvan, and extending down into the department of Allier. This swath seems to run right through what is referred to as La Dorsale Boisée, the ‘Wooded Dorsal’ of the Morvan massif. This is a line of heavily wooded peaks (500m-900m) which makes up the spine of the mountain range (fr.wikipedia). To this day, there are very few roads through this region, and it is likely to be very sparsely populated. Léonard  & Barot give no other reference is given to DB in the text. Is DB an abbreviation for something, possibly “base de dispersion“? Basic dispersion, refers to is the measurement of the variability in the data. Or “base de données” meaning database? I can find no answer to this.
  • Bresse, BL and RV: Sitting along the banks of the Saône, these patois are primarily francoprovençal in nature. Each are patois sits with very tight areas of use suggesting a rural, immobile peasant population, with little trade into or out of these regions. Like DB, there is no explanation for these apparently abbreviated BL and RV languages.  The nearby region of Savoy in the Franche-Comté, has significantly influenced the coloring the Bressan character. These were patois which were retained longer than in other areas, probably due to an immobile peasantry. Despite the long history of these dialects, these patois have been strictly oral in use, with no written bresse language ever having been developed.  A phonetic version was sketched out in 2006 to attempt to record and retain the dialect. Bressian speakers today are accused to overemphasizing the uniqueness of their patois, in regards to others. Pronunciation shifts when moving from savoyard bresse in the north, to bresse louhannaise in the south, although the variance is not considered to be enough to “hinder mutual comprehension” (fr.wikipedia).
  • Bresse-chalonnaise was spoken east of Dijon. The name and regional position suggests this is a hybrid of Bresse patois, and that of the chalonnaise.
  • Chalonnaise was spoken from the northern department of Haut Marnes, south through Dijon, and all through the Côte de Nuits into the Côte de Beaune. Perhaps somewhere near Chassagne,* the dialect was morphing to clunisois. 
  • Clunisois takes its name from the ancient Roman city, which lies on the southern-most portion of this patois‘ linguistic reach. The Patois is significantly francoprovençal in nature, the language which is spoken just across the Saône River. 
  • Mâconnais is the dialect that picks up south of Cluny, and to some extenis still being spoken within homes, in and around the city of Mâcon. Mâconnaise, like the Bressan areas which lie directly above it, is heavily influenced by the neighboring franco-provençaux. Mâcon, a city of 35,000, straddles both sides of the Saône River sits half in Saône-et-Loire, and half in Franche-Comté. Like chalonnaise, this is a patois with a long north-south area of use.  This is likely because a number good roads that ran parallel to the river, coupled with with river traffic, would have created continuity in the patois, over this elongated area. The shape of the area affected, is determined by the direction of the movement of people and goods along these thoroughfares. 
  • Charolais dialect sits in a wide swath along south-eastern Burgundy east of the wine regions of the southern Côte Chalonnaise, and the dialects adjacent to the Mâconnais spoken there.  Charolais, according to charolais-brionnais.fr, is language with a structure similar to the Oïl language yet laced with hints of Occitan (langue d’oc also lenga d’òc) and Latin. For example, the «a» sound replaces «e», while the «ts» is used instead of «ch». This region is noted for its massive coal mining operations in Montceau-les-Mines which pulled 2,000,000 tons from the ground per year, as well as its large iron, and steel industries based in the commune of Creusot. This industry was made possible by the opening of the Canal du Charollais (now known as Canal du Centre) in 1792.)
  • Brionnaise is typically associated with Charolais, but is separated in the listing by Léonard and Barot.  The regional marketing efforts by charolais-brionnais.fr say that “efforts to promote the dialect are championed by local celebrities like Professor Mario Rossi, who in 2004 published an Etymological and Ethnological Dictionary of Brionnais dialects.” Note, that it is titled “Brionnais dialects“; plural.
  • Matour is named for a village which is in the hills south and a little west of Cluny. Termed as being in ‘Upper Cluny‘, Matour sits at crossroads between Charolais, Beaujolais, Cluny and Macon. Like the other patois of nearby regions, this langue is transitional, part Oïl and part franco-provençaux.
  • Bourbonnaise: To the west and south of the Morvan, bourbonnaise was once spoken around the city of Nièvre (with a population today of 35,000). This area although technically part of Burgundy, it is separated from the Côte and Dijon by the Morvan. It a region which is influenced by nearby Allier, and patois of Langue d’oïl than the more Germanic franco-provençaux.
  • Roannais sit in the gap between the Morvan and the Central Massif, north of Lyon, along the southern Burgundian border with the departments of the Loire and the Rhone. Named for the department Roanne department of the Loire.
The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as "Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne" is held by the National Library of France

The roads across Burgundy in 1771. The map, which is labeled as “Carte itinéraire du duché de Bourgogne” is held by the National Library of France

That there were multiple dialects, some of which were used within a very tight area, suggests that peasantry in these areas were relatively immobile. Intriguingly, a couple of patois had very long, vertical, north-south area of use, such as that of chalonnaise, which covered much of the department of the Côte d’Or. It is not a coincidence that this area of use should follow the path of the Burgundian wine trade, as it moves from Chassagne, up the path of the ancient the Via Agrippapast Dijon. The use of chalonnaise continued to the departments northern border, but is not clear if the dialect extended very far into the neighboring department of Haut Marnes.

MaconnaisThe economic situation of the chalonnaise speaking peasantry of the Côte d’Or, was not at all uniform. The very poor were likely to be immobile, while those with one or more holdings, particularly if one was in a renown cru, were likely wealthy enough to own a horse, and were able to travel to neighboring towns, perhaps to do business with their négociant, or their tonnelier (barrel maker), or to seek any other service or product that was not available in their own village. Those peasants who were able to travel, spread their sub-regional terms and pronunciations to other villages, while bringing new ones back home. This process would have developed a uniform patois, that over time spread over a larger area of use.

The patois spoken within the SaôneetLoire are much more confined in their areas of use. The fact that patois of chalonnaise stops near the SaôneetLoire border, likely means that there was limited trade between these regions, both of which lay immediately south of Chassagne. Patois with such small regional footprint such as the industrial Charlolais and rural matour, suggests there was little trade done with the peasantry there. Again, any lack of trade suggests two things: that the region was quite poor, and that they lacked mobility. Despite the Canal du Centre (then known as the Canal du Charollais) having been built through these regions, the local paysans had little use for a commercial waterway. Even collectively, theses small farmers had little or nothing to trade.  We also know that much of these areas south of the Côte d’Or was dominated by large farm properties, either capitalized, or private, which were controlled by less than one percent of the population, and this too created a population that was compartmentalized, as the small communities were separated from one another by very large farming estates.

(*) Unfortunately as is common with drawn maps, the two maps used are not of the same origin, and not accurate in configuration, lacking cities and other clearly identifiable markers. This makes precise identification of where these languages impossible. This imperfection of maps may be somewhat intentional, since the authors of them might not want to be pinned down to a precise statement that ‘X’ language is spoken in ‘X’ location.


Up next: Part II, The war on Patois



References for  Français and patois Bourguignon, Parts I, II, & III


History of the French Language, https://slmc.uottawa.ca/?q=french_history

The Original Grand Crus of Burgundy, Charles Curtis, MW, Wine Alpha, 2014

Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Eugen Weber, Stanford Univ. Press. 1976.

Schooling in Western Europe: A Social History, Mary Jo Maynes, Suny Press 1985

Regional Dynamics Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspectiveedited by Carole Crumle

Languages and the Military: Alliances, Occupation and Peace Building, edited by H. Footitt, M. Kelly, Springer, 2016

Collective Action in Winegrowing Regions: A Comparison of Burgundy and the Midi – David R. Weir July 1976

Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties, Jean Léo Léonard  & Gilles Barot, 2012

End or invention of Terroirs? Regionalism  in the marketing of French luxury goods: the example of Burgundy wines in the inter‐war years, working paper Gilles Laferté Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique

Negotiating Territoriality: Spatial Dialogues Between State and Tradition, Allan Charles Dawson, Laura Zanotti, Ismael Vaccaro, Routledge 2014

‘Insofar as the ruby wine seduces them’: Cultural Strategies for Selling Wines in Interwar Burgundy,” Philip Whalen, 2009

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, University of California Press, 2005

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment, Amy S. Wyngaard, University of Delaware Press, 2004

Reshaping France: Town, Country, and Region During the French Revolution, Alan I. Forrest, Manchester University Press, 1991

Le patois bourguignon, patrimoine en danger, Arnaud Racapé, France Bleu Bourgogne, 2015

Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France During the Nineteenth Century, James R. Lehning, Cambridge University Press, 1995



One thought on “History of the Vigneron: Languages Part I: Patois de bourguignon

  1. I got a great comment about this post on Linkedin that I thought was worth sharing:
    Patrick Troisgros, P. Eng. Thank you for this great article!
    Back when I grew up in Lacanche, Cote-d’Or (in the 80’s), our patois there was already limited to a few words and expressions, but the accent (rolling the “r”, marking the “a” and “o”) was very much alive! Enough to make me sound like I came from another planet when I moved to Paris… I do remember 1 person who could speak it fluently, and he often was the center of attention in the “fete du village”.
    I agree with the fact that the patois was quite different from one region to the next. Listening to someone from Bresse was just as interesting for us as it was for a Parisian to listen to either of us…
    Great piece of history, language is certainly a very important component of the development of a region.


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