23-Sep-2020 : Babel all’Italiana

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“Italy’s thirteen cultural and linguistic minorities are agitating for change – less the political sort that cleaves the country’s eastern neighbors than the right to use their own languages when and how they please.” – Patricia Corbett (“Babel all’Italiana”, The Atlantic Monthly, May 1994).

A fascinating look at the variety of languages which exist in Italy today – where they originally came from, and where and by whom they are spoken.

Title: Babel all’Italiana

Author: Patricia Corbett

Preface:   Italy’s thirteen cultural and linguistic minorities are agitating for change – less the political sort that cleaves the country’s eastern neighbors than the right to use their own languages when and how they please.

Published: The Atlantic Monthly (May 1994)

Publisher: The Atlantic Monthly Co, 745 Boylston Avenue, Boston MA 02116, Tel (617) 536-9500

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and publisher on the condition that it is used for research purposes only. It may not be recopied or distributed for payment other than to cover the cost of the media on or by which it is supplied.

Furthermore it may not be edited or modified in any way and may only be distributed in its entirety, including these conditions, unless prior written permission is obtained from the publisher: contact Deborah R Hoffenberg (editor i/c Permissions) at The Atlantic Monthly Co.

Babel all’Italiana

Italy is one Western country in which current political upheavals have masked not only the rise but also the peculiar nature of ethnic sentiment. To foreigners, Italians appear to be ethnically homogeneous, especially compared with their neighbors to the east.  Many Italians, too, assume that any diversity was absorbed long ago.  “Our ancestors,” the political commentator Enzo Biagi explained recently, “had too many opportunities for recreation.”  But in fact Italy is the Western European country with the greatest number – thirteen – of cultural and linguistic minorities: Albanian, Catalan, Franco-Provencal, French, Friulian, German, Greek, Ladino, Occitanian, Romany, Sardinian, Croat, and Slovenian.  France comes in a distant second, with nine ethnolinguistic minorities.

These are not migrant guest-workers but “historical minorities”, who for centuries have been living in what is today Italian territory.  Most inhabit regions where frequently shifting frontiers made nationality an arbitrary, short-term proposition.  Some descend from foreign mercenaries recruited abroad to fight for the rulers of Italian statelets, others from refugees displaced by war or religious persecution in neighboring countries.  The panic of Mediterranean peoples fleeing Ottoman marauders echoes 500 years later in the jokey Italian exclamation of fright or surprise “Mamma, li turchi!”  (“Hey, Ma, the Turks are coming!”)

Most Italians may be unaware that together these diverse communities account for more than five percent of their country’s population of 57 million.  Exact figures are hard to come by, because the census does not generally record citizens’ ethnic backgrounds.  Much evidence of Italy’s minorities was destroyed under fascism.  In the early 1920’s, when the regime abolished diversity, “un-Italian” sounding names of people and places were forcibly “reduced” to Italianate forms.  Overnight Steins and Kovalcics became Pietris and Cavallis; skiers no longer vacationed in Courmayeur – or, in Franco-Provencal, Courmeyaou – but in Cormaiore. Although a vigorous movement to restore original toponymy has arisen in some regions, countless surnames have vanished for good.

To fill in the blanks, linguists must glean clues from all manner of secondary sources, ranging from teachers’ reports on children’s speech to independent polls.  The first official survey of language patterns in Italy was conducted five years ago by ISTAT, the national statistics bureau.  The results were stunning: for a majority (62 percent) of the population, dialects or non-Italian tongues remain the parlance of choice at home and with friends – and when angry.  Those who admitted to using a foreign language exclusively were doubtless underreported at 1.9 percent. Respondents were often genuinely confused when asked whether they spoke Italian, a dialect, or “other” – which some took to mean English, or Chinese.  The average Sardinian, for instance, might not know if his native idiom qualifies as a sort of insular Italian, a dialect, or a separate language.  (The last response is the correct one.)  Also, victims of Fascist-era discrimination were understandably reluctant to give candid answers that might one day again place them in jeopardy.

None of this should come as a surprise.  When Italy was unified, in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the inhabitants could speak the national language fluently, according to the linguistic historian Tullio De Mauro; less than 10 percent could understand it at all.  “Italy has been made, but not so the Italians,” was the patriot Massimo d’Azeglio’s gloomy remark at the time.  Initially progress was slow: by the 1950’s Italian-speakers made up just 19 percent of the population.  Today, although 87 percent are able to express themselves in Italian, only 38 percent say they actually do so at all times.

Article 3 of Italy’s 1948 constitution – a remarkable progressive document for its era – states that all citizens are equal before the law regardless of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, and personal and social conditions.  Article 6 goes on step further, specifically protecting linguistic minorities.  However, for the past two decades attempt after attempt by parliamentarians of every political stripe to pass a single blanket law defining the rights of all of Italy’s historical minorities has failed.  In their dealing with government, ethnic delegates often encounter an unwillingness to pay more than lip service to the constitution.  A high career official in the Ministry of the Interior confided to me not long ago, “I won’t be forced to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on groups destined for extinction.”

Ethnolinguistic groups want the government not merely to permit but also to set guidelines and guarantee support for the use of minority languages in public education, administration, and the mass media.  These match the basic goals set forth in the Council of Europe’s 1992 Charter for Regional or Minority Languages – which Italy has not signed.  Although these requests might sound unrealistic and unpatriotic to many Americans, the situation of Europeans is quite different.

When new boundaries were drawn in the Old World, historical minorities rarely had any choice as to which state would encapsulate their communities.  Sometimes they didn’t even care.  An old Neapolitan saying goes, “Franza o Spagna, purche se magna” (“France or Spain, as long as we eat”).  Italy’s long history of political fragmentation has always been offset by hardy tribal groupings, from inoffensive “campanilismo” (linking those living within sight and sound of the same campanile, or bell tower) to criminal associations like the Mafia, Camorra, and N’drangheta.  Italy’s ancient ethnolinguistic enclaves represent a form of continuity in a constantly shifting landscape.  Early this year the Ministry of the Interior issued its first official report on ethnolinguistic minorities in Italy.  Although some quibble with its facts and figures, the document clearly signals that these groups are starting to be recognized as a vital national resource.

Why should we care about these quaint anthropological pockets within the confines of Europe’s third most productive country?  “Italy today can tell us a lot about the concept of statehood at the end of the twentieth century,” according to Richard Locke, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He believes that what is happening in Italy is “an extreme manifestation of a widespread European trend”: a shift away from central authority and toward local interests.

As Italy’s First Republic spectacularly self-destructed last year, after a stunning fifty-two postwar governments, the country was torn apart along socio-economic and regional lines.  Italy’s minorities are just as eager for change and just as resentful of Rome’s exploitation of territorial assets as their fellow citizens – yet they view the dawning Second Republic with concern.  As part of a sweeping electoral reform proportional representation for parties garnering less than four percent of votes nationwide has been eliminated.  The reform, which will give Italy a stable two- or three-party system, has already deprived the smallest ethnic groups of seats in Parliament.

Some ethnic groups complain that Italy distinguishes between first-class and second-class minorities.  First-class minorities speak the national language of a neighboring country and, more significant, inhabit linguistic “peninsulas” extending into Italy over borders shared with Austria, France, and now Slovenia.  Thus the German-speaking inhabitants of the South Tirol, the Francophones in the Valle d’Aosta, and the Slovenes in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia belong to an elite.  They are officially recognized by the Italian state.

Although the Sardinian and Friulian minorities are both demographically and geographically conspicuous, they are in the second category, along with the eight other linguistic “islands” and “archipelagos” scattered throughout the land.  There are even enclaves buried within enclaves: unassimilated Ladino and Germanic villages in French zones, a Catalan nucleus in Sardinia.  Singly, not one of these groups can hope to obtain formal recognition from the government.

The special treatment the more privileged minorities enjoy stems not from the application of the constitution but from internationally brokered accords written after the Second World War – and continuing support from ethnic big brothers in neighboring countries.

The first to benefit from diplomatic intervention were the Francophones in the Valle d’Aosta (“valdostani”, who now number 70,000).  Under the Savoy, French had been this region’s official language from 1561 until the Kingdom of Italy was founded, three centuries later.  In 1945, to defuse the very real threat of secession to France, Rome granted the Valle d’Aosta the right to administrative self-determination.  Since then the region’s integrated bilingualism has proved a success: school subjects are taught in both French and Italian, and citizens are free to conduct public and private business in either language.

Yet there are speakers of other Gallo-Romance tongues living in the western Alps whose rights are non-existent: the Franco-Provencals and the Occitanians.  The former (90,000) are most numerous in the valleys of Aosta and Piedmont, although up to 2,000 live in two southern Apulian towns, Faeto and Celle San Vito.  The towns were settled in 1270 by Franco- Provencal soldiers and, later, their families at the invitation of the Angevin King Charles I, who wanted to repopulate his war-ravaged lands. Franco-Provencals reject any suggestion that theirs is not a true language but a dialect.

Occitanian is the medieval troubadours’ “langue d’oc”, which in 1539 was outlawed by Francois I in favour of the “langue d”oil” – French – then used in Paris.  Somehow the language endured, and even briefly triumphed when in 1904 the Occitanian poet Frederic Mistral shared the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Today about two million people speak it daily, and one tenth of these live in Italy, mainly in Piedmont – except for the 3,000 isolated inhabitants of Guardia Piemontese, in Calabria, in the far south.

The path to linguistic parity in the South Tirol, or Alto Adige, as Napoleon and Mussolini preferred to call the area between the Brenner Pass and Lake Garda, has been rockier.  In 1919, after almost six centuries of uninterrupted Hapsburg dominion, the South Tirol was apportioned to Italy. Twenty years later 78,000 inhabitants took Hitler up on “die Option” of resettlement in Germany, but at the end of the Second World War almost all chose to return home.  By this time public opinion on both sides of the border strongly supported annexing the South Tirol to Austria.  Rather than lose a sizeable, prosperous chunk of territory, Italy granted the Alto Adige administrative autonomy in 1948.

In the “altoatesino” system ethnic Italians and Germans have equal but separate status.    The system has spawned countless measures that can seem unfair, illogical, or just plain silly.  Quotas based on “ethnic density” ensure that the German-speaking majority of 288,000 has greater access to public housing than Italians.  The staggered schedules of German and Italian schools are seen as a device to prevent children from mingling. The “patentino”, a sort of German-speaking license, is an absolute requirement for holding public office.  Within the South Tirol native Italian-speakers are the disadvantaged minority.

Understandably, dissatisfaction is rampant both among ethnic Italians, who feel discriminated against in their own country, and among ethnic Germans, who feel like Austrians in exile.  From the sixties through the eighties terrorist attacks were carried out against targets in both Austria and Italy.  After years of summitry involving the United Nations along with representatives from both states and every relevant political and ethnic group, the latest and perhaps last “pacchetto”, or package deal, was signed in 1992.

Roughly 20,000 other German-speakers scattered across northern Italy have none of the advantages accruing to their Alto Adige cousins.  They are the speakers of the Corinthian-German dialect, who live around Udine; the Mocheni (“doers”, whose name is an Italianized version of the German “machen”, “to do”), who live in the Trentino; the Cimbrians (from “zimberer”, “timberers”, or woodsmen), who have lived in the mountainous Seven Communes, around Vicenza, and Thirteen Communes, around Verona, since about 1200; and the Walsers, whose extended-family networks – linking, say, the Valdostan Delapierres, the Piemontese Della Pietras, and the Swiss Zumsteins – are famous.  Ten Walser colonies survive in Italy, each one represented by a gold star on the Walser flag.

The northeastern reaches of the country have always been home to a large Slovene population.  After the fall of the Dual Monarchy, in 1918, the area between the Julian Alps and the Istrian peninsula was allotted to Italy. In the aftermath of the Second World War, most of this territory was eventually reassigned to Yugoslavia.  The Slovenes who had become “compulsory Italians” under fascism were joined in Italy by a later generation fleeing Tito’s regime.  As early as 1945 the treatment of Slovenes by Italian officials was condemned by the British Foreign Office. Basic linguistic rights were granted only after considerable delay, and still do not apply equally to all Slovenes.  It was only in 1961 that Slovene-language schools were legally instituted by the Italian government in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia (which together contain 64,000 Slovenes).  The 21,000 Slovenes of the province of Udine are still out in the cold.

After Slovenia and Croatia achieved statehood, in 1991, Italian Slovene complaints of unfairness suddenly gained international resonance.  Both former Yugoslav republics have sizeable ethnic Italian populations, and Italian authorities began to fear reprisals against their own.  Now the three countries are negotiating to safeguard their respective minorities’ rights.  Current national frontiers have not been challenged, at least not officially.  However, the closely related issue of the restitution of confiscated or abandoned property, especially real estate, is high on the Italian, Slovene, and Croatian agendas.  One Slovene spokesman recently said darkly, “The Italians lose wars, but they win at the bargaining table.”

The Slovenes are not Italy’s only people of Balkan origin.  There are at least 3,000 Croats in the southern province of Campobasso, who have preserved an archaic Croatian dialect known as “stocavo-icavo”.  Many of them descend from groups who fled the Turks in the fifteenth century. Although they are not involved in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, these Italian Croats have received aid from Croatian nationalists in the not-so-distant past.

Italy’s 25,000 Grecanici, or neo-Greeks, are fond of tracing their ancestry all the way back to Magna Graecia, or at the very least to Justinian’s Byzantine Empire, when migrants were drawn to zones in the heel and toe of the boot where there had been previous Greek colonization.  Though erratic token exchanges with Greece continued through the 1950’s, when Athens had a commemorative stele erected in the main square of the unofficial neo-Greek capital Calimera, relations cooled under the Greek colonels.  Recently there has been a revival of interest in “griko”, a tongue comparable to the vernacular spoken in Cyprus or Crete.

More populous than Slovenes and neo-Greeks together are the Albanians (130,000) or Arberesh.  They came to Italy in successive waves as hired- soldiers-cum-settlers.  Among the earliest colonists was the scourge of the Turks, Giorgio Castriota Scanderbeg, whom Ferrante d’Aragonia invited to put down roots in Apulia with his troops; the last colony was founded in 1744 in Abruzzo, at the behest of the Bourbon monarch Charles III. Protective of their ancient traditions, ethnic Albanians cultivate a clannish sense of kinship.  Three years ago, when Italy turned back a brimming boatload of refugees from Tirana, Arberesh villages quickly pooled resources to take in as many families as possible.  Paradoxically, the Albanians are also among the most assimilated of Italy’s historical minorities, in every field.  For example, the legendary director of Mediobanca, Italy’s premier industrial investment bank, Enrico Cuccia, is reported to be an Arberesh.

What are sometimes called Italy’s two macro-minorities – the Sardinians and the Friulians – are in fact majorities in their homelands.  Though Sardinia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia are autonomously governed regions, these groups have not achieved the same recognition as Francophone “valdostani” or German-speaking “altoatesini”.

More than half of the 1.7 million Sardinians are conversant in the Sardinian language, “limba sarda”.  This is not an Italian dialect but a distinct Romance tongue with a strong basis in Latin, even if Dante’s crude assessment was that Sardinian is to Latin as monkeys are to men.  There has always been an energetic autonomy movement in Sardinia; it persisted through four centuries of Catalonian and Aragonese dominion, which started in 1323.  The dominion left a strong stamp.  The invaders from the Iberian peninsula made their linguistic mark: roughly half the inhabitants of the Sardinian port of Alghero still speak “catala”, or Catalan.

Separatist agitation intensified after 1720, when the Savoys took possession of Sardinia, eventually imposing Italian as the official language.  Lawmakers have long campaigned, usually unsuccessfully, for linguistic rights.  Only last year the Italian government quashed as unconstitutional the latest motion passed by the Sardinian Regional Council to provide limited instruction in and administrative use of the “limba”. If the measure is ever apporved, argument over the relative merits of the several Sardinian variants (including “campidanese”, “logudorese”, “gallurese”, and “sassarese”) may begin.

Unlike many other minorities, the 700,000 Friulians can hark back to a golden age of independence and have been established on Italian soil for thousands of years.  Established during the eleventh century, the Patria del Friuli survived with its own legal system and economy until 1420, when Venice annexed the central and western areas.  Austria conquered the east a century later, and it was not until after the First World War that Friuli was reunited, within the Kingdom of Italy.  The long wait for their own unification may be one reason why of all of Italy’s ethnic groups, Friulians are the least inclined to separatism.  It is interesting, however, to discover that a recent president of the region has recorded a bilingual message on his home answering machine – in English and “merilenghe furlan”, the Friulian mother tongue.

Furlan is related to Ladino, the Rhaeto-Romance tongue called Romansch in Switzerland, where it is sanctioned as a national, though not an official, language.  Ladino in Italy is spoken by some 30,000 mountain folk in the Dolomites.

Finally, a group that lives everywhere and nowhere: the Gypsies (110,000) are the country’s most overlooked minority – although new arrivals from Eastern Europe daily swell their numbers.  The original migration probably dates back to 1422, when a “Duke Andrew of Egypt”, accompanied by several hundred men, descended on Bologna on his way to visit the Pope.  In recent years the Gypsies have been championed by the Church.  John Paul II hailed tham as a “transnational people”, a term the European Community proposed to adopt.  Don Bruno Nicolini, the founder of Rome’s Centro studi zingari (Center for Gypsy Studies), is tireless in his efforts to get authorities to attend to his flock’s needs and also to foster “Romanipe” – Romany consciousness-raising.  Nicolini says that having lived for centuries as nomads, Gypsies can show the way to a future without borders, and can help Western Europeans liberate themselves from the “straitjacket” in which they have, he says, been voluntarily enclosed.

One of the chief charges leveled against Italy’s minority languages is that a number of them are mere “parlate”, qualifying as speech but not language, and often lacking standard written forms – “mouthfuls of air”, to adapt Anthony Burgess’s phrase.  But linguistic validity and vitality do not depend on the strength of the written tradition over the oral.  The real distinction to be made is contextual.  The colloquilaisms of “stocavo- icavo” spring from the “brat-a-brat” – “brotherliness” – of rural life; Franco-Provencal is best suited to the “primitive socialism” of communal Valdostan pastures.  No matter how widespread its use or distinguished its literary heritage, Occitanian is naturally suited to non-urban, low- technology environments.  Other languages, such as Slovenian and Albanian, whose standardization may only just have been completed or is still in progress, have instead evolved, pressed by external historical events, to reflect the full range of contemporary reality.

Because they converse among themselves and with strangers in tongues unintelligible to most Italians, minority-group members have often been suspected of disloyalty.  During this century’s major conflicts, when the country’s “sacred natural confines” were being staked out, they were often cast as traitors.  In 1947 the ethnic French, Friulian and German signatories of the Declaration of Desenzano demanded that Italy “one and indivisible” become a federal state.  Today, although the Northern League flirts with the idea of a country divided into self-supporting states, this is not overwhelmingly favoured by any of Italy’s ethnic groups – not even the usually rebellious South Tyroleans, 62 percent of whom have declared themselves “satisfied” with the current status.  Historically, minorities have always felt able to honor both “piccola” and “grande patria” (small and great fatherland).  It is simply a matter of geohistorical perspective; for the Friulians, Italy is the great fatherland, Friuli is the small; for the Arberesh,  Albania is the great fatherland and Italy is the small.

Ethnic Italians never held a monopoly on politics.  The Risorgimento statesman Count Camillo Benso di Cavour was a French-speaking Piedmontese who was never completely comfortable in Italian; Francesco Crisp, Garibaldi’s adviser, was the son of an Albanian priest.  In this century the anti-fascist minister Giovanni Giolitti was an Occitanian.  A founder of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci, was of Sardinian and Albanian parentage; its late charismatic leader Enrico Berlinguer and the Christian democratic former President Francesco Cossiga also hailed from Sardinia.  Minority-group members have made notable contributions in the arts and humanities.  The painter Slovan Music is a Slovene, the writer Mario Rigoni Stern is a Cimbrian.  The author and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was a keen – and early – advocate of Friulian culture.

I recently attended a meeting in Rome of CONFEMILI, the national Confederation of Linguistic Minorities, where Ian Fleming-style acronyms were much in evidence, ranging from the ominous MAO (Movimento autonomo occitano) to the cheeky DISSIMILI (Dipartimento sardo studi identita minoranze linguistiche).  The most striking feature of the encounter was the seriousness of the debate, focusing on matters of common interest: the problems besetting the passage of “our law”; the danger that “macro- minorities” will overshadow “micro-minorities”; the difficulties of making do with a fluctuating budget provided by the European Community (with no help from Italy), which won’t support a headquarters and which reimburses members for expenses months late.  A new poster promoting regional languages, produced in Brussels with different versions for many different languages, featured drawings of variously shaped pink tongues neatly tacked to a board, with a legend reading, “Le lingue vanno amate, non conservate. Le lingue regionali, un bene tutto tuo” (“Tongues should be loved, not preserved.  Regional languages, your very own property”).  The design was dismissed as being in poor taste, and the German-speaking representative from Bolzano soberly noted that in his part of the world it was felt that the word “loved” ought to be replaced with “used”.

An outsider might be tempted to pick out the obvious stereotypes, according to superficial criteria of costume and accessories: a Gypsy painter in an electric-blue suit, a Valdostan in pinstripes and a hat, a bearded Slovene journalist with a Power-Book.  Even so, the people at the conference generally looked no different from average Italians you would find walking down the street.  And, of course, they were communicating not in English or Esperanto but in their national language – Italian.