“Is that Italian you’re speaking?”
On a recent train journey around the spectacularly historical region of Veneto, I couldn’t help but overhear two elderly ladies sat opposite me on the train speaking a very strange sounding Italian.
Plucking up the courage, I politely (as we English culturally are trained to do) interrupted their conversation with, ‘ mi scusi ma e quell’italiano che sai parlando? The long pause that followed made me wonder if they had understood my painfully poor Italian and had me frantically searching my rucksack for my faithful Lonely Planet Italian phrase book. The silence was soon broken when these very elegantly dressed ladies with a smile as wide as a Cheshire cat responded, ‘no signore, e il nostro dialetto veneziano’.
‘We are speaking in our Venetian dialect’ was their reply. Does Italy have dialects? My curiosity as a polyglot was aroused, and so much so that I decided to further research this subject.
Before we can proceed further in this discussion, we need to clearly define what is the conceptual awareness of the words ‘dialect’ and ‘language’.
The word ‘dialect’ from the Greek ’dialektos’ is defined as ‘a way of speaking found only in a certain area or among a certain group or class of people’(Cambridge dictionary).Most certainly, a ‘dialect’ has lost autonomy and prestige over time faced with other systems with which it genetically forms a group, opposed to national language.
The word ‘language’ is defined as ‘a standardised code used in spoken and written form, accepted and used by an ethnic, political or cultural community’. In short, ‘dialect’ is limited to a restricted geographic area, it is not taught in schools; (children would learn it mostly at home together with the standard recognised language) opposed to national standard languages, whereas ‘language’ is a system with its own orthographic and phonetic laws, used as a means of communication; a national spoken lingua.
Notwithstanding, the subject of the Veneto dialect is one that in recent years has taken on a greater sense of worth as Veneto has been a theatre for increased regional autonomy. Its precise place within the Romance language remains open to discussion. Many feel it is not a dialect, but rather a separate, complete language (although there are variations of it across the region of Veneto) as the literary masterpieces translated in Venetian are many; the ‘Iliad’ by Casanova, the ‘Divine Comedy’ by Giuseppe Cappelli, to name a few. I am exploring this fascinating subject of dialects purely as a novice who passionately desires to advance his own intellectual curiosity, and not for any political identity.
The Venetian dialect, also called ‘dialeto del mar’ (dialect of the sea) was the official language of the once immensely powerful, seafaring Venetian Republic, alongside Latin for over 1,000 years. Venetian is a descendant of the Vulgar Latin, Greek and possibly even Arabic.
The Tuscan – Italian language slowly gained greater immense prominence, both in literary style and culture with the masterful literary writers Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarca and others during the age of enlightenment.
I was intrigued to discover that Venetian is spoken by more than 3.9 million people in Slovenia, Croatia, and in such far away places (due to mass migration) as Brazil, Mexico accordingly.
Here are some examples I have researched and also been given by local Venetians where I am currently residing in Veneto:
Italian Official Language Veneto/Venetian English
Farmacia Apoteca Pharmacy
Sedia caregha chair
Forchetta piron chair
Vino vin wine
Are they in some way related to some of the Italian dialects? It would seem so according to the comments from some of my LinkedIn friends. Can the same dialect be universally understood compared to a language? Where does the study of dialects take us as students endeavouring to understand linguistic and cultural changes associated with language? What role does dialect play in our 21st century? Should we be teaching our students dialects that are common throughout the English world? South African English, Australian English, North American English, Canadian English, Irish English? These questions continue to remain a much debated subject.