Why Italians are Giving up Italian

As I stroll under the scorching sun in Nardò, a town in Puglia on the heel of Italy’s boot, I hear music from an open window. The melody sounds like the Lennon–McCartney classic “Yesterday,” but the lyrics are not in English — or Italian. Then I see a leaflet announcing courses in Neretino, a dialect spoken only in Nardò. But that’s not unusual: Each whitewashed village in this gorgeous region of olive groves and Baroque churches has its own tongue.

And it’s not just in the deep, primitive Italian south where ancient languages are lovingly preserved and promoted. All of Italy is seeing a renewed interest in dialects, a revival linked to a national — and greater European — identity crisis. “It’s a matter of territorial belonging,” says Andrea Maniero, a linguistics expert and resident of Nardò, where everyone understands the local lingo even if they don’t speak it. “The ones most lured to learning it are the youth, who are fascinated by the old speech of their grandparents.”

According to national statistics, half of all Italians prefer to speak in a dialect, whether it’s picturesque Napulitano (Neapolitan), Siculo (Sicilian), Francoprovenzale (an ancient Gallo-Romance language spoken in Alpine valleys), Fùrlan (Friulan, typical of the Friuli region in northeastern Italy) or Ladino (an old version of Latin) — just to name a few. In fact, Italy’s Union of Tourist Boards calculates that the country has some 11,000 dialects. The influence of Napulitano and Siculo is so strong that the iPhone offers them as language options.

Read more: Ozy

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