The Boot of Babel: Italy’s Many Languages

San_Fratello_San_Frareau_Lingua_Gallo-Italica

As I mentioned in my previous post on the Griko dialect and people, Florentine Italian may be the “standard” language of Italy, but it still has to compete with, and often takes a back seat to, scores of local dialects. These dialects have survived, and were no doubt changed by, centuries of conquest and trade. They remained distinct enough in the 20th century that Benito Mussolini implemented a plan of “deregionalization,” the rationale being that if the nation of Italy were to compete and succeed, it could not do so a modern-day Babel. We like to think of everything a fascist does as being fascist, except enforcing punctual trains, but he probably had a point. Italy had been fractured for so long, its dialects were essentially distinct languages. Whether one agreed with the politics of unification or not, the fact was Italy was unified, and there had to be some effort to get everyone on the same page.

Fortunately, Rennaissance-style Italian was accepted only begrudgingly, and regional dialects are still in use today, though that use may be diminishing. Sensing their endangerment, today’s Italian government has made efforts to preserve rather than discourage these local tongues. After all, as the saying goes, a dialect is simply a language without an army. Naturally, many of the northern dialects share something in common with the tongues of countries these regions border – France, Switzerland, Slovenia – and the southern ones are peppered with Arab and Greek influences. But they were all Latinized centuries ago, well before the refined times of Dante and the Medici.

One example is the Cosentino dialect, found in northern Calabria in the area surrounding the city of Cosenza. Cosentino differs from Italian and even from southern Calabrian. Take a look, for instance, at these translated versions of the Lord’s Prayer, first in English as a guide and then in Italian:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
Amen.

Padre nostro che sei nei cieli,
sia santificato il tuo Nome,
venga il tuo Regno,
sia fatta la tua Volontà
come in cielo così in terra.
Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano,
e rimetti a noi i nostri debiti
come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori,
e non ci indurre in tentazione,
ma liberaci dal Male.
Amen.

And now compare the Italian version above with Cosentino:

Patre nuastru, ca si’ ntru cielu,
sia santificatu u nume tua,
venissa u règnu tua,
si facissa a vuluntà tua,
cumu aru cielu d’accussì sup’a terra.
dùnani oji u pane nuastru i ogni juarnu,
e perdùnani i piccati nuastri
cumu nua ii perdonamu ari nuastri dibbitùri
e ‘un ni lassa’ jire ntra tentazione,
ma lìbberani d’u male.
Amen.

As you can see, there are a lot of u’s in place of o’s, something we also see in the Sicilian dialects. Another distinction, not evident in the prayer above, is the substitution of “dd” for the double-L sound. Thus cavallo (horse) in Calabrese is cavaddu. In this case the “d” sound is something called voice retroflex plosive, a linguist’s term for bringing the tongue up and curling it back. (If you took Spanish in high school, you may remember being taught to soften your “d” sound to sound less like a gringo. It’s somewhere between a “d” and an “l.”) That’s as technical as I can get on the subject – if anyone with greater expertise wants to comment and correct me or add to this, I welcome that.

But can we find languages like Cosentino in use today? Absolutely. Take a look at the menu below for a pork festival at Ristorante Pizzeria Macrito, located in Marano Marchesato, outside Cosenza.

macrito1

I’ve tried to identify some words here, but cuisine is always tough since a lot of terms are localized and/or slang (see: sub, hoagie, hero, grinder). Puarcu is certainly pork (porco in Italian, so we also have a diphthong – ua – in use). Suffrittu would be “fried,” and Purtugalli must refer to something from Portugal. And I’m guessing l’osse du puarcu is pork bone (rib?), but then there is a word like cuajiri and I have no idea what that means. Minestra e cappucciu is probably cabbage soup (cavolo cappuccio). But again I get lost – frittule is fritters I think, but what’s ‘ccu? I’ll have to reach out to the restaurant to get a translation.

The website ConPaola.it has assembled a glossary of random words, most likely Cosentino but possibly even more localized, i.e. the Marano (or Meranu) dialect from hillside towns outside Cosenza. It’s translated into Italian, not English, but email me if you’d like to see a rough English version I cobbled together using Google Translate.

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8 thoughts on “The Boot of Babel: Italy’s Many Languages

  1. Pingback: #Italy like #Britain is a Feast of #Dialects | johndwmacdonald

      • Probably pronounced “coo” which, when spoken, might make more sense.

        I remember walking into the Comune in Arpino (FR) and asking for the glossary of the local dialect. They didn’t have one. Years later, I walked back in and asked for a glossary and the woman behind the counter remembered me and asked me to wait.

        A few minutes later she handed me a first print of the glossary of the local dialect.

        Reading it on the page makes absolute nonsense. Only when spoken does it make any sense.

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