TURIN - It’s a little like Babel. In Italy, words can have one meaning on one side of the street and something entirely different on the other. From the mountains to the sea, from the north to the south, this is the land of endless dialects.
But because families are using these local languages less and less, there is a danger that they will slowly disappear. That's why, both to celebrate linguistic pride and to preserve Italian culture, the National Union of Pro Loco is dedicating a specific day (January 17) to celebrate the country's dialects every year.
"The aim is to preserve unique expressions of local communities, along with all the culture that the dialects convey," says the union's Gabriele Desiderio. "Seeing as the transfer from generation to generation is decreasing, we want to send a warning signal that a cultural heritage may be lost."
It's not just words or expressions that are at stake but also traditional knowledge, says Tullio Telmon, dialectologist and former president of the Italian Linguistic Society. “We're talking also about the skills that were handed down along with the specific language — and names, place names, words that you would not imagine because they involve entire worlds."
Distinguishing between different languages and regions is tricky. The boundaries (when there are any) are short-lived, and there are continuous changes and influences. The northern dialects are different from the southern ones, and then there is the Latin divide between western and eastern Europe. This cuts Italy (and Europe) into two, leaving enormous instability of language. During the two world wars, for example, many soldiers were fighting side-by-side with fellow Italians with whom they couldn’t communicate.
Whether these varying forms of expression should be characterized as 'dialects' or 'local languages' is open to interpretation, though Telmon says the two are actually synonymous. "But I prefer to say 'local languages' because the word 'dialect' historically has had a negative connotation. Up to 20 years ago, its use was felt as a kind of social inferiority. Now, as everyone has learned the national 'standard' language, the local one has an added value."
Telmon says that these local languages will die unless parents communicate with their children using them. "Support and learning in schools are always welcome, but the action of learning one’s mother tongue from a parent is unique," he says.
Many make the mistake of deferring to standard Italian, believing it will serve their children better.
“There are parents who, misled by modernity, teach the most popular language at the time," Telmon says. "The solution, instead, is multilingualism. There was a time of incorrect linguistic education, when they were convinced that learning a local language as a mother tongue impeded the child from learning standard Italian. But learning doesn’t work like that. Up until about 10 years old, most children can learn two, three, even five different languages without any problems.”