chapter  19
21 Pages

Dialects and Popular Culture in Italy in the Past Decade: A Renewal of Interest

WithAlfio Longo

The Italian linguistic situation is characterized by the presence, alongside the national language, of diverse linguistic traditions: italo-romance dialects (which developed parallel to Italian and in such a way as to be relatively autonomous); neolatin, non italo-romance languages (Occitan, Franco-provençal, Catalan, Sardinian, Ladino, and Friulian); non-neolatin languages (Slavic, German, Albanian, Greek, and Gypsy): all are idioms which correspond frequently to local cultural realities markedly different from each other.

The love of dialects is still well-rooted in the linguistic behavior of Italians. For example, the results of a 1982 Doxa study showed that 46.7% of the respondents used mainly a dialect at home; 29.4% use Italian; and 23.9% alternate between two languages. Nevertheless, the use of local speech, in particular the italo-romance dialects which in the course of the 20th century have assumed a connotation of social inferiority to the extent that they are diffused most prevalently among the lower classes, has been constantly diminishing in the face of the expansion of Italian because of a variety of social and economic factors.

At the same time, a “theoretical” revaluation of dialectical speech is in progress, especially on the part of linguists who maintain that the learning of national language and culture, surely indispensible for civic growth, can take place in a milieu of local linguistic and cultural wealth. The public school system, which in the past stood out in the struggle against dialects, has taken these ideas into account. In some regions, moreover, local groups have formed as expressions 174of the real needs of a deeply rooted culture; these groups have among their proper aims the guardianship of dialects and regional culture. This guardianship is, however, sometimes put into practice in an acritical fashion which tends to promote an exaggerated particularism and micronationalistic ethnic revival with repercussions in the field of political action.

In any case, the most revealing and positive phenomenon in this period of crisis for dialects as spoken languages is their use as literary languages. Since the second world war, but especially in the past 10 years, authors born and raised in a dialect-loving milieu have composed some of the most significant works of contemporary poetry. Dialects are by now integral parts of the 20th century Italian literature.

The interest in local cultures, beyond the negative proliferation of artificial folkloric manifestations, has contributed to the foundation of museums of material culture of considerable interest and of regional, privincial, and communal institutes for the documentation and study of various aspects of folk culture. These phenomena, typical of the cultural activity of the left in the 1960s, have diminished in the course of the 1970s.

The development of attention to local languages and cultures can be verified whether on a scientific level, in the domain of academic research (Italian university courses in dialectology, history of popular traditions, ethnomusicology), or on an unspecialized level with primarily editorial results. Beyond the great production of publications of a strictly local character, there have been editorial initiatives of vast scope which have brought together the diverse linguistic and cultural traditions. Moreover, the national dailies and weeklies have treated the subject at repeated intervals, which testifies to the timeliness and liveliness of the interest raised by such themes. The aspects and problems of the publishing world and of bibliographic information in this field are discussed.