In Italy over the last couple of months the right-wing Lega Nord (“Northern League”), led by the indefatigable Umberto Bossi, who is also Minister for Institutional Reforms in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, has been engaged in a series of rather polemical discussions about Italy’s dialetti. Although this translates literally as “dialects”, many of the multitude of local speech forms covered by the term are in fact separate Romance languages, not mutually intelligible with each other or Italian. Over the past 50 years they have been retreating in the face of the expansion of standard Italian.
On 28th July, Lega Nord issued a proposal that all would-be school teachers should be tested on:
“la conoscenze della lingua, della tradizione e della storia delle regioni dove si intende insegnare” knowledge of the language, traditions and history of the regions where they plan to teach
and this test might include knowledge of the local “dialect”. The next day, the Minister for Public Instruction, Mariastella Gelmini, backed away from this position a little by saying that there would not be dialect exams (no doubt realising the impossibility of setting them up or carrying them out), but repeated that teachers, especially those from the “South” wanting to teach in the northern homeland of the Lega, should be tested on their knowledge of “padanian” language, culture and history. By mid-August, Umberto Bossi was claiming that a law to introduce these tests was ready.
In August the discussion about “dialects” took a different turn, with Luca Zaia, Minister for Agriculture (of all things!) stating on 12th August that RAI, the national public broadcaster, should start producing programmes for television in dialects, or at least subtitled in dialects. For example, popular programmes like Capri would be in Napoletanian, Il commissario Montalbano in Sicilian, Gente di mare in Calabrian, Nebbie e delitti in Emilian, Cuori rubati in Piedmontese, and Un caso di coscienza in Friulian. Actually, programmes like Il commissario Montalbano, a police drama set in Sicily, already do feature dialogue in Sicilian (e.g. the murderous wife in one recent episode spoke only in Sicilian and not Italian), and the hero Inspector Montalbano has a noticeable Sicilian accent when he speaks Italian.
(Interestingly a previous episode featured refugees from Tunisia and included Arabic dialogue and even a young policemen translating between Arabic and Italian and vice versa — something the Lega would probably consider unacceptable.) But to suggest that whole dramas should be played in Sicilian, or even subtitled in it on public television, seems strange, especially given the lack of intelligibility for most of the audience, lack of literacy in “dialects”, and in many cases the absence of any written standard that could be used to represent them, not to mention the lack of people trained in writing “dialect” scripts.
Don’t hold your breath for the Lega’s campaign on dialects to lead concretely to maintenance or expansion of Italy’s linguistic diversity any time soon, though recently parliamentary Deputy Pierguido Vanalli has proposed a new civil code “per la celebrazione di matrimoni in lingua locale” (for the celebration of marriages in the local language). As the old Italian saying goes: “moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi” ((get) your wives and cows from your own homeland), so perhaps the Lega does have a plan to reverse language shift through reinvigorating intergenerational language transmission of the dialetti!
Note: For those readers who don’t know Italian or Italy, my title, meaning roughly “Go dialects!”, is meant as a pun on Forza Italia “Go Italy!” the chant frequently used at international sports events and appropriated by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for his political party that existed between 1993 and 2008, now replaced by his Il Popolo della Libert (“The People of Freedom”) party.