The name of the language comes from oc, the medieval word for yes, as opposed to northern French or langue d'oïl (the ancestor of the modern French oui).
The term Provençal is also used, but Provençal is just one of the dialects grouped under the label Occitan, the variant of the Provence region, the literary dialect used by Frederic Mistral and the Felibrige.
Occitan was the vehicle for the first vernacular poetry of medieval Europe, that of the troubadors. With the gradual imposition of French royal power over its territory, Occitan declined in status from the 14th century on. Its greatest decline was during the French Revolution, where diversity of languages was seen as a threat. Though it was still the everyday language of most of the rural population of the South well into the 20th century, it had been replaced in more formal uses by French. Today there are still several million native speakers of Occitan, though they are to be found mostly in the older generations. Ethnic activism, particularly the Occitan-language preschools, the Calandretas, have reintroduced the language to the young.
The actual use of the term Occitan seems rather confusing. Some authors consider that Occitan is a family of languages, including:
- Auvernes (Auvergnat)
- Shuadit or Judeo-Provençal (considered extinct since 1977)
Almost all serious linguists and Occitan writers disagree strongly with the view that Occitan is a family of languages and think that Limousin, Auvergnat, Alpin, Gascon, Languedocien and Provençal are dialects of a single language.
Among the diachronical features of Occitan as a Romance language:
- Unlike French, preserved stressed A of Latin (Latin MARE > Oc. mar, but > Fr. mer).
- Like French, changed Latin U to [y] and shifted the series of back vowels U>y, o>u O>o.
- Gascon changed initial Latin F to aspirated [h] (Latin FILIU > Gascon Oc. hilh), like medieval Spanish did.
- Other lenition and palatalisation phenomena shared with other western Romance languages, specially with Catalan.
«Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman, / qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire. / Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan; / consiros vei la passada folor, / e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan. / Ara vos prec, per aquella valor / que vos guida al som de l'escalina, / sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor»