Minority languages and linguistic communities in Italy
By Patrizia Vascotto
University of Trieste (Italy) and Ljubljana (Slovenija)
Geographical distribution and general considerations
In Italy we can find, besides Italian, several other linguistic varieties spread all over the country and exactly:
French and Arpitan (Francoprovençal) in Valle d’Aosta-Vallée d’Aoste (north-west, border with France)
German in Süd Tirol – Alto Adige (north-center, border with Austria)
Slovene in Friuli Venezia Giulia (north-east, border with Slovenia)
Occitan in Valle d’Aosta
Ladin in Süd Tirol
Friulan in Friuli Venezia Giulia
German in Friuli Venezia Giulia
Sardinian in Sardegna (central Italy)
Catalan in Sardegna
Croatian in Molise (southern Italy, Adriatic side)
Greek (Griko) in Puglia, Calabria (southern Italy, Adriatic and Ionic side)
Arpitan (Francoprovençal) in Piemonte (north, border with France), Calabria, Puglia
Albanian (Arbrëshe) in Molise, Basilicata, Calabria, Sicilia
Linguistic minorities and linguistic communities rights are guaranteed by the Italian Constitution (art. 6) and by the national law 482/1999 ruling the protection of historical linguistic minorities, including linguistic communities.
Thanks to these laws they can get economical contributions from the country for their cultural activities in order to preserve their traditions, culture, languages and folklore. Teaching of the minority language is also encouraged by the law.
Minorities and communities
We can distinguish between linguistic minorities and linguistic communities considering the number of speakers of the two, the former being much more consistent (up to about some hundreds thousand people in the case of Friulan or Sardinian) and the latter generally less large (some thousands of speakers).
In both cases the language is considered to be protected if there is any possibility to learn it at school, to use it in public and for formal purposes, and to make it known to the largest number of non-speakers.
High level – low level
According to the principles of linguistics a language can keep itself alive if it is in use in all the situations a community uses a language, i.e. in formal and informal situations.
If a linguistic variety is used only in a limitated number of situations (family, friends) or for a limitated type of topics (everyday life and work) it will be confined at a low level and it will constantly need to be complemented by another variety which will perform the so-called high functions (literature, formal speeches, formal interpersonal relationships); this variety in the Italian case of course would be standard Italian.
If we want to give a language enough possibilities to spread, to grow and to consolidate its use, we should encourage as many means as possible to make this language spoken and written.
Otherwise we leave the language on the way of becoming a museum item and a bare example of folklore to be shown to turists as a peculiarity of a place like a tipical food or endemic vegetation.
Of course it is quite complicated to arrange specific schools for every community speaking a different language expecially if the community is very small. Just for this reason the national law promotes – in the area where a small community lives – additional teaching (in Italian schools) of the language of the community (so that everyone can learnt it, both majority and minority speakers), cultural events, scientific researches and studies, radio and tv broadcasting, magazines and other periodical publications.
The three major linguistic minorities in Italy - French, German and Slovene minorities - are furthermore protected by special local laws as they live in regions or provinces with a particular administrative and legislative authonomy.
In Valle d’Aosta and Süd Tirol – province of Bolzano-Bozen, there is a complete bilingualism; the minority has its own school where Italian is also taught and Italian speakers learn at school also the minority language which is official language of the region/province as Italian, and it is used in every formal situation (public administration, newspaper, radio and television). In Friuli Venezia Giulia the Slovene minority has its own schools, where of course both Italian and Slovene are taught, while Italian speakers use to go to their own schools, where the minority language is not usually taught (with some rare exceptions as a facultative matter). Slovene newspapers, magazines, books are published, theatre shows are staged, radio and television programs are broadcasted but only Slovene speakers can understand them. Slovene language is not considered an official language and only in some cases (small Municipalities) it is used in public administrations and formal situations. Actually the language is used at a formal level only in those situations and contexts where there are only Slovene speakers.
While in Valle d’Aosta and Süd Tirol each speaker can use his own language and is sure to be understood, in Friuli Venezia Giulia Slovene speakers can use their own language only among them and this risults to be a partial bilingualism as concerning only the minority group.
Considering diversity as a richness and as a part of our own territory, if there is any diversity there, is not only useful but it is a form of respect of our neighbourg’s culture and dignity. If the majority speakers could at least understand the minority language this could help a lot. A passive competence of the minority language among the majority members could allow the minority speakers to express themselves in their mothertongue (which according to the principles of psycolinguistic is the only one in which we are really ourselves), it could help the majority speakers to know in the most suitable way habits, literature and culture of the minority group, it would very likely let the majority speakers understand better some features of their own habits, literature and culture – as in bicultural areas both cultures are usually interrelated among them and influence each other.
A law which really protects a minority language should encourage also the knowledge of this language and culture among majority speakers. Bilingual road and tourist signs, streets and squares entitled to prominent personalities of the minority cultural environment, could represent a way to respect the minority culture, to make it ‘visible’ even to foreigners, to get majority members acquainted with minority world. Language courses for adults and children, bilingual publications and bilingual events aimed to the spreading of the minority culture, could be a good way for a progressive approach to it.
We should never allow that a minority language becomes a piece of handcraft that we show to friends and foreigners as a relic of the past or as a souvenir to take away. Globalization tends to cancel cultural differences in the name of common patterns to simplify communication. New nationalisms and identifications in the so called ‘small homelands’ are dangerous signs which can be interpreted as a trend towards separatism in order to affirm an extreme self-defence. Spreading the knowledge of diversity can help both minority and majority groups to build a richer world where each of us can find himself and his own reflection into the closest neighbourg.