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Save a Linguist, Learn a Dialect!

By Sofia Bragaglia

Today I am going to talk about a very important linguistic phenomenon: dialects. Specifically, why they are important and why people should learn them.

I was born in a small Italian town and grew up with my parents and my grandparents.

My grandparents were born in the 30s, a time when the Italian language was already standardised and used nationally, but not very widespread in smaller towns and in the countryside; so they grew up speaking their dialect. However, because of historical and political stances, they were taught that dialects were inappropriate and a symbol of low education. So, when I was around the house, they made a promise not to speak in what was, as a matter of fact, their native tongue.

However, if you have spoken a language (or, in this case, dialect) your entire life, chances are that you will keep the habit. So, while they usually talked to me in standard Italian, my grandparents often ended up interacting with each other using the local dialect even when I was around. That allowed me to pick it up – they would not let me use it, but there was nothing they could do to stop my linguistically-curious brain from absorbing their words.

So I grew up, brokenly bilingual and convinced that my dialect, the native tongue of my land, was a low, undignified thing to use. I only ever used it around my family (who eventually gave up on trying to control my speech), but I never would have dreamed of using it outside my home.

Now, many years later, I have ended up studying languages and linguistics academically. In English classes I have been taught Old and Middle English, while in Italian and Historical Linguistics classes I have been taught about…dialects. Now, you can imagine how silly I felt, having to study something that I could have known from my childhood and that I have always felt ashamed about. So I tried to pick my own dialect back up and became interested in the other ones spoken around the country.

Dialects are still used every day in many parts of Italy – however, they are bound to disappear if people keep raising the new generations the same way my family raised me. Why is it important to keep them alive?

First of all, dialects are an important source to trace down the history of a language. All the dialects in Italy have a common origin, which is Latin. However, through time, they started getting mixed with other languages, like French and Spanish, so even nowadays, one can find traces of these languages in the local dialects. Basically, a philologist’s paradise.

Second of all, many local expressions and sayings have not been translated into standard Italian – and most of them are absolutely hilarious. I have lost count of how many times I have found myself talking to somebody from Milan, Naples or Palermo and had to bring a word or phrase from my native region into the conversation because the closest word in Italian just did not express properly what I wanted to say.

One of the biggest examples of this is probably the word freschin or freschino – this is a word that is used in several regions in Northern Italy to express an unpleasant smell that comes from something that has not been washed or dried properly. Anyone who grew up in the north-eastern part of the country knows what this means – but there is no official translation for it in Italian!

So all you can do is say “this smells of freschino” and then proceed to explain to your interlocutor what that means. This often leads to hilarious exchanges, in which the other person either asks question to understand the specific meaning of the word or tries to find an equivalent in their own dialect. Again, freschino is just an example, but there are hundreds of other cases which play out the same.

This kind of interaction is not just a moment of hilarity and possible misunderstanding, but truly a wonderful cultural exchange. It brings people together, encouraging them to tell stories about their language and the place they were born in.

Finally, a child who is brought up with both a standard language and a local dialect is pretty much naturally bilingual. This means that if said child goes on to study more languages when he is older, he will probably find it less difficult to adapt to different linguistic systems and structures.

So, everyone, learn your dialect – it will help save this wonderful heritage and you will get to add a new entry to the list of languages you know, which is always cool.

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