Every Wednesday at noon, my Uncle Louis and a few others gather at La Roma Pizzeria to dine and speak principally in Italian. I join them when I can. There, I go by Giuseppe, and my uncle is Zio Luigi. Our collective is sometimes called “il gruppo italiano” (“the Italian group”), and one might say that we are one of the final vestiges of social italophony in the Utica-Rome area, a relic of a bygone era in a region that was once marked by widespread and deep Italian heritage and influence.
Anyway, at one of these luncheons, my uncle used a word that garnered confused looks from others at the table. It was quickly resolved by one of our guests that the word was dialectal and not standard Italian. This did not come as a shock to my uncle, as he has said time and time again that the Italian dialect that was spoken in his home when he was a boy was a combination of Italian, Spanish and Latin (the linguist in me questions the veracity of this claim), but this is neither here nor there for the purpose of this post.
I wish to bring the spotlight on the old man who provided the proper Italian word for the idea that my uncle was trying to express. Now, mind you that he is one of the humblest and most gracious and most well-spoken people I have talked with, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. Because I was aware that he was born in Italy and is a native speaker of Italian, I decided to enquire further about the way the language is spoken in the motherland. He happily explained to me that Italy is finally united under a common standard tongue after centuries of provincial variation; this matched my admittedly shallow understanding of Italian language history, which comes from two semesters of Elementary Italian in college, informal Internet research and playing Assassin’s Creed.
Our guest authority on the Italian language went on to say that dialects are nowadays rightly reserved for the home. That these dialects are not correct and should stay private. This was a touch off-putting.
I couldn’t let that one go. Using my reasonable linguistic rhetoric (with the caution not to offend the genuinely kind and well-meaning elder), I employed the Socratic method to query him into a corner and expose the fallacy in his notion of Italian dialects.
I asked for his agreement (successfully) with the following:
“Italian, like other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, comes from Latin, yes?”
“And would you say that all these languages are recognised as their own sovereign modes of speech with their own unique rules? That is, do they all have ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of being spoken?”
“Then how about twelve hundred years ago? They’re older forms of the languages — but still distinct from each other, yes?”
“Let’s go back a couple more centuries. They aren’t still French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, are they? No, but would you consider them slightly evolved forms of the regional variants of Vulgar Latin?”
“So, if they’re just dialects of Latin at that point, are they incorrect forms of that language?”
A cheerful smile manifested on the aged man’s thitherto vaguely grave countenance as he said, “I see what you are saying.”
A Fundamental Misunderstanding
Dialects seem to carry a feint negative air. They are unjustly felt as second-rate to what is considered standard in a language. They are sometimes branded with such demeaning labels as “regionalism” and even “slang.”
Such attitudes are poison and will cloud the judgement of writers, orators and so-called linguists everywhere — and that veritably wise and knowledgeable twenty-one-year-old fresh out of undergraduate school with a BA in English.
I believe that this ill treatment of dialects comes from a flawed perspective on how languages grow and develop.
Dialects are not to be seen as tree branches stemming from the trunk, the standard; they are better visualised as their own individual trees growing alongside the standard, all from the same patch of earth.
Let’s use English as a template for this concept, as it’s safe to assume that it is the first language of most people who are reading this blog post.
If we examine English in the U.K. as it stands today, we’ll note the innumerable flavours scattered therein. If we were to time-travel back to the Middle Ages, we would make a similar observation. This is because there was as much differentiation in the language back then as there is now — or at any other point in history. (Indeed there wasn’t just one Elizabethan vernacular.)
There were four main dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian and West Saxon. These, along with the lesser dialects, had been on their own evolutionary courses for quite some time. They didn’t just spawn out of nowhere. They were brought over to Britannia by sundry Germanic tribes — chiefly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes — that left northern Europe. And they didn’t all arrive at the same time, either; this was a migration of many peoples over the course of centuries, beginning when the Romans vacated the island. That which we call “Old English” is actually a collection of closely-related languages spoken by different groups of people in relative proximity to one another.
What does all this mean? It means that the English dialects today are, by and large, continuations of their ancestral mediaeval dialects, each with its own grammar, lexicon and phonology. And those, in turn, were continuations of related Germanic tongues pre-migration, two-thousand years ago and prior. They all grew up alongside the one lucky dialect that would become the standard for “English.” And that’s the very problem with setting a language standard in the first place: to call one dialect the standard is to imply that related dialects are recent offshoots of it — and not separate self-governing entities that are equally ancient.
It pays a certain amount of respect to be specific when referring to the language of a particular region. In some pockets of Scotland, it might be more appropriate to call their language “Scots” instead of “Scottish English,” despite its obvious strong kinship with Standard English. Similarly, it is erroneous to call the languages spoken in Lombardy and Veneto “Lombard Italian” and “Venetian Italian.” Lombard and Venetian are merely two of the many “dialects” that developed independently from one another in the area we now call Italy, but Tuscan (toscano) is the one that would serve as the basis for Standard Italian. Again, they all have strong linguistic similarity to the standard, but they are better referred to as their own languages.
(Remember that the country of Italy as it exists today has been around only since the late 19th century. Before the unification, the peninsula was composed of numerous city-states.)
These dialects do not swear fealty to the country that happens to envelop them and are not owned by the country’s most privileged dialect.
Therefore, no, a “dialect” in such a case is not a second-rate version of the language standard; it is a first-rate version of itself.
We’ll Just Make It Our OWN Language, Then
All right, cool, so how about dialects that do branch off the standard?
Let’s suppose that, centuries ago, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Central Europe began to adopt the language of an unspecified German dialect.
Initially, these Jews would be speaking some bastardised version of what was considered standard for the variety of German they were trying to imitate. It was assuredly German, but with some peculiarities. They were pronouncing words differently because they were mapping Hebrew phonology onto them, and they were sprinkling Hebrew words here and there as well as re-purposing German words to suit their culture.
There’s no doubt that, at some point, people who spoke this variety of German the “correct” or “proper” way started to view this emerging vernacular disdainfully. I imagine that they would have said that their German was being butchered.
Nevertheless, it was concluded that this “inferior” Jewish take on their language was here to stay, and so people began calling it a dialect.
In time, this dialect had acquired its own identity, complete with its own rules and conventions. People finally started to recognise it as its own language.
Today, we call it Yiddish.
This raises an interesting question about the validity of other dialects in other languages. Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or “ghetto speak,” truly ruining Standard American English? Or is it merely following its own evolutionary path?
Drawing The Line
Here’s the thing with dialects and languages: the difference is mostly arbitrary. Given enough time, derivative dialects become their own languages. Dialects ignore the imaginary lines humans draw and call national boundaries. Some dialects are so ancient and distinct that they aren’t really what most people consider dialects at all.
Sociolinguist Max Weinreich popularised an apt saying about them:
“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.“