HUI 216 - Unit 1, topics 4-6
"Plural identities"

Andrea Fedi

1.4 Standard Italian

[Notes] — Italy's current national language is called by linguists Standard or Neo-Standard Italian. It is, in many ways, a relatively new and artificial language, which was imposed as the new national language, starting from 1861, on the basis of the following elements:

  • The literary Tuscan language of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, made famous and culturally viable by the three greatest writers/intellectuals of the 14th century (Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch), and by a 16th-century poet, who also wrote a fundamental treatise on language, Pietro Bembo. Current Italian syntax and lexicon show the influence of this language.
  • The dialect used by the educated middle-class within a small area of northern Tuscany (Florence, Prato, Pistoia), during the process of political unification of Italy (1820s-1880s): the current lexicon, some of the syntax, and essential aspects of the pronunciation of Standard Italian were influenced by it.
  • Words and expressions used in other parts of Tuscany, in other parts of Italy, and found in the "national Tuscan" (see below).

Mainstream literature in Italy, starting from the end of the Middle Ages, held 14th-century Tuscan in very high regard. This literary Tuscan was a language close to the Florentine dialect used during that period: however, it was more generic, and occupied a linguistic middle ground among the various Tuscan dialects.

  • Often, in the past, even writers from Venice, Milan or Naples would choose Tuscan as the language of their literary creations, even though they normally spoke Venetian, Milanese or Neapolitan in their home and in informal or semi-formal public settings.
  • Italian literature therefore had reached a certain degree of unity long before the Italian Kingdom was created. We can say that there was a national Italian literature long before the Italian nation became a political reality.

The first national language

[Notes] — This Italian literary language, however, could not be easily adopted by all Italians, because for centuries it was controlled by an elite of writers and intellectuals, who relied on it for their various cultural activities, debating and ultimately deciding what the proper style and the proper lexicon should be in each period of Italian history.

  • That language was extremely rich and complex, but was quite difficult to use and understand for anybody who did not have a high school diploma, or the equivalent education, and even for those with a university degree was not really easy.
  • It was mostly a written language, rarely spoken outside secondary and postsecondary schools, literary circles, public ceremonies, formal parties, and high-level political meetings.

Manzoni's social life

[Notes] — What you find above and in the following two sections is an interesting example of the actual use of the first national language in Milan during the early 19th century, as reported by writer Alessandro Manzoni.

Manzoni on 19th-c. Italian

A common language?

1.5 The Italian dialects

[Notes] — There wasn't a common language in Italy, before Latin was introduced in the entire peninsula by the Roman government, more than 2000 years ago. Latin ceased to be the only language of the central government and of the local administrations (with the collapse of the Roman empire, in 476 AD). During the early Middle Ages, various vernaculars or dialects, often very different from each other, developed from Latin and from other Indo-European languages (Greek, Umbrian, Ligurian, Sican, etc.), spoken in selected local areas before and after colonization by the Romans.

The traditional use of the term "dialect" can be deceiving. Italy's dialects are not simple varieties of the same language, because the official national language was established only during the late 19th century. Most dialects in Italy can be more properly classified as separate Neolatin or Romance languages, each with a separate phonetic system, a different syntax and lexicon, an original literary tradition, etc.

Italian dialects: examples

[Notes] — Internet is a friendly, relatively inexpensive medium for the preservation of local cultures and languages. Many are the sites whose mission is the preservation of the collective memories and traditions of small groups or local communities. Numerous are the sites composed in an Italian dialect. I have collected a few interesting links: I am not afraid to admit that often I can only understand a few words, in those sites; however, I think that even just seeing so much diversity with your own eyes, brings you to a higher level of understanding of this topic. While the links that follow are all working, the same cannot be said for the links posted inside those pages, which can be very slow to load or even dead.

Social scripts and the body

[Notes] — Even social scripts and rituals change from region to region, in Italy. This applies to different contexts and a wide variety of social interactions, including the following:

  • What is acceptable and 'dignified' during a discussion: how loud you can talk without being perceived as aggressive or impolite, under which circumstances you can interrupt the other person who is talking, etc.
  • How many times you kiss a friend or an acquaintance, how often, under which circumstances: some Italians may be more liberal than others with hugs and kisses (i.e., kissing and hugging both friends and relatives, including recent acquaintances and distant relatives, kissing them when they arrive and when they leave, or locking them in an embrace for a longer period of time and in a wider variety of social occasions). In 1993, when a police informer reported that he had seen former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti exchange "an embrace and kiss with Salvatore (Toto) Riina, the reputed 'boss of all bosses' of the Sicilian Mafia," Andreotti "issued a statement... calling the allegation 'very serious slander': he was fully aware of the social and criminal implications of that gesture (made men usually kiss each other, rather than just shake hands).
  • Physical interactions in general: for example, individuals from southern areas of Italy appear to be more inclined to lightly touch the other person's hand, forearm or shoulder during a conversation or other social exchanges.
  • Social rituals: for example, how you are supposed to react to other people complimenting something of yours, how many times you are expected to offer to your guests something that they seem to like (in order to neutralize the nefarious effects of envy and jealousy), and how many times they are expected to refuse your offer before this social transaction can be considered complete.

The individual's perception of his/her personal space can also be different. Italians tend to feel more comfortable the Americans when they find themselves in tight quarters with strangers: for example, when passing somebody inside the narrow aisle of a supermarket, Italians will rarely use the equivalent of "excuse me" (permesso?), provided there is enough space to pass without coming in full contact with the other person (brushing may be acceptable among younger people, and people from lower social classes). If you want to learn more about this particular topic, I suggest that you read the article entitled "Non-Verbal Communication across Cultures" by Max S. Kirch (The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 63, No. 8., Dec. 1979), available in JSTOR.

Andrea de Jorio

[Notes] — Body language changes from region to region, as shown by volumes devoted to the interpretation of gestures in specific Italian communities. A good example would be Andrea de Jorio's early anthropological study, La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano (Naples, 1832). This book is organized systematically, and is structured almost like a dictionary: 32 pages are devoted to the interpretation and meanings of one famous gesture alone, called the horns. This book was recently translated: see Andrea de Jorio, Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity, (transl. Adam Kendon; Indiana UP, 2000).

On the topic of body language in Italian society, consider the following excerpts "Gesture in Italian Speech" by Laura Raffa: "The notion that Italians 'speak with their hands' is only partially correct. Hand gestures complement, do not always replace the spoken word. Some hand movements are global gestures, others are region-specific. The handshake of the Anglo-Saxon world has been introduced into Italian society for the purpose of business negotiations and deals, and has since extended to less formal occasions. Yet, generally the Italians are not as formal as their English counterparts and are accustomed to greeting each other with two kisses on both cheeks.

"The act of placing the fingers of your two hands together and shaking your hands slightly up and down is a gesture that shows disapproval. Other examples of Italian gestures do not require a lot of discussion because of their global nature: such is the act of passing the middle and index finger across the thumb, with its universal meaning of the expensive nature of a particular article or event. Similarly, lightly tapping the forehead with the back of the hand symbolizes that the other person is crazy or has made a remark that is not credible."

A long series of Italian gestures, explained in Italian and English, accompanied by pictures and organized by theme, can be found at a site created by Giorgio Spanò (City College of San Francisco).

Bilingualism and diglossia

[Notes] — Most Italians, until the 1960s, were bilingual. They spoke a local/regional dialect as their primary language at home or with friends. They learned standard Italian at school (or through printed materials, theater, radio, cinema, tv), and used it in public places or in the presence of somebody from a different region. During the postwar period, compulsory education and the great popularity of public radio and public television tamed this special brand of bilingualism. Nowadays, while most elderly are still able to speak their dialect, many younger Italians can only understand it, and use it sparingly, usually interspersing a few words from the dialect in their conversations, conducted mostly in standard Italian. The dialect has become stylistic variant (with emphasis on realism or irony), a linguistic phenomenon known as diglossia.

Inside the Italian emigrant communities that formed in North America and South America between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the kind of bilingualism that developed almost naturally was based on the language of the place of immigration (English, Spanish, French) and a dialect, while, in other instances, a lingua franca developed, made from words taken from a variety of Italian dialects and English or Spanish word phonetically adapted to match major morphological characteristics of the Italian languages.

Legend has (I have often heard this anecdote, but I never found any serious evidence of it) that when Argentinians had to choose their official national language, they considered Italian as an option, since Italians were (and still are) one of the largest immigrant communities in that country: one in four Argentinians is of Italian descent. They soon realized that Italians coming from different regions were speaking vastly different dialects, and sometimes had to resort to Castilian (the official language of Spain) to communicate with each other! Keep in mind that most immigrants from the 19th and early 20th century had received little or no schooling in their home country, before they left. As they say, if this anecdote is not true it is well found!

Foreign languages in Italy

[Notes] — The list found above is based on information posted by the CIA and Ethnologue.

1.6 Identities in Italy

[Notes] — After the Roman Empire collapsed, local communities, which maintained limited contacts with one another, saw a resurgence of local customs and dialects.
Any individual who under the Empire might have considered himself both a Roman and a Spaniard, or a Roman and a Gaul, would return to emphasize his/her original ethnic or tribal identity.
Some Italians kept referring to themselves as Romans centuries after the fall of the Empire, even while new vernacular languages were developing, based on Latin (Neo-Latin languages is a group that includes almost all Italian dialects).
Eventually, the dual identity common under the Romans was replaced by a single, highly localized identity during the last centuries of the Middle Ages, when the city state or commune was the prevailing political structure in many areas of central and northern Italy.

Citizens vs. government

[Notes] — After France, Spain and Germany occupied or extended their political influence over entire regions of Italy, the cultural and political projects of unification developing at the end of the Middle Ages were put on hold. Under foreign domination, marginal (mostly rural) areas of Italy were neglected by the central government.
When Italy finally was finally unified under the Savoias, the new royal family was so afraid of losing their authority over strategic areas of the national territory that they imposed a highly centralized structure to the country, and continued to neglect the needs of many marginal communities.
Some of the best political minds of the 19th century, instead, recommended that Italy be a federation, to reflect the autonomy and the peculiar identity/culture of each region.
The process of forced unification, rushed and imposed from the top, could not erase the cultural or social differences that marked Italian society: it simply masked or marginalized them within the public discourse. In fact, the lack of consideration for the values and the particular needs of many local communities ended up producing a disconnect between the citizens and the new government.
Too many Italians failed to identify or bond with the new national institutions, renewing their allegiance to the small parcel of land where they lived, and reinforcing their ties with their immediate community (a phenomenon known as campanilismo).

Today it is still possible to find evidence of the mixed feelings that Italians have for the central government and, less commonly, for those public officers that run the local administrations. The disconnect between the Italian citizens and their government/national community manifests itself in phenomena such as widespread fiscal evasion, an all too common habit of self-deprecation and excessive criticism (often marked by comparisons with other countries, in which the assumption is that practically any country is better organized and better run than Italy). The most evident manifestation, though, is the general lack of national pride, outside of sport events, when the national anthem, the Italian flag, the unwavering support of the national athletes become prominent signs of patriotism.

Plural/coexisting identities

[Notes] — Most Italians have a dual or a multiple identity. In social gatherings they may introduce themselves as Tuscans, Sicilians, etc., or as citizens of a specific town/village/neighborhood, depending on the context and the social function (e.g., whether they want to associate or dissociate from those around them).
"Where are you from?" and "Where is your family from?" are still charged questions in Italian society.
At the same time, few people completely reject the idea that they are also Italian (mainly Italian?), while many, especially the younger generations, have embraced the new political reality of the European Union.

Unifying values

[Notes] — Nonetheless, there are unifying factors in Italian civilization.

  • The respect for the cultural canon of the past and for traditions in general, which is rooted on the never-ending appreciation of the classics, leading to the use of moderation and caution during all periods of change
  • A deep interest in political/social issues, rooted in the deep respect of family and community values (with reference to the smaller, local communities).
  • A deep aspiration to conform to religious ideals, with an emphasis on solidarity, eternal values and universal justice.

The Catholic religion

[Notes] — Catholicism has been a powerful unifying force inside Italian culture for many centuries. Even during the period of the separation between the Catholic Church and the Protestants, all attempts to have Italian states join the Protestant movement failed (Protestants in today's Italy are still less than 1%). This, inspite of the fact that during the 16th-17th century there were Protestant converts among the Italian intellectuals and in the clergy, especially in Venice and in northern Italy. Some politicians carefully considered the idea of severing contacts with the Papacy as a strategy to strengthen the authority of the local government.

There have been times when the Popes have used their power and charisma to pressure Catholics, so that they would lobby for or against legislation that was not fully compatible with the principles supported by the Church. However, one should not fall prey to simplistic exaggerations about the political sway of the Church.
It is significant that even in today's more secularized society, a considerable number of Italians choose to donate money to the Catholic Church through a specific option available on income tax forms, called eight per thousand. Such contributions between 2002 and 2008 were more than 800 million euros per year. In 2004, of the 34.56% who manifested their intentions in the income tax forms, 87.25% opted for a donation for the Catholic Church.

The End