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Corsican Language and Expressive Culture

This guest blog post is by Alexandra Jaffe, who will be speaking on this topic at noon on December 2, 2014 in the Montpelier Room, 6th floor, James Madison Building, Library of Congress as part of the American Folklife Center’s Benjamin Botkin Lecture Series. Jaffe is a professor of Anthropology at California State University, Long Beach with a specialty in linguistic anthropology.


Côte d’Azur, Corsica.

The island of Corsica is part of France but has a distinct culture and a minority language, Corsican. This presentation provides a brief historical overview of the social, economic, and political factors that have affected contemporary linguistic cultural practices and conceptions of identity on this Mediterranean island. First, it provides an account of the “language shift” that turned Corsican into a “minority” language under the dominance of French. This shift was influenced by out-migration for economic reasons as well as French ideological orientations that devalued both the Corsican language and more generally, Corsican traditional expressive forms.

Starting in the 1970s, young Corsican intellectuals initiated a cultural and linguistic revitalization movement which was tied to both wider political movements in France and to burgeoning Corsican nationalist politics. Cultural and linguistic militants pushed for official recognition for Corsican and its teaching in the schools and spearheaded language documentation and other forms of “status” and “corpus” planning that included the development of an orthography, the creation of a literary corpus, and the use of the Corsican language in plays, films, radio, and television. Closely tied to the linguistic focus were efforts to revalorize and resuscitate traditional forms of music and verbal art, in particular the “chjam’è rispondi” (poetic jousts) and the paghjella (a capella vocal harmony).

Drawing on ethnographic data fieldwork that I began in the 1980s, this presentation provides examples of contemporary uses of the Corsican language in traditional cultural forms as well as its entry into new media domains. It focuses on the way that language, genres and practices are adapted in response to social, cultural and linguistic change. These changes include the tensions of identity brought about by successful language revitalization. In other words, Corsican is now widely valued as an important language of heritage, but not all Corsicans speak or understand it. Those who don’t can experience linguistic insecurity and cultural inauthenticity.

The talk begins by briefly exploring is the paghjella, specifically its role in recruiting young men into a domain of Corsican-language artistic practice, the expansion of themes/lyrics into contemporary domains, the adaptation of the genre into more popular and “world music” (including circum-mediterranean) frames, and the integration of more women into this traditionally male practice. I will then focus on bilingual humor in standup comedy and on the radio. In particular, I will draw attention to the specific linguistic practices through which bilingual comedians incorporate speakers with varying levels of Corsican competency into a “speech community” that avoids making “perfect” Corsican a rigid criteria for authentic belonging. Finally, I will discuss my recent (2012) fieldwork in a Corsican bilingual school, where the teacher apprenticed the children into the art of the “chjam’è rispondi,” integrating them into both “old” oral circuits made up of elderly poets and new circuits of poetry written online, as academic composition, and for competition.

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