Although Venetian is routinely referred to as a “dialetto” in Italy, this has become misleading in that it is now widely and unthinkingly interpreted as implying that Venetian is a dialect of Italian.
The language of Venice is older, less artificial and more influential than Italian itself
Although Venetian is routinely referred to as a “dialetto” in Italy, this has become misleading in that it is now widely and unthinkingly interpreted as implying that Venetian is a dialect of Italian. In fact Venetian predates Italian by hundreds of years. It grew naturally and autonomously out of the late Latin spoken in the north-east of the peninsula. Italian, on the other hand, was an artifically created language, based primarily on vernacular Tuscan and the works of Tuscan writers, notably Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio, and forged by scholars and humanists of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in an attempt to found a national language, written and spoken, for the entire population of the yet to be unified country. More or less universal knowledge of Italian was only achieved in the second half of the twentieth century.
The robustness of Venetian in the face of the exclusive use of Italian in the media, education system, bureaucracy and the Church, and in a country where other “dialects” are in more rapid decline, is remarkable. The Venetian language remains central to the Venetian identity, but is seldom mentioned other than in the most cursory fashion in the thousands of books and articles about the city and its lagoon. Venetian, which is in many respects as different from Italian as Italian is from French and Spanish, and can be impenetrable for Italians from elsewhere, is still spoken by the majority of Venetians living in the lagoon and also in the Mestre-Marghera conurbation on its western shores.
English words borrowed from Venetian include artichoke, arsenal, ballot, casino, contraband, gazette, ghetto, imbroglio, gondola, lagoon, lido, lotto, marzipan, pantaloon, pistachio, quarantine, regatta, scampi, sequin and zany. “Ciao” – a long-standing contraction of the courteous Venetian salutation “vostro schiavo” (your humble servant) – has now become a global greeting.
Given the importance of Venetian throughout Venice’s history and in the present everyday life of the city, it is surprising that no continuous account of Venetian from its origins to the present has before been written in any language. Consequently, A Linguistic History of Venice, whose author, Ronnie Ferguson, is head of modern languages at the University of St Andrews and had the inestimable benefit of a Venetian-speaking mother, should become essential reading not only for historians of Venice, but also those interested in the development of Romance languages in general. Although parts of the book are fairly technical, it is structured in such a way that all readers should find it easy to navigate the most specialized sections without losing the thread of the enlightening and lucidly written overall narrative.
Ferguson traces the origins of Venetian to the vernaculars that developed during the Dark Ages on the mainland surrounding the lagoon. These gradually merged into a common language as mainlanders migrated to the islands of the lagoon. Nonetheless, as late as about 1500, the Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo noted that the fishermen of the area around the San Nicolò church in the south-west of the city were still speaking a distinct dialect called “nicoloto”. Even today, instantly recognizable variations of standard Venetian can be found on the island of Burano in the north-east of the lagoon and Pellestrina and Chioggia to the south-west of the city. And some small differences can distinguish speakers from Cannaregio, Castello and the island of Giudecca. A major factor in the survival of Venetian against the incoming tide of Italian is that it is spoken with pride by all classes of society. Some of the purest Venetian is spoken by the least educated on the one hand, who have little contact with Italian speakers, and the most educated on the other, who are acutely aware of correct Italian (often referred to in Venetian as “Tuscan”) and correct Venetian and carefully avoid contamination between the two. The day-to-day speaking of Italian in Venetian homes, once rare, is unquestionably on the increase (especially where a partner is not Venetian). However, many children who do not speak Venetian at home quickly learn the language from their playmates and school friends. Immigrant workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere are picking up the language in the workplace, unexpectedly adding to the number of speakers.
The first examples of written Venetian go back to around 1200, and Ferguson offers a series of varied and well-chosen literary and other texts (with English translations) charting the evolution of the language. Curiously, it was a Venetian, Cardinal Pietro Bembo, with his Prose della volgar lingua, published in 1525, who was the most influential early codifier of the new Italian language. During this period Venice was becoming the epicentre of publishing in Italian. Literate Venetians readily adopted Italian as a written language, which in many ways superseded the role that Latin had previously played (although Latin persisted in the more conservative realms of the chancery and Church). Even as Venetians read increasingly in Italian, written Venetian continued to be used in personal and business correspondence, practical manuals, diaries, histories and wills, while spoken Venetian remained the language of government and the courts, religious, philosophical and scientific discourse.
Literary energies in Venetian were more consistently directed towards verse and drama than prose – understandably, as Ferguson points out, given that poetry and theatre were closer to the world of speech than works intended to be read on the page. And as poetry and drama were available to the literate and unlettered alike, the spoken word was constantly enriched by these literary works. The first authoritative dictionary of Venetian, by Giuseppe Boerio, which was in advance of its times in its unprudish inclusion of slang and vulgar expressions, was published in 1829. One of the aspirations behind Boerio’s large tome was the hope that it would help enrich the Italian language. The 1856 edition, available in facsimile, is still an essential reference work.
No standard orthography of Venetian has ever been established. Different authors follow their own fancies when committing it to paper. Ferguson favours the historically traditional “Goldonian” x to indicate the English z, although a plain z is gaining ground among contemporary local writers. Nor do any of the various systems for writing Venetian follow actual pronunciation closely. For example, the words for “he” and “she”, conventionally written “lu” and “ela”, are actually pronounced “yu” and “eya”. The so-called l evanescente, or vanishing l (initial and intermediate ls tend to disappear between two vowels), is one of the spoken language’s striking characteristics but seldom reflected in orthography. Thus, “fradelo” and “sorela”, brother and sister, are pronounced “fradeo” and “sorea”, while “un libro” (a book) becomes “do ibri” (two books) in the plural.
Ferguson’s book coincides with several new local publications, from Manlio Cortelazzo’s Dizionario veneziano della lingua e della cultura popolare nel XVI secolo (Venetian Dictionary of the Language and Popular Culture of the Sixteenth Century), to Gianfranco Siega’s Par modo de dir (So to Speak), a compendium of idioms and their origins. Siega is also the author, along with Michela Brugnera and Samantha Lenarda, of an etymological dictionary of Venetian, rather pessimistically entitled Il dialetto perduto (The Lost Dialect). But, while he fully recognizes threats to Venetian’s future survival – among them the scientifically flawed, sometimes nonsensical terms of “The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages”, which seem perversely calculated to undermine rather than protect some of these languages – Ferguson ends his invaluable study on a quietly optimistic note.
A LINGUISTIC HISTORY OF VENICE
320pp. Florence: Olschki. 33euros.
978 88 222 5645 4