Identification. The Aveyron is one of ninety-five departments comprising the French republic. Predominantly rural and agricultural, it is one of the biggest of the French departments, with about half the area of New Jersey. It corresponds almost exactly to the province of the Rouergue, one of the smallest and most isolated in pre-Revolution France and one of the few left intact when the departments were created as administrative units under Napoleon. Like some larger French regions or former provinces (e.g., Brittany, Alsace, Provence) and a few other individual departments, the Rouergue/Aveyron has maintained a specific and widely recognized sociocultural identity within modern France.
Location. Landlocked and far from national boundaries, the Aveyron is located in the west/center of southern France, on the edges of several distinctive regions: the mountainous Massif Central to its east and north, the southwestern plains to its west, the Mediterranean Midi to its south. Its long History of isolation is due in part to its formidable geographic zones. The north Aveyron lies in the Aubrac Mountain range, the south is cut through by the steep gorges of the Tarn River, and the eastern flank is lined with dry and sterile limestone plateaus (the Causses), all inhibiting easy communications within and beyond the Rouergue/Aveyron through much of its history. In the interior is the Ségala region, a well-watered and heavily forested area of high plateaus, rolling hills, and extremely acidic soils. Most of the department's territory is at an elevation of 500 to 800 meters, though descending much lower in the river valleys cutting across the department, and ascending considerably higher on some of the Causses and especially in the Aubrac (up to a 1,400-meter peak). In most of the department, the climate is humid and temperate.
Demography. In 1886, the Aveyron's population reached its historic maximum of 416,000 (1886 French population: 39 million). During the following decades, large numbers of Aveyronnais (especially from the mountainous north) migrated, mainly to Paris but also to southern cities (Toulouse, Montpellier), the Argentine pampas, and San Francisco. Like other rural areas in France, the Aveyron suffered severe Population loss as a result of World War I. During the period of rapid economic growth in France following World War II, great waves of migrants again left the Aveyron, moving predominantly to Paris. By 1975, the department's population had fallen to 278,000 (1975 French population: 52.6 million) where it has since stabilized. The Aveyronnais Community in Paris is a coherent and highly visible one, organized into some seventy-five mutual-aid societies ( amicales ) by community or canton of origin. Parisian Aveyronnais are concentrated in the café or café-supply business (controlling about 70 percent of Parisian cafés) and in the lower echelons of the civil service (postal workers, police, etc.). They maintain close ties with the "homeland," to which many return for vacations and retirement.
linguistic Affiliation. As elsewhere in France south of the Loire River, dialects of langue d'oc were historically spoken in the Rouergue/Aveyron. These dialects are linguistically closer to modern Spanish or Italian than to French (descended from the langue d'oïl dialects, spoken north of the Loire). In general, the langue d'oc dialects are strictly oral and vary from village to village, but by convention they are grouped into dialect families, roughly corresponding to large pre-Revolution provinces. The dialects (patois) spoken in the north Aveyron are part of the Auvergnat (northern Massif Central) Family, while those spoken in the rest of the department belong to the Languedocian (western Midi) Family. Throughout the 19th century, the French state vigorously attempted to eradicate local patois and replace them with French as a language of national unity, but in most of rural Aveyron, French has become the primary language spoken at home only since World War II. In general, Aveyronnais born in this century speak fluent French, and those born since 1950 speak it as a first language, but most also understand a patois and many (especially older people) often prefer to use the latter. French will undoubtedly fully replace patois within the next generation or two, but the Aveyron will be one of the last areas of France to abandon its local languages for everyday use, more than a century after the state mandate to do so.