History of the Vigneron: Languages Part 2: the war on patois, and linguistic changes in Burgundy

1789-1914: the war on patois

Tho bourgeoise
The bourgeoisie

The a war on patois began shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789. Some saw a national language as one of the great tools which could unify the country. In the spirit of The Enlightenment, some in the new government fervently believed that the installment of a national language would bring égalité* to all men. Further, it was felt that the inability of a majority of a country’s citizens to be unable to understand political debate was undemocratic.

It is somewhat ironic that the choice for a national language should be the king’s tongue; but it is not all that surprising. After all, the new power base would ultimately belong the to the français speaking Bourgeoisie who controlled both the merchant shipping, and France’s industrial capacity. Under the monarchy, these wealthy businessmen had always pursued equality their own with the nobility.** That they spoke français, was the result of one such failed effort at parity. But despite their superior education, their great social refinement, their powerful positions in business, and sometimes extravagant wealth, they would always be a lesser man than the titled noble. It would take bloodshed to tear down social structure of birthright.

France was hopelessly behind both England and Germany in terms of the industrial development and output, being so deeply invested, both economically and philosophically, in its feudal agricultural economy. But where France did lead was in thought. France was, far and above, the world’s intellectual giant. France’s post revolution urban elite, developed a culture of scholarship that was producing thinkers who were making groundbreaking strides in science, medicine, philosophy, as well as the arenas of political and economic theory. Education, which these men held dear, was seen as the tool which would simultaneously and seamlessly spread both égalité and français as France.

(*) Égalité was a new term and concept thought to be first used in 1774. (Britannica) Although the leader of the Jacobins Maximilien de Robespierre was known to have said this in December 1790: “On their uniforms engraved these words: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The same words are inscribed on flags which bear the three colors of the nation.”  The notion of  judicial égalité was set into French law in Article 6 of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen de 1789 (the rights of man). It pronounced that law “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.“ (frenchmoments.eu/)  More on the French motto can be learned here.

(**) Like most men throughout history, equality is rarely sought for all men. The past has taught us that the definition of the term word ‘men’ can be endlessly manipulated, or complicated by exceptions. What they had sought was their own ability to stand as equals with the nobility and king. Taking this idea one step further, it would not be a stretch to assume that many of these very wealthy, proud, educated, refined men felt socially and morally superior. They likely did not common, and no doubt resented their ‘commoner’ moniker. In their new empire, they would not speak some lowly country patois. There was really only one choice for a national language. It would be français.


The stigmatization of patois

peasants and cart
A picking crew at the turn of the 20th century,

So, with great intention, the use of patois across France was stigmatized and societally degraded. In the south of France, those who spoke Occitan languages were acutely affected by the French governmental assault on its patois. There it was called Vergonha, or the “shame”. Linguists, Jean Léo Léonard & Gilles Barot wrote in 2012, wrote that “to be considered as a ‘patois’ is one of the worse curses that may happen to a language.”

The first and most famous leader in this fight was the cardinal Henri Grégoire, who wrote a report to the revolutionary government calling not only for the institution of français but the “annihilation” of regional patois. For those in Grégoire’s camp, patois was considered to be a force of obscurantism. Obscurantism was an interesting concept, that an obscurantist was an “enemy of intellectual enlightenment” and worked against the “diffusion of knowledge” (Wikipedia). The idea was the existence of patois was preventing information from being passed, and thus obscuring facts and details from being known.

Grégoire’s position was clearly extreme, as was many aspects of those revolutionary times, going as far to write that patois languages were “barbaric jargons and those coarse lingos that can only serve fanatics and counter-revolutionaries now!” However, among those who that sought to institute français, came to the task with varying viewpoints regarding these dialects. There were those who were overly passionate like Grégoire, that considered patois vulgar, with the “expression of ignorance, archaic prejudice, and obscenity”(Forrest 1991). But others described it as only capable of expressing simple emotion; be it “anger, hate, or love”. This was a significant slight by those men who cherished intellectual thought. Still, there were others viewed it with a bit more kindness,“believing it expressed a pastoral simplicity and closeness to nature” (Forrest 1991). To paraphrase Forrest, it was the language that the paysan spoke to his oxen and his dog.

The early 1800’s: turbulent politics and war makes a national language impossible

But the reality was that the First Republic’s national assembly was deeply divided and had limited time or attention to pursuing Grégoire’s linguistic passions. To this point, the events of the revolution had not disposed of Louis XVI. The king was now sharing power in a constitutional monarchy with the national assembly.

In what seems more of an urgent need a display of decisive revolutionary change, rather than having instituted a well-conceived plan, the fledgling government restructured the country into 83 new départements in 1791. These new departments were drawn to disrupt as many of the traditional, regional, and ethnic associations as possible, and this included patois.  The most highly cited example of separating a major city from its historical homeland is Toulouse. In 1793, Toulouse had a population of 52,612 and was one of France’s largest cities. It was decided break up the Languedoc, by splitting Toulouse off, in order to force new Haute-Garonne centric governmental and trade associations. While these did not sever the natural routes of trade from Toulouse to the Mediterranean coast, it would divide the old political interests that these regions had historically shared. As mentioned earlier, it was these Occitan speakers (langues d’Oc) who would feel the most victimized, by these kinds of actions by Paris. But there is little doubt that Paris did make special efforts to bring the sometimes defiant south, into the national fold.

Eugène Delecroix' famous painting of "Liberty leading the People" which depicts the July revolution of 1848
Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of “Liberty leading the People” which depicts the July revolution of 1848

The attention of the reformers in Paris was intermittent at best, as upheaval was commonplace in the France the first half the 1800’s. France, from this time forward, would find itself at the center conflicts involving many nations. War, which many within the national assembly felt would unify a divided France, would now be entered into as a member of an alliance, but what unfolded was a new type of war with an unlimited battlefield. This kind of warfare had its battles spilling outside of Europe, across the open oceans, and in far-flung colonies, intended to disrupt and deprive the enemy of wealth and matériel needed to continue the conflict. The war between the major powers of Europe had taken on a new face, one that would define conflicts for the next 150 years. The term for this kind of battle was total war.

1830-1851: education as a political battlefield

Education, the sword with which Cardinal Grégoire’s war on patois was to have been waged, had already been badly neglected for several decades by the 1830’s. It is estimated that in 1835, only one person out of every four hundred thirty-five, attended any kind of school within France (Theis, guizot.com). Because of this, the use of patois went along unfettered. But beginning in 1830, with the reign of king Louis-Philippe, attention would be paid to restoring public education in France. Two men, working under two successive monarchies, would institute an expansive system of schools across France. François Guizot would begin the work in 1832, slowly breaking down many political barriers to the establishment of education. The second man, Frédéric-Alfred-Pierre, who is better known by his noble title comté de Falloux du Coudray, would finish re-instituting an educational system in 1849. Although at this juncture, there was no pointed assault on patois, the establishment of a robust system of schools meant that students all across France were now learning and spreading the langues français into their communities.

It was Guizot who did the heavy lifting in the redevelopment of schools in France. Guizot’s significant reputation as a great professor and statesman, eventually allowed him to negotiate the deep political divides between the conservative monarchist and the secular Republicans. Both groups were equally intransigent in their positions regarding the role of the church in education, and success of the implementation of any educational system was the result of years of mediation and compromise. In the end, a level of Church’s involvement in education was grudgingly agreed accepted by the Republicans in the assembly. Guizot’s accomplishment of instituting instruction for boys in communities with over 500 inhabitants, whether it was in the form of free secular or a private catholic institution, was a hard-fought victory (Theis, guizot.com).

The Black Stain, by Albert Bettanier (1887).


For the conservative right, who viewed secular education as nothing more than socialist indoctrination, the church’s limited presence in schools was not a settled issue. So in the wake of the Revolution of 1848, the newly formed, conservative-dominated assembly of the Second Republic quickly passed a new series education laws. Written by the comté de Falloux, who was the Minister of Public Instruction and Worship, these loi Falloux would greatly expand the role of the church in education. The laws also expanded education to include primary schooling for girls. Communities of over 800 inhabitants would now be required to build schools for girls as well, in addition to those that had been already been constructed under Guizot, for boys (in communities of over 500). The ease with which the loi Falloux had passed was made possible both because of the work was done by Guizot, as well as the anti-clerical Republicans were now had a minority representation in the Assembly.*

(*) This was the political backlash in the wake collapse of the financial systems across Europe, and the Revolution of 1848, allowing a conservative coalition of monarchists and Bonapartists to power. The short-lived Second Republic 1848-1852 was headed by president Louis-Napoléon.  Napoléon, the nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, would lead a coup d’etat in 1852, when the assembly tried to block his re-election as president and would pronounce himself as Emperor Napoléon III.


1871: the political fallout of the Prussian’s defeat of Napoléon III

While francais was widely spoken in Burgundy by 1863, we know that clearly click to enlarge
The 1863 survey indicates that francais was in dual use with patois throughout most of Burgundy. It acknowledges that at the national level, the ministry of Instruction was at a minimum at least monitoring the spread Francais if not actively promoting it. click to enlarge

The defeat and capture of Emperor Napoléon III by the Prussians in 1870, and the ensuing siege and surrender of Paris in 1871 left the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (appointed by Louis-Napoleon) and the National Assembly, with the duty of re-establishing a government. All had assumed that France would return to a constitutional monarchy, as aside from short twelve-year rule of the First Republic, and the four years under the Second Republic, France had only known a history filled with monarchs and emperors. Three factions sought their heir to take the throne: the Legitimists (supporters of a Bourbon king), the Orléanists (supporters of the Carpets – descendants of Louis-Philip), and the Bonapartists. The return of a Bourbon to the throne was accepted as the most “legitimate” claim to the throne. Charles X’s grandson, Henri d’Artois, Comté de Chambord had been poised to do so for many years. He had been the “pretender to the throne”, with every regime change, waiting, usually in exile, to be called to his duty. And in 1872 he had come so close to becoming the king of France. Yet his refusal to rule under the tri-colored flag would ultimately cost him the throne (Bicknell 1884). Because, while Henri de Chambord saw the tri-color as a bitter symbol of the fall of his family and of the revolution, to most Frenchmen the flag was a symbol of immense pride and a symbol of French military glory. They would not give up the tri-color, and Henri de Chambord would not be king.

With Chambord out of the picture, a panic set in amongst the Legitimists. In a masterful series of political maneuvers, Adolphe Thiers used the mutual fears of the Legitimists and Bonapartists regarding a successful Orléanists bid for the monarchy. Thiers positioned himself as a preferable pseudo-conservative alternative to an Orléanists usurping power. Despite Thiers longstanding Republican party affiliations, the Legitimists supported his bid for power as prime minister of the new Third Republic. Certainly, his brutal suppression of the socialists in the Paris Commune cemented his reputation as an authoritarian, and as a stalwart anti-communist, they allied their fears that they were not putting a staunch liberal into power.

The Third Republic proved successful at maintaining power for the next seventy years. Within the ensuing decade, the secular Republicans party would dominate in their legislative control of the Third Republic. Jules Ferry would come into party leadership, and ultimately as serve as prime minister for two short stints 1880-1881, and 1883-1885, yet he would play a pivotal role in the story of français overtaking the many patois as the primary language used in France.

Author’s commentary: Impressive, is despite all of the violent revolutions, and major traumas, both war and political, which have occurred in France, the constitutional government never fell regardless of some of the regime collapses which it was forced to deal with. The military too never forced a coup, and seemingly remained obedient to the National Assembly in times of transition. The country never fell into total chaos (depending on your judgment of the ‘Reign of Terror) which can occur with the fall of a primary ruler or a dominant government leader. The National Assembly was always there to maintain order as an “interim government” until it could be decided who would come to power next.

The 1880’s: renewed calls for national unity, and new attacks on patois

13th November 1936: A youth parade of Spanish schoolchildren makes its way along the road wearing the black shirts of the Fascists and carrying dummy rifles. Their home of Irun has been taken over by Rebel troops during the Spanish Civil War, and they have been converted to the Fascist cause. (Photo by Maeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The Third Republic’s attempts to indoctrinate school children with nationalism and patriotic zeal during the 1880’s, were done with similar methods demonstration by Spanish fascists during the Spanish civil war. (Photo by Maeers/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In addition to holding the position of the President of the Council of Ministers (prime minister), Ferry simultaneously held the position of Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts.  It is believed by most historians, that Ferry and others in France were so alarmed by France’s defeat at the hands of the Prussians, that it was considered imperative that every measure possible must be taken to strengthen and unify the country. A dramatic example of France’s fear of the future was that during this period, French school children were patriotically marched, made to carry wooden guns with fixed bayonets (Gaulupeau 2000).

So it was with this fear of again being conquered, that Ferry pushed through a series of strong educational laws in 1882. which along with making public instruction free and mandatory, divested France of the churches participation in public, primary education.

Republican leadership had always viewed the Church and its teachings as an organ of “superstition and regression” (Zantedeschi undated), but now their desire to rectify this perceived national weakness, gave them sufficient justification to pursue a stricter form of laïcité (the absence of religious involvement in the state). That it took ten years for the Republicans, to undo the Ferry laws of 1848, probably gives us a good idea of how long it took Republicans to gain majority control over the National Assembly.

Also important was the Ferry laws tightened requirements regarding the size of communities which were required to provide education for their children. From 1882 onward, any village with more than twenty children must provide a primary school education (Zantedeschi, undated). This dramatically spread the reach of education and the teaching of français, far more deeply into the sparsely populated rural regions, where patois still flourished.

As part of Ferry’s political objective of national unity, the education laws reportedly forbade the speaking patois on school grounds. According to Wikipedia: “Art. 30 of Loi d’éducation française: states that “It is strictly forbidden to speak patois during classes or breaks.”  I have not been able to locate any additional references to this, or any other the legal prohibition of patois on school grounds. However, Witold Tulasiewicz and Anthony Adams write in their 2005 book, ‘Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe’, that Ferry published an open letter to primary school teachers in 1883, calling for the need to eradicate all “local forms of speech, whether languages, dialects or patois.” In Ferry’s words “…each school had to become a French-speaking colony in a conquered country” (Convey 2005).

"Speak Francais, Be Clean" painted on a school wall, photo wikipedia
“Speak Francais, Be Clean” painted on a school wall, photo Wikipedia

This was a letter that Ferry wrote on the eve of his leaving his first ministership in 1881, but the primary focus of the letter apparently was not on patois. Rather Ferry wrote of teaching both moral education and civic education in the enlightenment spirit of laïcité. Once again, among the scholarly writings of Ferry’s open letter of 1883, which there are plenty, I can find no other which mention his addressing patois. There is simply a stunning absence of information on this subject.

Shaming, may, or may not have been an “official” governmental policy, but it is more than evident that shaming existed on a systemic level, within the educational system, and elsewhere. There are hundreds of personal accounts of shaming and corporal punishment of students, by both teachers and other school officials. These many accounts readily contradict any lack of official record or scholarly study of the subject.

Wikipedia maintains two pages which cover the repression of patois. One is titled Vergonha and the other Language Policy in France.  Vergonha is the Occitan (Langue d’Oc) term referring to the “shaming” of the patois speaking population. It should be noted that the lack of scholarly work on the subject causes the Vergonha page to be noted for its need of citations. While a lack citation is not unusual in Wikipedia, since it is a relatively young resource, I suspect citations in this area will not be forthcoming.  After all, as the Vergonha page states, “shaming” is still largely a taboo subject in France.

How long shaming existed in schools, may significantly predate the Ferry laws.  Vergonha page on Wikipedia shows evidence of this. It cites a 2007 book written by professor and historian Georges Labouysse*, “Histoire de France, l’Imposture: The Lies and Manipulations of Official History“.  According to this text, in 1845, thirty-six years before the Ferry law, a Breton administrator charging his teachers to put a halt to patois in their schools.  “And remember, Gents” the administrator instructed, “you were given your position in order to kill the Breton language.” A second example given by Labouysse happened a year later in the Basque country. Here an administrator reportedly told his teachers: “Our schools in the Basque Country are particularly meant to substitute the Basque language with French…”

(*) Labouysse’s book title does raise a red flag to a partisan agenda. Although his name appears often in a google search, a Curriculum Vitae does not come up. But neither do I find any accusations of having a particular political leaning, an ax to grind, or having espoused any crazy conspiratorial theories.


Tying this all back to Burgundy: Bourguignon in atrophy

Modern day distribution of Languages of the Bourguignon. The Morvan is indicated by in green. The clumping of rural locations where the dialect is spoken at home, is often surrounded by locations where only the elderly speak patois. This suggests that the peasants are becoming "assimilated" into French language and culture, and the patois is being lost.
Modern day distribution of Languages of the Bourguignon. The Morvan is indicated by in green. The clumping of rural locations where the dialect is spoken at home is often surrounded by locations where only the elderly speak patois. This suggests that the peasants are becoming “assimilated” into French language and culture, and the patois is being lost.

So with the implementation of the Ferry laws of 1881, which in conjunction with the systemic use of the shaming and punishment of students by school officials, there was significant pressure across the country not to publically speak in the local patois. It would take less than two generations to cement français as the one language which was spoken almost universally across France. The final nail in patois coffin would be the four years that France’s men would spend hunkered down in trenches of World War I. To paraphrase Eugen Weber, they left for the war as peasants, and came back Frenchmen.

The penetration of français into the more isolated interiors of the country may have been a far slower where communities had fewer than 20 school aged children. However, there were other factors which were putting significant pressures on these regional languages.

The success of a language is all a numbers game, and small rural villages were quickly losing residents for various reasons. The first began around 1820 when birthrates everywhere across Europe began to decline.* This when coupled with a rural exodus which began around the same time meant that these communities were taking a big hit in population. This does not even factor in other rural economic hardships which occurred, only one of which was phylloxera. People were leaving these rural agricultural areas leaving fewer and fewer people to speak these languages. By 1988, out of a total population of the 1.6 million people who were spread across the four Burgundian departments, only 50,000 people (estimated) had some knowledge of Bourguignon (languesdoil.org).

In a 2010 survey done by Les Langues & Vous** revealed the information on the map to the right regarding the geographic locations where surveyors recorded patois to be spoken.  The darkest spots indicate patois spoken at home, and the red spots indicate that patois was only spoken by elders in that location. The open circles were areas where only français remained (map source: Léonard and Barot 2012)

Léonard and Barot write in their 2012 paper, ‘Language or Dialect Shift? Shifting, Fading and Revival of Burgundian Gallo-Romance Varieties’, that français had infiltrated the Côte more quickly than other provincial regions. This, they claim was for two reasons, the first of which was the region was covered by a dense network of monasteries. This is at odds with the history given by the University of Ottawa’s Site for Language Management’s position that the church’s teachings in Latin had actually hindered the spread of français.*** The contradictions in the analyses and interpretations of history are what make the study so consuming. The answers are rarely as they first appear.

Léonard and Barot cite a second factor, the abundance of closely spaced “mid-sized urban centers” from which français infiltrated the countryside between. This may have been a factor. If you look again at the map on the right and trace a line from Auxerre to Dijon, then down through Beaune, you will notice that there are very few remnants of patois.

(*) This is a complicated issue, especially when looking at small villages across Burgundy which saw population losses of 50% from 1793. This will be the subject of the next article. 

(**) I have found no Google reference to Les Langues & Vous, but this is apparently an educational NGO based out of Dijon.

(***) The Site for Language Management, however, did not give a time range for this position, and the period discussed may have been earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Historians do know that one of the major reasons behind 1539, ordinance of Villers Cotterêts was to restrict the use of Latin, thus the influence of the Church. Thus, intendants and provincial administrators (the noblesse de robe) all spoke in French, and all official business of the state was performed in French. The development of French language (which I had originally planned to lead this article on patois, was moved to the end and will be discussed in an upcoming article. For better or worse, it keeps getting pushed back as I delve into new issues of how patois was affected by the national economic crisis, demographics, and how they both affected the people of Burgundy.


In Burgundy, français spread along the wine routes

A conclusion missed by Léonard and Barot is that this path between cities, is precisely the route first established by the old Roman Via Agrippa from Auxerre to Mâcon. Where Léonard and Barot’s idea falters is that along the road from Beaune, near Cluny, and again near Mâcon, there are still concentrations of patois speakersThis indicates, not so much that they are wrong, but that there are other factors involved. I believe the major contributor to the growth of français in this area, was the influx of money and people involved in the wine trade.

The economics of the region suggests that the transition to français along the escarpment of the Côte d’Or occurred as a natural developmentJust as I believe the wine trade had previously spread the patois of chalonnais along the same route, I believe it was the economics of wine which now hastened the spread of français. During the 18th century, with new roads open to the port cities, the wines of Burgundy had quickly gained great demand in Holland, Germany, England, and elsewhere.  With such demand, prices escalated quickly, many times higher than they had historically been. Wine was now big business in Burgundy. Trade now required communication and contract negotiations with both domestic and international partners, and these deals involved large sums of money. Fluency in français had become critical.

The wine industry was bringing considerable wealth into to the renown villages of the Côte, and it buoyed the fortunes of those who controlled plots in desirable locations, regardless of their social status. Their grapes were now worth more, and because of that, their land was worth more. For these plot holders, there was an incentive to learn to communicate with Francophones, particularly as more and more speakers of français were being drawn into the area, by both the money to be made, and the prestige that association with these vineyards brought. For those peasants who farmed the better plots of Gevrey, Vosne, Volnay, Meursault or Puligny, they would have suddenly found themselves with an economic incentive to learn this language that brought them financial success. A natural decline in of the use patois Bourguignon within these villages was inevitable.

But I believe there were other economic factors that were brewing, which when combined, would push patois out of the Côte. The old bourguignon dialect of chalonnais would virtually cease to exist with the exodus of the people who spoke it.

Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro 1882
Le Jardin de Maubuisson, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro 1882


Coming up: The effects of the economic crises of 1840, Phylloxera 1850, rural exodus, and the declining birthrate on patois.




The Pretenders to the Throne of France, A. Bicknell, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine November 1883 to April 1884

Vernacular culture as a religious rampart: Roussillon clergy and the defense of Catalan language in the 1880s, Francesca Zantedeschi, http://spinnet.eu/

Le Monde de l’éducation, Yves Gaulupeau, 2000, cited in From the Schoolroom to the Trenches: Laïcité and its Critics, Ian Birchall, paper given to London Historical Materialism Conference November 2015

Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe, by Witold Tulasiewicz, Anthony Adams, A&C Black,  2005

Economic, Social and Demographic Thought in the XIXth Century: The Population Debate from Malthus to Marx, Yves Charbit, Springer Science & Business Media, 2009

The European subsistence crisis of 1845-1850: a comparative perspective Eric VanHaute,  Richard Paping, Cormac Ó Gráda, IEHC Helsinki, 2006

The Ideological Polarization of Europe in 1792, professor William Patch, Washington and Lee University, http://home.wlu.edu/

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

Teaching the Mother Tongue in France, Francoise Convey, Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe, edited by Witold Tulasiewicz, Anthony Adams, A&C Black,June 9, 2005

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


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, nor 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 than 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 southernmost 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 implication 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, in 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 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 was 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, while 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. Wikipedia

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 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 water is pronounced as “gaujer,” while in the south 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.

(*) No additional information is given 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 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 suggest 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 a 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 after 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 department’s 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, these 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