Languages of Italy: part 2

Sep 8, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting I discussed linguistic varieties spoken Italy and noted that there is a divide between northern Italy and central/southern Italy. The development of northern Italian dialects was influenced by the Langue d’Oïl varieties of French — curiously, not the neighboring Langue d’Oc varieties of southern France — and even by Germanic languages. We saw that these influences can be observed through pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar of northern Italian dialects. In the central regions of Italy these influences of the northern neighbors are much weaker and in the south they are not observed at all.

In the north-central part of Italy the main linguistic variety is Tuscan (toscano; blue on the map above), which is itself a collection of local dialects, including the Fiorentine dialect of Florence and Chianti. The importance of the Fiorentine dialect comes from its status as the language of culture for all the people of Italy, thanks to the prestige of the masterpieces of Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini. But despite being the base for the Standard Italian, Tuscan dialects exhibit some features distinct from those of the Standard Italian, both in pronunciation and in grammar.

For example, the Tuscan dialect is known for a different pronunciation of certain consonants, such as the “soft g” /dʒ/ (as in the English George) and “soft c” /tʃ/ (as in the English church). Instead of affricates, these sounds are pronounced as fricatives [ʒ] and [ʃ] so that the phrase la gente ‘the people’, which in Standard Italian is pronounced [la ˈdʒɛnte], in Tuscan is pronounced [la ˈʒɛnte]. Similarly, the phrase la cena ‘the dinner’, which in Standard Italian is pronounced [la ˈtʃeːna], in Tuscan is pronounced [la ˈʃeːna].

Another curious feature of the Tuscan dialect(s) is the use of the particle si. There are several different uses of si in Italian, including passive and reflexive, but in Tuscan si can also be used as the first person plural, similarly to on in French. However, in Tuscan si is no longer perceived as an independent particle but as a piece of verbal morphology and therefore si can be used in combination with the first plural person pronoun noi, as in Noi si va là ‘We go there’ (cf. Standard Italian Noi andiamo là). As can be seen from the last example, Tuscan also features verbal forms not found in Standard Italian.

South of Tuscan, in the area of Rome, are found the so-called mediano or romanesco varieties of Italian, a group of dialects including Marchigiano (in the central part of Marche), Umbrian (in Umbria), Sabino (in L’Aquila and Province of Rieti), Romanesco proper (in Rome) and several other dialects. It should be noted here that the Sabino dialect of Italian should not be confused with the Sabellic, or Osco-Umbrian languages, now extinct but once spoken in central and southern Italy before Latin replaced them as the power of the Romans expanded. The Sabellic languages are sister-languages of Latin and together they belong to the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Further south we find the Neapolitan (or meridionale) group of Italian dialects (sometimes also called Napoletano-Calabrese dialects). This linguistic group is spoken throughout most of southern continental Italy, including the Gaeta and Sora districts of southern Lazio, the southern part of Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Basilicata, northern Calabria, and northern and central Puglia. Because of massive southern Italian immigration in the 20th century, Neapolitan dialects had a strong influence on Emigre Italian in the diaspora communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. Two interesting peculiarities of the Neapolitan dialect (specifically from Naples) can be illustrated with the following quote from Our Lord’s Prayer:

Fance avé ‘o ppane tutt’ ‘e juorne

First, the definite (neuter singular) article lo lost its “l” and became ‘o. This article also triggers doubling of the initial consonant of the following word, hence ‘o ppane. This sort of doubling is found in various central and southern Italian dialects but not in northern Italian dialects.

In the far south and in Sicily we find the Meridionale-estremo dialect group. Some scholars, including the Ethnologue, describe Sicilian as being “distinct enough from Standard Italian to be considered a separate language” and indeed it has had influences virtually unknown in other parts of Italy. Even though Vulgar Latin was spoken by the Roman occupation troops who garrisoned Sicily after Rome annexed the island (after the end of the First Punic War, ca. 261 BC), Sicily (as well as the far south of Calabria and the province of Lecce) was never completely Latinised. Greek remained the main language for the majority of the population. Because of this, in addition to the Latin core, Sicilian has a large number of Greek borrowings (e.g., pistiari ‘to eat’ from apestiein). From the mid 9th to mid 10th centuries, Sicily was progressively conquered by Saracens from North Africa, who introduced to Sicily the most then-modern irrigation and farming techniques and a new range of crops – nearly all of which remain endemic to the island to this day. The Arabs also had a great effect on Sicilian cuisine, and — unsurprisingly — on its language. The Arabic influence is noticeable in around 300 Sicilian words, most of which relate to agriculture, cuisine and related activities (e.g., giuggiulena ‘sesame seed’ from giulgiulan). However, unlike in Malta, the Arabs did not completely replace the Latin-based tongue in Sicily.

Another strong influence on the Sicilian dialect is from Norman French. While it took Roger of Hauteville and his brother, Robert Guiscard, 30 years to complete the conquest of Sicily (which began in 1061), in the end they controlled the whole southern part of Italy, including not only Sicily but also Apulia and Calabria. In the process, these regions were re-Latinised and re-Christianised, and a long list of Norman words were to become absorbed by the Sicilian tongue during this period (e.g., raggia ‘anger’ from rage).

Following the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, Sicily was to come under the influence of the Kingdom of Aragon, and as a result, the Aragonese and the related Catalan language would add a new layer of vocabulary in the succeeding century. For the whole of the 14th century, both Catalan and Sicilian were the official languages of the royal court, and Sicilian was also used to record the proceedings of the parliament of Sicily (one of the oldest parliaments in Europe) and for other official purposes. While it is often difficult to determine whether a word has come to us directly from Catalan (as opposed to Provençal or Spanish), the following is likely to be such examples: ammucciari ‘to hide’ from amagar.

Thus, we complete our tour of the Western Romance dialect continuum exactly where we started — in Spain. The take-home message of this linguistic tour is that linguistic varieties — whether we call them languages or dialects — change gradually as we travel through neighboring areas: for instance, Galician is similar to northern Portuguese dialects (unfortunately, we have not discussed Portuguese dialects in enough detail, but we might come back to them at a later time); Catalan is closely related to Langue d’Oc varieties of French across the border; northern French Langue d’Oïl varieties have been heavily influenced by neighboring Germanic tribes; northern Italian dialects are more similar in some respects to Langue d’Oïl varieties than to southern Italian dialects; and the latter exhibit influences of conquerors and traders from various lands (Greeks, Arabs, Normans, etc.). This illustrates how one language — in this case, Vulgar Latin — can diversify and eventually split into a multitude of languages and dialects.

In tomorrow’s posting, we will look at the last branch of Romance — Eastern Romance — and will trace the local Balkan influence on these descendants of Vulgar Latin.


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