Italian as a Language of Communication in Nineteenth Century Italy and Abroad

By Colombo, Michele; Kinder, John J. | Italica, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Italian as a Language of Communication in Nineteenth Century Italy and Abroad


Colombo, Michele, Kinder, John J., Italica


1. State of the question. It is a truth universally acknowledged that nineteenth century Italy, a country in possession of a good literature, was in want of a national spoken language. The languages spoken across the country were in fact dialects: the Italian language, based on fourteenth-century Tuscan, as codified for literary purposes in the sixteenth century, was used only as a written medium.

This assumption has been held by many famous Italian authors: during his stay in Paris, Alessandro Manzoni wrote, in an oft-cited letter to Claude Fauriel of 9 February 1806, about the envy he felt at seeing how the people of Paris understood and applauded Moliere's comedies, while in Italy there was such a distance between the spoken and the literary language that the latter could be called a dead language (Botta 4). Also Giacomo Leopardi, in his Zibaldone di pensieri, noted on 7 May 1821 that outside Tuscany, people did not speak Italian (Pacella 620). A few years later, in the third of his Epoche della lingua italiana (1824), Ugo Foscolo asserted that it was apparent to whoever lived in or travelled through Italy that the Italian language was not spoken (Foligno 153). The list could easily go on. (1)

It was not only the language that was at stake: a famous, but apocryphal, sentence by the Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire Klemens von Metternich stated that Italy was no more than a geographical expression (Brunetti). Indeed, until political unification in 1861, the main characteristic that justified talk of Italy as a nation was its literature. This is by no means an exception: Adrian Hastings (31), talking about the birth of nations in Western Europe (and beyond), has claimed that "the most influential and widespread single internal factor in [the formation of nations] is [...] the literary development of a spoken vernacular." Nevertheless, to cite Hastings again, "only extensive use [of the literary language] can bring with it a nationalising effect, and that means use at a popular, and not merely academic, level" (Hastings 23). (2) This statement recalls the famous title of a series of articles published in the Spettatore in 1855 by Ruggiero Bonghi, Perchd la letteratura italiana non sia popolare in Italia. (3) The title expressed a widespread idea: the majority of the Italian people were not able, at that time, to understand the national language and literature (Serianni, II secondo Ottocento 15-16).

In twentieth century scholarship this belief received powerful expression in Tullio De Mauro's pioneering estimates of the numbers of Italian speakers at the time of unification. De Mauro started from the principle that only the inhabitants of Tuscany and Rome could easily speak the common (literary) language without a great amount of schooling, because their dialects were close to Italian. For all other Italians, it is reasonable to assume that only those who had attended at least some years of the secondary school were able to speak Italian. Given these assumptions, De Mauro (34-43) estimated that, in 1861, only 630,000 citizens, in a population of more than 25 million inhabitants, were speakers of the national language: that is, in the united Italy of the nineteenth century only 2.5% of the population was able to speak Italian. Some years later, Arrigo Castellani adjusted the percentage, arguing on the basis of new criteria that almost one-tenth of Italians spoke Italian as their everyday language in 1861. Nevertheless, the idea that there was in Italy an incurable division between written and spoken language until the second half of the twentieth century has become almost a truism. This opinion has been discussed and defended recently in a sharp essay by Pietro Trifone, who talks about the linguistic holocaust of millions of Italians who have been excluded for years from the use of the national language, with dramatic social consequences.

While the main point of this argument is undoubted, that in nineteenth century Italy everyday use of the Italian spoken language was restricted, some scholars have tried to highlight different aspects of the problem. …

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