A few weeks ago Alain, the teacher at my Occitan language class, brought in fifteen sprigs of greenery he’d gathered on a Sunday stroll, and passed them round for us to identify. The aim of the exercise was of course to talk about the Occitan names for these plants. While it’s often said – especially by people who don’t speak Occitan – that it’s a hybrid language of French and Spanish, the exercise served to remind me that many plant names in Occitan (or Oc for short) differ greatly from the French.
For example, Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom is Le Petit houx in French, but in Occitan it’s lo grifol. That’s also the word in Oc for a fountain, and the derivation seems to come from the verb grifolhar: to spurt like a spring or fountain of water. I suppose because the shoots erupt like a green fountain.
I’m trying to compile a list of the plants I identify in four languages: the scientific (Latin) name, and also English, French and Occitan. Each name has its own history and set of associations, the discovery of which is, for me, one of the most valuable results of my botanising.
Another topical example we passed around is Asparagus acutifolius, wild asparagus, asperge in French and esparga in Oc. Clearly both French and Oc here come from the same Latin root. But I include it here because now it’s the season to hunt for the slender new shoots in the garrigue, of which more below. Luckily for me M has the knack of spotting the little spears among grass at ten paces, and we’ve had several tasty omelettes and once collected so much we cooked it as a vegetable to accompany lamb steaks.
We examined a tough and spiny slim bramble-like stem of Common Smilax/Sarsparilla (Smilax aspera),: even the leaves of this little horror are covered in spines and end in hooks. It’s closely related to asparagus, and in fact the young shoots can be mistaken for the latter – no worry, as both can be eaten. The Oc names are very evocative: estaca paure and aganta paure (tie up or attach a poor unfortunate) conjure up the picture of someone returning to the village in the dark, and falling into a thicket of this thorny stuff as if into a pile of barbed wire. It’s also named estrangla cat – no explanation needed. I’ve written about the plant before, here.
Alain also brought in a branch of the evergreen Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), le chène vert in French and l’euse in Oc. The tree is so common and the Oc name is so widely used that French has taken to calling it le yeuse as well. Now this tree links to the garrigue: the name for an area covered in Holm oak is a garrolhas, and the name for oaks in general (and the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, in particular) is lo garric.
Now I thought till recently that the vegetation – garrigue – took its name from the Oc for oak, but not so – the origins are much older. According to Histoire de la Garrigue, by Jean-Paul Gervois, the linguist Alain Nouvel concluded in 1980 that the word comes from a proto-indoeuropean word something like kal denoting stone and, by extension, mountain, and which dates to perhaps 35,000 years ago. It resembles words in Arabic (garro – rock), Hebrew (ker – stone wall), and Basque gara (high place). I lived in Wales for over 20 years and learned some Welsh, and I’d like to add that there’s also a striking similarity with the Welsh craig (plural garreg, rock) and caer (wall or fort). Starting with the words for a tree and where it grows, we get a view of how groups of humans have moved and diverged over thousands of years, but retained a common stock of language.
You see? The words chène and oak just don’t take you on this journey.
I should point out , at the risk of confusing you further, that the proper scientific term for this sort of vegetation is ‘matorral’.
*Music obsessives like me will be reminded of the Barry Mann song Who put the Bomp (‘Who put the Bomp in the Bomp pah bomp pah bomp/Who put the Ram in the Rama lama ding dong?’ Questions we’ve all asked ourselves sometime or another). Relive that golden moment here.
But for the song to go with this post about my evening class, I keep hearing in my head the Dinah Washington version of Teach me tonight.