Cicero’s Nightmare: The Linguistic Diversity of Italy (Part II)

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The land of rocky soil, forbidding coastlines, and undiluted Latin.

If a Roman centurion, frozen in the high alps, thawed out today, where would he feel most at home? Of course, many people speak Latin today. But assuming he does not want to spend all his time with priests and Classicists, and assuming he has had enough of a culture shock and would prefer the path of least linguistic resistance, his best bet would be Sardinia.

Thanks to its isolated geography, the Mediterranean island has had little of the foreign influence that has transformed other Romance languages. The Italian-American linguist Mario Pei calculated that Sardinian is 92% similar to Latin, versus 88% for Italian and just 56% for French. Thanks to centuries of erosion, the language, particularly its grammar, is far from Cicero’s- our frozen friend would still have several months of learning to do- but its lexicon and phonology are purer than any of its cousins’. It sounds like Latin.

It is worth noting that Sardinian is not Italian at all. It grew separately from all the other Romance languages: it constitutes its own branch of the family. And it is not the only non-Italian language of Italy.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Sardinian. The Latin opens, “Pater noster, qui est in caelis, santificetur nominem tuum…”

Probably the most famous linguistic minority community are the Germans of South Tyrol. The alpine valley was Austrian until it was awarded to the Italians for their treachery in World War I. Mussolini made some attempt to Italianise it, but the Germans stood strong. Today German speakers make up two thirds of the population of half a million. Most know Italian, but as in nearby Switzerland both mother tongues enjoy vigorous legal protection.

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Don’t tell Benito, but this looks more like Südtirol than Alto Adige to me.

Another Swiss connection is Ladino, an Alpine Rhaeto-Romance language related to Romansh, the fourth and smallest official language of Switzerland. In the westerly foothills of the Alps, Savoyard is another non-Italian Romance language. Savoy was historically between the orbits of Italy and France, and her language, related to Provençal, reflects her past. But as they conquered their way down the peninsula and became rulers of a unified Italy in the 19th Century, most Savoyards came to prefer Italian.

Many of the minority languages are legacies of Italy’s fascinating history. The Serene Republic of Venice ruled the eastern coast of the Adriatic for centuries, and there are still a lot of Slovenes in northeast Italy to prove it. The medieval kingdom of Aragon (today eastern Spain) once ruled half of Italy. They were seen off by the French in 1494, but there is one walled town in Sardinia where holdouts still speak Catalan. It was a millennium and a half before that that the Romans conquered the last Greek colonies in Sicily and the heel and toe of Italy, but to this day some 80,000 of their descendants refuse to forget their ancestral tongue.

Italy’s most surprising linguistic minority, and also one of most robust, is one of which I had never even heard until I stumbled across a very confusing sign on a road trip. Sprinkled across southern Italy are communities of Albanians, descendants of refugees who fled from the Ottoman Turks centuries ago and set up little colonies across the water. Their descendants kept to their own and preserved their heritage- in an era when minor languages across Europe are moribund, the Arbëreshë are apparently thriving.

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Tirana on the Tyrrhenian

Of course, today there are many more recent refugee communities in Italy. The country is currently host to hundreds of thousands of migrants- in some places, Arabic, various African languages, or English will get you a lot further than Italian. (Ours is not the first time when Arabic has had a significant presence in Italy: North African emirs ruled Sicily for two centuries in the Middle Ages. The Sicilian dialect of Arabic, with massive Italian admixture, lives on today as Maltese.) But migrants typically see Italy as a waypoint on their road to Northern Europe. Few have any interest in putting down roots, so it is unlikely that non-European immigrants will make a splash on the linguistic landscape as they have in the UK, France, and Germany.

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Over the Tiber and into the past

There is one place in Italy where Latin still reigns. Atop what was once one of the peripheral hills of ancient Rome, Vatican City is the language’s last redoubt. As the common language of priests from all corners of the world, it is a living language there as nowhere else. Latin inscriptions on building façades are nothing new, but I have yet to see Latin newspapers, signs, and ATMs anywhere else. Even in St. Peter’s day it was not the city’s only language, and today it exists alongside dozens of others, including Italian, English, and for one group, Swiss German. The present pope, in particular, has shown a preference for Italian, though it should be noted that he uses the handle @franciscus on social media.

Outside the Vatican walls is the kingdom of Italian. Dialects still hold sway in many households and across much of the country, but they are clearly on the way out. Even insofar as they are spoken, differences between them and standard Italian are inevitably levelled out by speakers who are fluent in both. Admittedly, most Italians I know are young people who studied at Oxford, but almost all of them speak mainly standard Italian.

This is a remarkable achievement in a country whose citizens often quip that it was never truly unified. Unlike heterogeneous states like Switzerland, Belgium, or Lord knows Bosnia, Italians have never fractured along linguistic lines. The fact that Italians display less interest in learning English than just about any nation in Western Europe further bolsters standard Italian. A friend once remarked to me that her president has to make special efforts from time to time “to remind us that we’re all Italian,” but no one seems to think twice about the language in which he reminds them.

Perhaps paradoxically, from 30,000 feet, Italy’s current linguistic situation would be familiar to Cicero. Latin itself was once just one of many related Italic languages. As Rome conquered the peninsula, speakers of Oscan and Umbrian and Sabine assimilated into the new order. By Cicero’s day in the 1st Century B.C., surely to the chagrin of some elders, everyone preferred Latin. Making the world speak one language was one of the paramount achievements of the Roman Empire. It took until the 1930s for the Eternal City to achieve the same population it had in the high empire- perhaps in the 21st Century, Italians will reach the same heights of linguistic unity as their forebears.

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The royal palace is impressive, though I doubt it would have held a candle to Nero’s Domus Aurea.

Former economist at Magdalen College, Oxford; current investment banking analyst writing to stay sane

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