Why you should care
Because going local means coping in a world gone global.
Jestìte, ca sta sentu friddu jo pi te/ Già sta ’mpilu cu ti esciu, sai/Pi l’arma tua ma jestite …
As I stroll under the scorching sun in Nardò, a town in Puglia on the heel of Italy’s boot, I hear music from an open window. The melody sounds like the Lennon–McCartney classic “Yesterday,” but the lyrics are not in English — or Italian. Then I see a leaflet announcing courses in Neretino, a dialect spoken only in Nardò. But that’s not unusual: Each whitewashed village in this gorgeous region of olive groves and Baroque churches has its own tongue.
And it’s not just in the deep, primitive Italian south where ancient languages are lovingly preserved and promoted. All of Italy is seeing a renewed interest in dialects, a revival linked to a national — and greater European — identity crisis. “It’s a matter of territorial belonging,” says Andrea Maniero, a linguistics expert and resident of Nardò, where everyone understands the local lingo even if they don’t speak it. “The ones most lured to learning it are the youth, who are fascinated by the old speech of their grandparents.”
Given that dialects are far older than the Italian state, it’s like a back-to-the-future trip to preunification days …
According to national statistics, half of all Italians prefer to speak in a dialect, whether it’s picturesque Napulitano (Neapolitan), Siculo (Sicilian), Francoprovenzale (an ancient Gallo-Romance language spoken in Alpine valleys), Fùrlan (Friulan, typical of the Friuli region in northeastern Italy) or Ladino (an old version of Latin) — just to name a few. In fact, Italy’s Union of Tourist Boards calculates that the country has some 11,000 dialects. The influence of Napulitano and Siculo is so strong that the iPhone offers them as language options.
To feed this demand, there are online courses; DIY books that teach archaic forms of Albanian and Greek that pirates brought to Italy centuries ago; and spontaneous get-togethers in crumbling castles to chat in Zeneize (Genoese, a dialect of the Ligurian language). A few kindergartens and middle schools in Naples have introduced courses on Napulitanamente (”the Neapolitan way”). In Rome, some curricula feature Romanesco, the colorful vernacular of the great 19th-century Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli.
Given that dialects are far older than the Italian state, it’s like a back-to-the-future trip to preunification days, which are quite recent by the standards of many nations. The Italian kingdom was proclaimed in 1861 by a Savoy king who spoke only French; the Italian republic was born in 1946 out of the rubble of World War II. True, the process of making the Italian language starts with Dante in 1300, but it was restricted to the elite. It wasn’t until the 1800s that novelist Alessandro Manzoni helped spread “common” standard Italian to the masses. And as recently as the 1960s, people in Italy’s impoverished regions had no idea what Italian was. The delay in the nation-state’s creation is one reason why Italians have a poor sense of national belonging. It’s the town bonding that rules. A famous patriot once said, “Now that we have made Italy, we need to make the Italian people.” Tough job.
The popularization of dialects inverts the days when bourgeois families did their best to conceal “vulgar” accents behind proper Italian in order to attain a higher social status. Today, it’s cool to speak a dialect. It makes people feel part of an exclusive, ancient microcosm “that battles not to lose itself in a world of 8 billion people,” says Paolo Balboni, president of the World Federation of Language Teacher Associations and a professor at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University. It’s the denial of modernity and globalism, he adds. And the movement to go hyperlocal may be accelerating in Europe, as the big project of a united continent seems to be crumbling amid rising nationalism, populism and regionalism. Many Italians, before defining themselves as such, say they are Sicilian or Neapolitan. Islanders call the mainland boot “the continent.”
Back in Nardò, on the heel of the boot, much brain-shattering research leads to the discovery that the song I heard from the open window is a parody in Neretino of “Yesterday” by local folklorist and songwriter Andrea Baccassino. It turns out that the lyrics have nothing to do with melancholy walks down memory lane but with getting dressed: Jestìte, pronounced JESS-tea-tay, as a soundalike for “yesterday,” means “please get dressed” or “put your clothes on” in Neretino. (Vèstiti in Italian.) Well, you get the idea … “My dialect is real, richer than Italian, which is a fake construction,” Baccassino says. “There are untranslatable words with no Italian equivalent.” For him, opting to speak Neretino rather than plain Italian is like grabbing his favorite shirt in the morning.
Believe me, I’m Italian, and I have a hard time following the conversation when I visit my parents in northern Piedmont and join in their chats in patois dialect. If I do grasp a word or two, it’s thanks to my French. But if I travel to Naples or Sicily, my Roman twang helps me pick up those dialects rather quickly. And then there’s the island of Corsica, which is inhabited by fiery separatists who proudly cherish their language, a mix of mainstream Italian and Genoese. Lessons in Corsù are held in all schools, and Italians feel at home in what is officially a department of France. When I asked for an espresso during my most recent visit, I had to repeat the order in Italian. French was too foreign for the bartender.