Sieu Nissa/Je suis Nice – a sociolinguistic response to violence

Thinking about the responses to violence from a sociolinguistic perspective is a sensitive matter; it has only been a week since a man drove a lorry into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront at Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300. The magnitude of the shock, grief, and loss is still being felt in the city, across France, and beyond. Part of the role of the researcher is to use their skills and knowledge, to take a step back, and to try and understand human phenomena. I am not an expert in terrorism, or psychology, and the only analysis I feel vaguely qualified to offer is on the sociolinguistic response to what happened on the Promenade des Anglais. Nice is a city I know relatively well, not only as a gateway to Corsica where I have spent a lot of time, but also because I considered the role that Nissart, the city’s regional language, has played in the life of Nice. Some of these findings have been discussed already, and in this post, I would like to reflect on the ways in which people have used language, symbols, and signs to answer the horror of mass murder.

Already, we know that the contexts for this violent act are deeply symbolic. The people on the Promenade des Anglais were commemorating France’s Bastille Day, the national holiday that marks the start of the French Revolution. Those gathered together were enjoying the traditional fireworks display, as many thousands of people were doing across France that evening, but it is worth recalling that Nice has not always been the emblematic French city that some consider it to be. Although Nice is the fifth largest city in France, it has only been part of the country for just over 150 years. Until then, if the city was identified with any nationality, it would have been what we now understand to be Italian. Nice, therefore, has become an emblematic French city over a relatively short period of time, and its French-ness has been heavily emphasized since the Bastille Day attack.

‘I am Nice’, first in Nissart, and then in French

The sociolinguistic response to the violence has been particularly rich, and draws on a range of linguistic and semiotic resources that merit closer examination. The act of extreme violence in Nice has, in public discourse, been entered into a litany of outrages that France has endured since January 2015 when the office of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked; this list includes the killings at the Porte de Vincennes on 9 January 2015, and the attacks across Paris on 13 November 2015. The response to the Nice killings echoes the swift public reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, as attested by the flyers circulating around Nice this week. White text, produced in the font used for Charlie Hebdo’s masthead, is set against a black background, replicating the placards used in early 2015 to proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’. Local colour is injected into the signs distributed by the image of a broken palm tree, appropriating an informal index of the city and its Mediterranean waterfront, but acknowledging the pain of the violence. Most striking is the use of the regional language, Nissart, to name the city – Nissa, rather than the French version of the toponym, Nice – and to conjugate the verb in the visually dominant expression ‘Sieu Nissa’ (‘I am Nice’).

Nissart is not usually considered as one of France’s ‘main’ regional languages, and is often described as merely a variety of Occitan, a prestigious language with a long literary tradition. Its use is limited, in particular in its written form, although it can be heard whenever the city’s unofficial anthem – Nissa la Bella – is sung. Where is can be found is in the material culture associated with ultras, the particularly dedicated subset of football fans, identified with Nice’s football team OGC. Their use of Nissart, including the expression ‘Pilhas garda, sieu nissart’ (‘Watch out, I’m from Nice’) is appropriated for the Charlie-Hebdo style flyer and recontextualized not as a warning to rival football fans but as a statement of solidarity with the suffering of Niçois. A translation is provided in French, but it is emplaced below the French, and in a smaller font, creating an unquestionable visual hierarchy.

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Images from Instagram using the red, white, and blue of the French tricolour

So this use of regional identity, based on the regional language, meets the more national and/or republican icons drawn upon to grieve and to respond to this violent attack. The colours of France’s tricolour, deployed already in earlier outrages, are reimagined as blood on the Promenade des Anglais; red, white, and blue lights have been projected onto the façade of the Negresco, Nice’s most famous hotel. These gestures coalesce as a projection of a shared identity that transcends the limits of the city and encompasses all of France, highlighting a perceived sense of unity across the country. This meshing of ‘national’ colours, a regional language, and a visual trope – ‘Je suis Charlie’ – adapted to a local setting are clearly ways in which individuals and groups try to make sense of and respond to what happened at the end of a fireworks display on a warm July evening in Nice.