Rags of Light

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Reflections on "dialect" and "language".

I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s truly great Neapolitan Novels, which follow the lives of a pair of friends born in 1944 in a working-class neighborhood in Naples. Everyone should read them.

In what I’ve read so far, I’ve been intrigued by the interplay of what the narrator always calls “dialect” and the official Italian language. She makes clear that everyone in her poor neighborhood speaks “dialect,” and that “Italian” is something that you learn in school.

When I looked up “Neapolitan”, I found a Wikipedia article that treats Neapolitan as a distinct language. My poor understanding is that until some time in the 20th century there was really no Italian nation but a collection of local/ethnic groups on the Italian peninsula, speaking dialects that weren’t entirely comprehensible to one another. When Italy became a state in the modern sense, the powers felt the need to establish a common language, and the Tuscan dialect won out. (I’ve read that Dante’s particular dialect had a lot to do with producing a unified modern Italian).

In the Ferrante story that I’ve read so far, the narrator shows intellectual promise, ends up attending middle school (not common in her neighborhood), then high school (almost unheard of: many of her friends have never heard of high school). At times she uses her school-acquired mastery of Italian to intimidate her neighborhood friends, which tells me that it’s comprehensible to them, but sounds alien and reminds them of the “inferiority” of their own tongue.

It reminded me of all the interesting questions about what defines a “dialect” versus a “language”. Usually the answer has little to do with science and a lot to do with ethnopolitics. The only objective standard is mutual intelligibility: if two people can have a mutually-understood conversation in their two different tongues, then they’re speaking different dialects of the same language. If they can’t understand each other, they’re speaking different languages.

I guess that by this definition Neapolitan and Italian could be called dialects of the same language. But politics enter quickly. Swedes and Norwegians like to call their national tongues different languages, though as I understand it a Swede, a Norwegian and a Dane could carry on a fine conversation, each speaking his native language. At the other extreme, China likes to call Mandarin and Cantonese “dialects” of the same language, though as I understand it they’re barely comprehensible to one another.

Closer to home, I’ve lived most of my Orthodox life among Carpatho-Rusyns who like to think of Rusyn as a unique language. In Slovakia, Rusyn is officially recognized as a distinct language from Slovak, though the two are very similar. In neighboring Ukraine, where nationalism runs rampant right now, Rusyn is only recognized as a dialect of Ukrainian, and anyone who says otherwise is a “separatist.”

On the other hand, some people with a different political slant see “Ukrainian” as a dialect of a common Russian language. You should be careful where you discuss such matters these days: nationalist tempers can run very high. A friend was once asked whether he thought that Rusyn was a language, and his answer was almost calculated to offend everyone: “If Ukrainian is a language, then Rusyn is a language.”

I think that electronic media – radio, television and now the internet – have done much to eliminate local dialect. Years ago I was interested in the “old time” music of the American South. I found recordings from the 1930s to 1960s of songs and conversations by white Americans in the Appalachian mountains and black Americans in the deep south. Sometimes their speech was barely recognizable as the English that I knew. Today I’d expect many of these regional distinctives to be gone.