Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Language and National Identity: The "Revolution" of Italian Neorealism

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

Language and National Identity: The "Revolution" of Italian Neorealism

Article excerpt

The questione della lingua

In order to understand well the importance of the linguistic "revolution" which took place in Italian literature and cinema in the post-World War II period, firstly we have to summarize briefly what had happened in Italy in this field in the ninety years after the unification of the country.

As is well known, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the unified State was born, the so called questione della lingua was deemed to be resolved with the acceptance of the views of Alessandro Manzoni. Despite the disagreement of many important intellectuals (such as Ascoli and, for different reasons, Carducci), the idiom spoken by the most cultured part of the Florentine population became the official language of the new country, and the State, through its departments, mainly in schools, began spreading it through the rest of the nation (that is, to the majority of people) whose real mother tongues were the dialects of the regions where they lived.

The literary language, which for centuries had been based on the imitation of the three great Tuscan writers of the fourteenth century, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, following the example of the Manzoni masterpiece I promessi sposi, adopted that same model as its point of reference. On the one hand it represented a very deep innovation, since Italian literature, after five hundred years of immobility, began making use again of a modern, real and living language. But on the other hand the chosen solution had a very centralistic character, since the language of a small minority became a model for literary activity in the whole peninsula.

Therefore, after the unification, the principle prevailed that, to build a unified national identity, it was necessary to impose a rigid monolinguistic model both in most of the formal situations of everyday life (work, for example) and in the artistic field. Local tongues were relegated to the role of instruments for informal daily communication.

The Fascist Ventennio

These traits were radicalized during the fascist period: the nationalism of the regime considered dialects and particularly foreign languages as real obstacles to the process of nation building, which, according to Mussolini and many other party officials, required a strict linguistic uniformity. A very drastic campaign was carried out against the ethnic minorities, which suffered a brutal process of italianisation, and the usage of foreign words in the Italian language (including its literature) was also strongly discouraged.

The struggle against dialects was less radical than many other campaigns which took place in that period. Probably this stemmed both from the strong populist soul of Fascism, which did not accord with a frontal attack against local idioms that were deeply rooted in Italian society, and from the presence, in fascist culture, of some minoritarian currents (for example the so called Strapaese), which underlined the importance of local cultures and the necessity to protect them carefully.

At any rate, until the end of the 1930s, in the most important works of Italian literature, the language used was largely based on respect for the canonic model which had been developing in the preceding decades. Obviously each writer applied it in different terms, so the style was very rhetorical in some works (for instance, the later works of Gabriele D'Annunzio), and elevated or intermediate in other cases. In poetry, the language of Montale and Ungaretti was very neat, with quite frequent use of refined passages especially in the former. One of the most significant exceptions was Luigi Pirandello who, especially in short stories set in his native Sicily, sometimes abandoned the middle style which usually characterized his works to adopt a more informal register, which also included some elements of the local patois.

It is no coincidence that the few authors who made the decision to devote themselves entirely to vernacular literature (such as Tessa in Lombardy or Noventa in Veneto) also had hostile feelings towards the regime. …

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