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Diary: Thea Lenarduzzi, (2) Language Families
Read Part One of this post here
When, in the last days of April 1945, Mussolini was captured by the brigate Garibaldi on the shore of Lake Como and made to stand against a wall while his executioner took aim, Walter Audisio, the man believed to have fired the shot, found that the dictator had nothing at all to say. “Not a single word: not the name of a son, nor of his mother or wife, not even a cry, nothing.” Language, too, had turned its back on him.
Until the mid 1970s, more than half the population of Italy spoke dialetto at home and with friends, Italian being reserved for the workplace and when travelling. Fifty or so years later, this had been turned on its head, with the majority speaking Italian at home and with friends, and only 14 percent expressing themselves most readily in their dialetto. Unsurprisingly, it was the older members of society that kept the dialetti alive: as late as 2015, 32 percent of those aged over seventy-five—that is, those born, like Nonno, before the Second World War—spoke exclusively or mostly in a dialetto. Still now, my uncle Orfeo speaks only Friulano and, if necessary, because of out-of-towners like me, the more Italianate Veneto. After the obligatory school years, Orfeo simply let Italiano standard drop. It didn’t fit him. As the poet Paul Celan said of the Romanian spoken around him as he was growing up, it was “no more than a light coat one can take off easily”; how could it compare with his mother’s tongue, German, which was a “domain,” “my fate,” full-body immersion.
In the second half of the twentieth century, a certain stigma was attached to the dialetti, as social status, politics, and language twisted and turned back on each other. Nonno’s kind of multilingualism was of a turbulent, uncelebrated sort, not at all like my own, as the child of one English and one Italian parent—a fate that, I am always told, is wonderful, so lucky, wow. As the Italian economy boomed and the country strove to modernize and find its place in a global picture, local languages were increasingly seen as retrograde, nostalgic, embarrassingly provincial—far better to learn English. When I was younger and had only ever lived in Italy, I looked only forward and in the most uncomplicated way and would have framed it like that too. I was Italian and so I spoke Italian. (Except when I was English and spoke English.)
A survey conducted by the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica in 2017 pointed to the preponderance of dialetti among those with lower levels of education. About a quarter of those whose studies ended with secondary school exclusively spoke a dialetto at home, compared to about 3 percent of those who pursued higher education. In recent years we have become familiar with such surveys, conducted in various countries, that suggest an association between reactionary, or nostalgic, politics and lower levels of education. Stigma sticks, spreads, mutates. And it can make an easy kind of sense. I remember, snobbando (the anglo-italianism so apt), the lombardo boys who hung around in the park behind the shopping mall, talking in their low yodelling vowels and clipped nasalities. They seemed to live on a different plain from me and my international group of friends. To them, who heard us talking among ourselves in English, we were foreign, inglesi, although most of us had been born and raised right there, probably beginning in the same hospital they had. To us, they were the foreign ones, speaking a language that didn’t have a place in the modern world. And yet there was the uneasy sense that they belonged here more than we did because of it. On some level I think we felt threatened, and so we generalized and mocked them as leghisti, supporters of the thuggish, far-right Northern League, a party then campaigning for the country to be broken up into pre-Unification regions. Could they be more backwards?
Once, regional tongues were seen as a threat to national unity. Now the risk lies in denying their place in people’s lives and histories. From 1999, the year of Nonno’s death, successive amendments to the Constitution have reasserted the historical value of a handful of regional cultures and languages, among them Friulano. Nonno missed it by six months and I wonder if it would have thrilled him—recognition, at last!—or meant nothing at all, just politicians doing what politicians do, while we get on with the living and working. Friulano is now protected, granted special legal status that allows it to be used alongside Italian in schools and other public spaces. But the matter remains controversial, misunderstood and highly politicized. At school, as well as Italian and English, my cousins, ten and more years younger than I, were taught Friulano. They read the poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and grew up “code-switching,” the phrase itself an import that Mussolini could never have tolerated.
For Nonno, the choice between Friulano and Italian was, I think, something like that between a favorite shirt, its cuffs and collar soft from years of use, and an over-starched Church shirt, hung out for him by someone else. The one gently hugged his form and movement, warmed by years of contact with his skin; the other never felt quite right, was restrictive, unnatural, and so reserved for official matters—births, deaths, marriages, and visitors.
In both my languages I am difficult to pin down—in English, there’s the odd Liverpudlian twang from my mother; in Italian, the closed vowels of the Milanese I grew up around—but mostly I sound as rootless as I often feel. My nonno and nonna and their children too lived for a time among English speakers, scraping by as immigrants in Sheffield and Manchester. And so, I twist back through my family. I cling to Nonno for support. My mind moves around his land like a ghost haunting a house it considers its own. Or a vampire, hovering on the threshold, hoping to be invited in.
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.
Last night Justin Torres, Ned Blackhawk, Craig Santos Perez, Stênio Gardel, and Dan Santat received 2023 National Book Awards in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature respectively. Fiction nominee Aaliyah Bilal, whose book Temple Folk we will review shortly, read a statement on behalf of the nominees calling for a humanitarian cease fire in Gaza and saying they “oppose antisemitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia equally.” Mitchell Kaplan awarded City Lights bookseller Paul Yamazaki the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community (we wrote about Paul and City Lights here), with a beautiful reflection that shocked us by quoting last week’s Heartland Vistas notebook! Shucks, thanks, and huge congratulations to Paul, who is an American hero ioo.
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