most italians did not speak italian -- 9/21/17

Today's encore selection -- from The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. In 1861, when the Italian peninsula was finally united into a single political entity, only 2.5 percent of "Italians" spoke the Italian language. In fact, the citizens of every major Italian city -- Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan and others -- each spoke a different language. The situation was similar in the other countries of Europe:

"The posthumous role of Dante Alighieri in the development of Italian has long been treated with reverence and solemnity. The great Florentine poet was, according to one scholar, not only 'the father of the Italian language' but also 'the father of the nation and the symbol of national greatness through the centuries'. It is doubtful that Dante would have thought the second part of the description applicable to him, especially as he believed Italy should be part of the Holy Roman Empire and not a nation by itself. Yet he did write The Divine Comedy (or, as he himself called it, simply La Commedia) in Italian and extolled the virtues of the vernacular, the 'new sun' that would put Latin in the shade, in De vulgari eloquentia, a book he wrote in Latin.

Dante holding a copy of The Divine Comedy

"The works of Dante, like those of his younger fellow Tuscans Petrarch and Boccaccio, advanced the cause of the Florentine vernacular in the later Middle Ages, even though Petrarch usually wrote in Latin and Dante thought bolognese a more beautiful language. By the sixteenth century it was widely felt that the peninsula's literary language should be close to theirs, a feeling which suggests that, if the great trio had been born in Sicily, the island's dialect would have been adopted as Italian, which foreigners would have had great difficulty in understanding. Pietro Bembo, the Venetian scholar and cardinal, argued that, if writers in Latin imitated Cicero and Virgil, then writers in the vernacular should model themselves on Petrarch and Boccaccio. ... Later, around 1600, another towering Tuscan, the Pisan astronomer Galileo, demanded that scientific work also should be conducted in the vernacular, arguing that more people would then be able to understand his work -- an argument which the papacy failed to appreciate. ...

"Five centuries after Dante, Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), whose first language was milanese and his second French, promoted Tuscan as the language of Italian resurgence, even to the extent of studying in Florence so that he could write a new edition of his immense novel The Betrothed in the Tuscan vernacular, a process he called 'rinsing' his story in the Arno. Yet the attempts of Manzoni and others to impose a language spoken in only one region on a whole country were perhaps arrogant and certainly naive. How could you have a national language that was spoken in only one of the nation's chief cities? Nearly everyone outside Tuscany conducted their private and professional lives in dialect; for them literary Italian was a dead language or at best an official one, which sounded strange and artificial when they tried to speak it; moreover, unlike English and French, it had been scarcely enriched since the Middle Ages. This unsatisfactory state produced particular conundrums for literary folk. In the eighteenth century, the Venetian Carlo Goldoni wrote his plays in three different languages -- Venetian dialect, Tuscan and eventually French, the language of his memoirs. Two centuries later, Ignazio Silone wanted the peasants in his novel Fontamara to speak their own language -- a dialect of the Abruzzi -- but realized he had to make them speak a language they didn't know (Italian) so that his readership would understand what they were saying.

"In any case the attempted imposition only partially and tardily succeeded. In 1861, the year the Kingdom of Italy was born, it has been calculated that one Italian in forty (2.5 per cent of the population of the peninsula) spoke Italian: just over 630,000 people -- mainly Tuscans speaking what was after all their own dialect -- out of a total of 25 million. Even if we add others who had some familiarity with the language, such as those who had read it at secondary school, it is difficult to push the figure beyond 10 per cent. For the 80 per cent of the population classified as illiterate, Italian was a foreign language, not only in the south, where it was largely incomprehensible, but even in Venice, where lawyers and judges still talked in Venetian. Decades earlier, Byron had to speak dialect in Venice so as to be understood, and the friend who observed that it was like talking to an Irishman in brogue was quite wrong.

"Such problems were not unique to Italy in that era. Spain had four languages and a host of dialects; in France most of the south-western communes did not speak French, and few Parisians could understand what people were saying south of Lyon. Yet the situation was more critical in Italy. Over half the population spoke Castilian in Spain or French in France, and both languages had long been in use for administration and literature. In Italy nearly everyone spoke in dialect, not just peasants and artisans and the urban poor, but merchants, aristocrats and even monarchs. The Neapolitan King Ferdinand II spoke in Neapolitan, and so did his court. The Piedmontese King Victor Emanuel II (later King of Italy) spoke Piedmontese when he wasn't speaking French; so did his heirs, even after three generations of living in Rome. Most of the early statesmen of united Italy came from Piedmont and had to learn Italian as a new language: the best of them, Camillo Cavour, was happier speaking French and was so ignorant of how people talked in the south that he thought Sicilians still spoke Arabic."



David Gilmour


The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples


Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Copyright 2011 by David Gilmour


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