Milan’s beloved but endangered dialect

The 2015 World’s Fair, held in Milan, was an unexpected success. It showcased a sleek, self-confident city, all trendy architecture and eco-friendly design. How things have changed. In the 1960s, Milan was a grubby, electrifying place. Industry choked the streets, and petty crime was rife. Milan was also different linguistically. Singers belted out folk songs in milanes, the city’s distinctive dialect. This tradition is all but dead now. But recalling it conjures another Milan, charting its transformation into a modern city.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Milanese folk music was hugely popular. From legendary joints like the Derby Club, singers like Enzo Jannacci (pictured) and Nanni Svampa composed or reinterpreted dozens of songs covering all parts of Milanese life. Some bands, like I Gufi (The Owls), were famous enough to be shown on television. These chroniclers had a lot of material to work with. The post-war “economic miracle” was turning Milanese society on its head. Hundreds of thousands of poor southerners came north to work in new Milanese factories. Cheap apartment blocks sprouted up to house them. Class tensions were common: one industrial suburb was known as the Italian Stalingrad. In one song, Mr Svampa remarked that he would never stop being jealous of those who can afford to “marry for love”.

It is unsurprising that some resorted to crime. Jannacci (who died in 2013) and Mr Svampa sang at length about la mala, the now defunct Milanese underworld. Friends are betrayed and lives wasted, all for the price of a risotto and a carafe of wine. In one poignant song, the protagonist—now in jail—muses that everyone has “three things at the depth of their heart: their youth, their mother and their first love”. Now that his youth is spent, and his mother dead, the narrator concludes that he’s “stuck like a pirla (prick) with his first love”.

Read more: The Economist

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