Language or dialect? It doesn’t actually matter…

In Italy, linguists refer to lingue italiane ‘Italian languages’ – plural. This is odd. Travelling around Italy, by and large, the road signs seem to be in a single language, waiters address you in a single language, newspapers are in a single language. So why ‘languages’?

This is complicated further by the fact there are various ‘degrees’ of ‘language-dom’ apparent across the country.

Firstly, let us start with the basics. The language we refer to as ‘Italian‘ is, as noted in the link, in fact based on a conservative form of literary Tuscan. This, notably since the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, has been gradually accepted across the country as the written and subsequently even spoken standard. All Italians can now speak it, and a majority now do in all contexts (even informally among family).

Secondly, like any large European country, Italy has borders which were (and on the margins in some cases still are) contested, with national and linguistic minorities thus left within the boundaries of the Italian state. Thus, to the northeast there are tens of thousands of Slovene speakers; in the north there is a German speaking majority in South Tyrol; in some northwestern valleys there are speakers of dialects which would be more commonly linked to French rather than Italian; and in the Sardinian town of Alghero an estimated 20,000 people speak Catalan. These are languages with their own standards which are clearly distinct from Standard Italian, which can themselves be written, and which are clearly therefore different languages. So far, so easy.

Thirdly, within Italy, there are other Latin-derived languages with their own clear identity and, broadly, their own standard form. Two of these are particularly noteworthy. First, there is Sardinian, which like Standard Italian derives from Latin but which broke off and became literally isolated much earlier than dialects on the mainland or in Sicily and is thus markedly distinct – few doubt that Sardinian constitutes a different language with regional status. Second, there are Friulian (near the Slovene border) and Ladin (in South Tyrol) which are also derived from Latin but also broke off from Latin earlier than dialects elsewhere in Italy, which were maintained in valleys of mountainous areas (often largely cut off from communities elsewhere), and which have now developed their own place in education and written standards (Friulian and Ladin, alongside Romansch in neighbouring Switzerland, are related to each other more closely than any is to any other Latinate language, but are spoken in distinct regions and thus generally treated separately). Sardinian and Ladin-Friulian constitute a different case, as they are spoken by communities which have been based for over a millennium within the boundaries of what is now the modern Italian state. They are regional minority languages, but they are not languages of national minorities (and thus they have their own standards developed within Italy, rather than based on national or regional languages spoken in greater numbers elsewhere), which requires somewhat different treatment to enable their protection and development.

Thirdly, there are ‘languages’ (usually referred to as such in Italian, but as ‘dialects’ in English) of clear historical importance – notably perhaps Venetian, Sicilian and Neapolitan – which are spoken in some contexts by millions of Italians. These are written informally but have no agreed ‘standard’ as such, nor is there any particular desire for one – by and large, speakers are happy for written communication to be carried out in Standard Italian. These are not, however, ‘dialects of Italian’ – they followed a distinct progression from Latin and therefore do not derive from the same medieval Tuscan origin as Standard Italian (although they are historically and linguistically closer to it than Ladin-Friulian or Sardinian).

Within Italy, there is also a noteworthy linguistic boundary, referred to as the ‘La Spezia-Rimini line’). One marked distinction between traditional speech on either side of this line is that plural forms take -s to the north (including in Friulian-Ladin, Sardinian and Venetian, as well as in all dialects of French, Spanish and Portuguese and all regional Latin-derived languages and dialects in France, Spain and Portugal; thus Spanish lengualenguas ‘language-languages’) but involve amendment of the final vowel to the south of the line (including in Neapolitan, Sicilian and Tuscan and thus in Standard Italian, so lingualingue).

Then there are naturally versions of modern spoken Italian (i.e. generally close to the standard) which include traces of these latter regional ‘languages’. These may properly be referred to as ‘dialects of Italian’ because fundamentally they do, for the most part, derive from the Tuscan-based standard.

Why does this matter to us, say, in Northern Ireland?

It means that within Italy there are various languages and dialects in use: firstly, there are languages spoken more commonly in neighbouring countries with longstanding written standards; second, there are Latin- (but not Tuscan-) based regional languages now in use in education with developing written standards; third, there are regional languages (in fact with much greater numbers of speakers than either of the previous two categories, but whose speakers use them only in limited circumstances) with significant historical relevance but limited modern use and no widely accepted standard written form; all in addition to the Tuscan-based Standard Italian which initially developed primarily as a literary and thus written form. The important point is this: in fact most Italians in informal speech speak along a spectrum between their regional language and Standard Italian, tending increasingly towards the latter with each passing generation.

Which of those are ‘languages’ and which are ‘dialects’ is irrelevant, particularly given the last sentence. In fact, most Italians speak what is clearly a language (Italian) in a dialect form influenced by what they themselves generally regard as another ‘language’. There are at once Italian languages (plural) alongside a single Italian language – and this causes no problem to any Italian.

Bring this back to Northern Ireland and we have some obvious parallels. First, like German in South Tyrol or Slovene near the Adriatic, languages such as Polish or even Mandarin have pre-existing standards in their own country of origin, so although there are rights for speakers of those languages there is no need for a process of ‘linguistic development’ because they are not endangered and have standard forms, dictionaries, grammars and so on. Second, like Sardinian on Sardinia or Friulian-Ladin in mountainous areas of northern Italy, Irish is a native language of the jurisdiction (under severe threat) with a written standard but which does, unlike Polish and others, have a requirement for linguistic development because its use has (or, at least, had) declined and, if Northern Ireland does not take action to protect and promote it, there is a serious chance it will be lost altogether. Third, like Venetian or Neapolitan, Ulster Scots (like Scots across the North Channel) is a historical regional language whose speakers now use it in a spectrum with Standard English tending towards the latter; arguably, its historical importance requires some intervention to protect it, but such intervention would not be the same as is appropriate for Sardinian, Ladin-Friulian or Irish.

Those who are serious about the development of minority languages will reflect on these realities sympathetically as they introduce legislation and policy designed to promote both speakers’ rights and protect languages which may otherwise be lost. Desirable outcomes will perhaps be different in each case, and the approach towards attaining them will inevitably be.

We are, of course, about to find out who is serious and who is not.



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