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Diary: Thea Lenarduzzi, (1) Language Families
My nonno was bilingual, as were most Italians of his age, for whom a regional language had always coexisted with Italiano standard. In fact, he was trilingual, speaking the very local Friulano with his wife, regional Veneto with his children, and nationalized Italian with my sister and me, who spoke that alone. No one is sure why he came to use different tongues for wife and children—“era così, nina …,” it’s like that, dear, says Nonna—but there seems to be an element of compromise. I think of Veneto as a kind of halfway house between Italian and Friulano, less strange to the non-speaker’s ear; I can understand most Veneto, while Friulano flummoxes me. The rationale in Nonno’s case may have been more personal, though: Veneto is the language his own mother grew up speaking, the language of her father’s “high” family, and the language his father knew to use to first get her attention. It is a tongue of airs and graces compared to the Friulano of the field hands. It was, his wife insisted, better. But this does not explain why the couple came to speak Friulano between themselves. Perhaps it was tit for tat.
I didn’t appreciate it when he was alive, but to hear Nonno speak was to fall through time, back to around 180 BC when the Carni, a mountain-dwelling Celtic tribe, came down to the Friuli’s fertile plains seeking respite from the Alpine winters and the chance of a gentler life. The Romans arrived soon after, chased them back into the mountains, and replaced their simple settlements with their own grander enterprise. Only once the Carni agreed to submit to Roman rule were they allowed back down to farm the land, to mix with the powerful new landowners (as long as they did not forget their place). The Friulian language tells the story of this coexistence of unequals in its heavily latinized Celtic, supplemented over the centuries by the Germanic of the invading Lombards, the Slavic and Venetian of the neighboring territories, and, for modern concepts, standard Italian. With wines we speak of terroir. A truer expression of place could not be found.
Moving down the Italian peninsula, thirty-one tongues apart from Italian have been counted by UNESCO, from the Francoprovenzale of the far Northwest to the Hellenic griko, spoken in some parts of Apulia, and mostly they are mutually unintelligible. There’s an old story about Italian troops in the World War I: a platoon of Piedmontese soldiers meets a platoon of Sicilians and, each side assuming the other to be German, it almost ends in a bloodbath.
That in the early twentieth century the Italian Army was not speaking Italian shows how little progress the idea of a national identity had made since Garibaldi’s day, when the writer Alessandro Manzoni supposedly dipped his own Milanese in the waters of Dante’s River Arno to create a plainer, modern Italian for all. Then, language was a flexing of muscles between rivals, who reached a truce: a single tongue to bind a divided people, to make them speak and write a new nation—an idea, really—into being. But when, on Unification, Manzoni’s Italian was made the official language of the Kingdom of Italy, only about 2 percent of the population spoke it. Because an Italian speaks Italian, sure; but what if he sees himself, foremost, as Friulano or Piemontese or Emiliano or Sardo? If you have more than one language in you, you will favor the one that rises to your throat most naturally.
Language is the flower of identity, and like the rambling rose it can be trained this way or that, to serve a purpose beyond its own desire to thrive. From the mid 1920s, when Nonno was born, Mussolini intensified the nineteenth-century drive to standardize the nation’s language. He announced a war to “defend” Italian from other tongues, regional as well as foreign, which sought, in his eyes, to poison noble Latin roots. Patriots spoke Italian only. Like his bonifa delle paludi—the vast Fascist project of swamp drainage, which sought to make marshland buildable, farmable, and capable of attracting citizens who would otherwise emigrate—Mussolini called for a bonifica linguistica, a great linguistic reclamation. “Dictator” is, after all, rooted in the act of speech. Notices appeared in town squares:
Once and for all, even in shops of any sort, ONLY THE ITALIAN LANGUAGE must be used. We Squadristi, with persuasive methods, will enforce this order.
Expressions of regional identity were a direct threat to Italianità, which for the Fascists was really Romanità, founded on the myth of an ancient Roman essence, common to all Italians. And as Il Duce concentrated on building a neo-Roman empire, the promulgation of a standard language became increasingly necessary. Foreign words—forestierismi, from the Latin foris meaning “out”; literally, “outsiderisms”—were banished. Dialetti were excluded from public spaces. He demanded that the Accademia della Crusca “clean up” the language by finding Italian words to replace any corruptions, or esoticismi. In 1938, the word “lei,” as a polite version of “you,” was outlawed and replaced by the more imperious-sounding “voi.” (According to one theory, Il Duce found “lei,” which also means “she,” dangerously emasculating.) Schools and public offices were put on guard.
The bonifica linguistica was ultimately about as successful as the reclamation of the swamps. By spring 1945, among the ruins of the Fascist regime, self-expression was beginning, tentatively, to bloom again: on February 18, 1945, about half an hour south of Maniago, in the small town of Casarsa della Delizia, a young Pier Paolo Pasolini, enfant terrible in the making, founded the Academiuta di Lenga Furlana, dedicated to the study of Friulian language and poetry. Such a thing would have seemed unimaginable when Il Duce was at the height of his powers …
Part Two of this post coming soon!
Thea Lenarduzzi is a writer, a broadcaster, and an editor at the Times Literary Supplement. “Dandelions,” a family memoir and cultural history of migration between Italy and England, won the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize. Dandelions, the book, from which this essay was drawn, was published in England by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
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