Corsicans struggle for the revival of their ‘dying’ language

Corsica, like so many other European regions, has its very own history, culture and language. These are the essential pillars that form the base for Corsican identity, something of which Corsicans are very proud of. However, one of these pillars, their language ‘Corsu’, has weakened vastly trough time and is still weakening today.

A group of three students picks a spot on the terrace of a local bar in Corte. They are all greeted by the host with two kisses on the cheeks before they order three Casanis (Corsican Pastis). The terrace provides an incredible view over the small and historical city where the largest campus of the Universita di Corsica Pasquale Paoli is located. The university fuels the town with young ambitious Corsicans like Jean (21), Brandon (21) and Lena (21) that all have a strong feeling of pride for their Corsican roots. However, on the terrace, everybody speaks French.

Lena, Jean and Brandon on the terrace in Corte.

 

“You cannot deny Corsu is dying. The use of the local language is more political than it is useful. That means that when you speak Corsu, it is more a political statement against the French government.” Says history student Jean. Jean refers to the strict language politics of France that demands French is the first language in every region of the country. No exceptions. This stance of the French government has contributed immensely to the fact that even all the politically engaged and proud Corsican students on the terrace communicate in French, not in Corsu. Just around the corner of the bar you’ll find the statue of a man who would be severely disappointed about that: Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807).

Paoli was a Corsican Patriot who led the revolt against the Genoese rulers of the island in 1755 and who founded the independent Corsican Republic. He was the leader of the Corsican Republic for fourteen years until the French army finally defeated him in 1768. He is seen as the father of the Corsican nation and symbolizes an independent Corsica. The seriousness of Paoli’s probable disappointment is explained by Jean. “You create your identity around your language. If you don’t have your own language you cannot exist anymore as a people.”

‘Definitely endangered’
The Corsican language (corsu or lingua corsa) is sculpted by the most powerful rulers of the island. The most influential rulers have been the Italians and the French. It also sounds a bit like a mix between Italian and French and, because of the extensive use of the letter ‘U’, Corsu also slightly sounds like Portuguese. Before the French army defeated Pasquale Paoli in 1768 Corsica was ruled over by the Romans, Tuscans, Pisans and Genoese. And when France annexed the island it did not immediately include the Corsicans in French society and left Corsica for what it was. Corsicans were torn between their Italian traditions and the customs of their new ruler.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, when nationalism was on the rise, the French government banned the Corsican language from the schools. Who spoke Corsu got beaten. The survival of the Corsican language was now more than ever a responsibility of the family and it became mostly an oral language. Shortly after, a whole generation of Corsican men died for France in World War I which was a huge blow for Corsican society and its language. France’s later colonialist policies that prohibited Corsicans to speak Corsican as a whole motivated local poets, singers and writers to promote Corsican identity again.

This revival of the Corsican language and identity lead to an escalation in the 1970’s. After Algeria gained independence from France, France gave away Corsican land to so called pied noirs, who fled from the former colony. Corsicans felt so ignored and forgotten by France that in 1975 a dozen Corsican nationalists held one of the pied noirs hostage in his house in Aleria. Two French policemen died in the incident that is seen as one of the turning points in the ‘Riacquistu’ or ‘the take back’ of Corsican identity and language. Shortly after, in 1981, they reopened the Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli (that after the conquest had been closed by France) where they developed an official degree in Corsican language. But despite this revitalization, Corsican is still today a language UNESCO labels as ‘definitely endangered’.

An institutional challenge
“If we do not act now. The Corsican language will definitely get extinct.” predicts Alain Di Meglio (58) in the shade of a medieval church in the centre of Bonifacio, Corsica’s most southern town. Di Meglio is a professor at the Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli, specialized in sciences in education of the Corsican language. “We cannot rely on the oral transition, the transition within families, to save the language.” According to Di Meglio, the tradition of passing on the Corsican language to next generations has been broken due to cultural adaption. A process that has been going on since the 1960’s and has not yet stopped. “The politicians of today have also not succeeded in turning the tide. This process of decline is even going further, even now we have found a way back via the schools and the media.”

Alain Di Meglio.

In December 2015 the Corsican nationalists won the regional elections on the Island, giving them a lot of power in the Collectivé Territoriale de Corse (the regional government). They came up with a new plan for the Corsican language, Lingua 2020, that must eventually make Corsica a bilingual region. Important measures in the plan are ‘to make it easier for Corsicans to develop their language skills’, ‘to promote Corsu into public space’ and ‘to give Corsicans the opportunity to use Corsu in both private and public matters’. Currently Corsica is home to approximately 324.000 inhabitants of which an estimated number between 125.000 and 170.000 actually know how to speak Corsican.

The intentions of the plan give hope to a lot of these Corsican speakers but it is not certain whether the plan will be a success. Di Meglio: “It is a good and intelligent plan. If it is executed literally it can be very effective. But at the same time it is very hard to execute because it asks a lot from the people of Corsica. And fact is that, demographically, Corsica is fairly weak.” This means that Corsica also has a shortage of highly educated and qualified people that can tackle the problems Corsu is facing today. And therefore, besides the Collectivé Territoriale, the university plays a crucial role in the revival of Corsu.

Corsu & the 21st century
At the foot of the citadel in Corte, the historical capital of the independent Corsican Republic, stands the Palazzu Naziunale. This former ‘National Palace’ was the place where Paoli governed the republic from. Nowadays it houses the university’s Fab-Lab, a technological laboratory around creativity and the Corsican language. It’s chief, Vanina Bernard Leoni, is fairly optimistic about the future of the Corsican language. Leoni leads a team that searches for all kinds of creative solutions to stimulate the use of Corsu among its speakers. One of her ideas was to introduce Corsu as an official language on Facebook.

Vanina Bernard Leoni in the Fablab.

 

“It’s important to give people more opportunities and examples. So that for instance the media speaks more in Corsican and that people who do have the competence to speak Corsu speak more in Corsican to each other.” Another idea that was developed at the Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli is Compru in Corsu, an online business network for Corsican speakers. The concept, a website where you can register yourself as a Corsican speaking company and search for other companies, came from the belief that when you combine the local language with the local economy, they will both get stimulated.

“Maybe this is a new era for Corsu.” says Leoni. “It used to be only a small part of the Corsicans, the nationalists and engaged Corsicans, who thought it was important to preserve the language and Corsican culture in general. Now, for ten years or so, pretty much all Corsicans think that it is important to hold on to your roots and to show it to the world.”

Next generations
Back at the terrace Jean and his friend Brandon have lifted a guitar from the ground. As Brandon starts to play the strings, Jean starts to sing (in Corsu). Nobody else on the terrace seems to even notice their spontaneous musical outburst. The thriving local music industry happens to be one of the only places where Corsu is as alive as ever. Brandon: “Corsica has a lot of famous singers who all sing in Corsu but they don’t use it besides that. They sing songs to defend the language but they don’t even speak it themselves.”

It is not a lack of motivation or laziness that causes the decline of Corsican speakers. It is simply far from easy for the younger generations to use it. “Old people who speak Corsu are very strict with use of grammar for example. So young people are ashamed and afraid to fail. They cannot use it without using their mind all the time.” Explains Lena who also mostly talks French among her student friends despite the fact that they all study Corsican at University. The version of Corsican that is taught at the Università di Corsica Pasquale Paoli is a unified version for all the regions on the island have their own special use of the language. It is therefore likely that the more traditional ways of speech will die with the older generations.

The everyday use of the Corsican language might be declining with time but the day Corsu will truly be lost seems to be ages from today. Considering possible failure of the institutional measures the three youngsters are happy to take matters into their own hands. “These language policies of the Collectivé Territoriale that stimulate bilingualism might help a bit. But the French government will always draw a line.” Knows Lena who still sees a bright future for the Corsican language. “I hope my grandchildren will talk the same level of Corsu as French.”