Dialect And Identity: When In Rome, Speak As The Romans Do

Dialect is an element of a place and it is infectious: live there long enough and you will start speaking that way too

If one thinks of Italian regions from the outside, it is easy to get the impression that certain features of the landscape are essential parts of local identity: the mountains of Piemonte, the canals of Venezia, and the rioni of Napoli, those densely populated urban corridors that abound with life, for example. The UNESCO World Heritage Program, of which Italy is the perennial global leader, justifiably celebrates this intimate connection between landscape and identity.

When one visits or lives in one of these places for a while, however, other less tangible features of a place emerge as equal if not more important aspects of local identity, food, or even more effervescently, language, especially dialect. For instance, I am from San Francisco, a city that from the outside might seem to be characterized by fog, hills, a bridge, and more recently the high tech industry of Silicon Valley. But the one thing I always notice when I return there, after being abroad for several months or a year, is how people talk. It marks them apart as nothing else does, and after a while I too fall into the same rolling cadence, and use the same phrases that everyone else is using, in stores and on the street. And this is true whether a person is White or Black or Asian or Latino. Dialect is an element of a place and it is infectious; live there long enough and you will start speaking that way too, no matter who you are or where you are from originally.

Imagine the situation in Italy then, where dialects abound with a beauty and variety that rival those of its landscapes. The canted rhythm of Neapolitan dialect, with its bent notes and prolonged tonalities; the chewed and sonorous mumblings and vocalizations of Venetian; and the nasal, truncated and guttural emanations that one hears in the Alps, are by nature and in practice a more intimate component of local identity than anything that lies outside of the body (an observation that puts food in a special in-between category, but that discussion will have to wait for a future piece).

Let’s look at one of these dialects, then, the only one with which I have more than just a smattering of familiarity: Valtellinese. Now, already I am in trouble, because any resident of the Valtellina will quickly point out that even within the Valtellina, dialects vary from town to town, and even within towns. This must certainly be true of Venezia and Napoli, and every other place in Italy, but it is surprising to find that in a town of 3000, that the group of 1000 people that lives in a contrada on the other side of the river, not only pronounces certain words of the local dialect differently than do the 2000 people who occupy the larger contrada, but that the two groups even have different words for common objects, a pruning knife for example, words that are so different from each other that it is impossible to see any connection between them: puntìn says the one group, rampilìn says the other, in the town of Bianzone.

Traditional sayings, detti e filastrocche, which are often rendered in rhyme, are great repositories of local dialect and identity. Let’s take a look at one from the Valtellina as a demonstration of this dynamic, keeping in mind that they are features of every Italian dialect and that every city and town has a bookstore that sells small collections of these local dialectical gems, so their value is well known and appreciated. I provide first the version in dialect, and then the version in Italian, followed by the translation in English.

Manicòmi l’è scricc al’esternu: par quèst al munt l’è ‘n inferno.

Pandemonium è scritto fuori: ecco perché il mondo è un inferno.

Pandemonium is written outside: this is why the world is hell.

A remarkable feature of this saying, and not only this one but many others as well, is its identification of an outside and an implied inside, designations that exist not only in geographical terms, in the sense that the Valtellina is a long, narrow and steep-sided valley that is virtually cut off from the rest of Italy, as well as Switzerland which it borders, but also in social and linguistic terms. It is any guess what a speaker of this saying, in the 18th century say, might mean by ‘the world’: the entire globe, just the part that lies outside of that with which the speaker is familiar, which could be the entire valley or maybe just his or her part of it, or just his or her town or village? Does the pandemonium that is ‘written outside’ make chaotic the world that lies outside of the speaker’s ecumene, the world that he or she knows, leaving the local habitus safe and secure, or is it the pandemonium that is written outside that causes the chaos that is internal to the valley?

The history of the Valtellina supports both interpretations: yes, the world out there is crazy and thank God we are cut off from it, and yes, the world out there is crazy and this is why we have problems; if it were not for those crazy people out there making things difficult for us, our lives in here would be much more peaceful. And again, ‘in here’ could mean ‘our valley’, ‘our town’, or even ‘our region’, which would reveal a sympathy with other mountain valley populations such as those of Bergamo and Brescia, not just those of Sondrio.

The division could be social, with the ‘in here’ referring to the Valtellinesi of the world no matter where they lived, particularly during the great period of migration in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, so including also populations in the United States, Argentina and Australia, for example. And the division was most certainly political, with the ‘the world out there’ referring to the Catholic Church, particularly the Diocese of Como, to the Duchy of Milan, to the Kingdom of Spain, to the French, to the Grisons, to the Austrians, or to whoever was the external ruling force at any given point in history.

There is a lot of information packed into these local dialectical sayings and they can be a great source of meaning and insight into the populations who lived by them.

Is parasite theory helpful here? I think so. A phrase that gets stuck in your head, like a line from a song that you cannot help but repeat over and over, is called an earworm. Biologically, parasites enter the brains of hosts all of the time, causing them to do things that propel the parasites’ growth and reproductive cycle. Linguistically, this is why dialectical sayings so often took the form of rhymes, so that their meaning and wisdom would stick in the minds of those who heard them, pushing the population in one cultural, social or political direction or another. The rendering of the saying in rhyme was probably not as instrumental as that, rather it is a feature of speech that found its application in the evolution of human communication, cultural expression, social formation, political organization, and economic practice.