Italian Dialectology and the Syntax of Eastern Lombard

By Anda Neagu, PhD Candidate, York University

January 2022

My doctoral research project focuses on Italian dialectology from the point of view of syntactic theory. In particular, I am looking at syntactic structures in Eastern Lombard, one of the many vernaculars spoken on the Italian peninsula. By investigating this endangered Romance language, I hope to shed some light on current issues pertaining to syntactic theories within the Generative Grammar framework, as well as on the role of Italian dialects within the linguistic landscape of Italy. Moreover, this research could also benefit linguistic studies across the Italian diaspora. Specifically, the empirical portion of my research can help investigate the linguistic experiences of Italian-Canadians, in that it offers a database of syntactic structures in Eastern Lombard. Receiving the Elia Chair Scholarship has been a privilege for me, as it allows me to focus on this component of my project and to travel to Italy to collect data, both directly from the speakers of this language, and indirectly from written sources that would be impossible to find in Canada.

In terms of syntactic theory, I am analyzing constructions that involve movement operations defined as “A-bar movement”. In simple terms, I am investigating specific syntactic structures such as interrogatives, focalizations, and relative clauses, among others. An example of these constructions can be observed here:

Ngo se-t                             nasciut ‘ngont?

where be                              born where

‘Where were you born?’

The example illustrates one of the possible strategies adopted by Eastern Lombard varieties in the formation of interrogative clauses. As it can be observed in the glosses, unlike English, which employs only one wh-word in the interrogative, Eastern Lombard may use two wh-words for the same purpose: one in a syntactic position corresponding to the English counterpart, and one lower in the clause. I am therefore interested in these syntactic constructions, as I believe that they constitute further empirical evidence for theories concerning A-bar movement. As such, they can help us better understand general mechanisms behind the human faculty of language that go beyond the behavior of specific natural languages.

I also intend to integrate Italian dialectology into my syntactic analysis, because I consider it to be crucial to the understanding of syntactic phenomena in Eastern Lombard. As a matter of fact, the varieties spoken on the Italian peninsula that are often referred to as dialects of Italian are, in reality, distinct Romance languages. What differentiates their status from that of standard Italian are merely sociolinguistic factors: standard Italian, which is based on the Romance vernacular spoken around Florence, became the official language during the political unification process in the XIX century, while the other vernaculars were overshadowed. The reasons that led to the choice of Tuscan over other regional varieties are complex, but they date back to the Medieval and Renaissance literature produced in this language, which includes works from the so called “three crowns of Italian literature”, i.e. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The linguistic unification of Italy, however, was not a straightforward, nor a short process. Local languages continued to be used as an oral means of communication for decades, and only towards the middle of the XX century standard Italian started to become the predominant oral language, thanks to factors that include the introduction of radios and televisions in Italian homes. Even so, standard Italian has been mostly used as a language of communication in formal settings, while in informal circumstances many speakers still employ regional Italian, which combines the local vernaculars, as substrate varieties, with standard Italian. Moreover, while local languages are becoming endangered, there are still speakers employing them. Given these developments, the local languages enter a diglossic relationship with standard Italian, where the former are used in informal and day-to-day settings, while the latter is used to communicate in formal environments and whenever the addressee is not familiar with the local varieties. Given the peculiar linguistic status of the local languages spoken in Italy, I intend to show that this factor cannot be overlooked in the formal analysis of syntactic structures in Eastern Lombard. In particular, I expect that the interaction with standard Italian will help disentangle at least a small part of the puzzle concerning the high degree of syntactic variation and optionality found in Eastern Lombard varieties.

Additional research in the syntax of Italian dialects, however, is not only going to benefit this subfield of linguistics. Many of the local languages spoken in Italy are endangered, as a consequence of the complex historical development and relationship with standard Italian described earlier. My research, therefore, also aims at preserving some of the linguistic richness characterizing the Italian peninsula. My analysis of Eastern Lombard syntactic structures is based on empirical data that I have recently started collecting. The Elia Chair Scholarship has been an important resource allowing me to conduct this stage of my research. In fact, for data collection purposes, travel to the Eastern Lombard area is fundamental. I am collecting the data through interviews with native speakers of this Romance language, and, in this initial phase, I am focusing on the varieties spoken in Valle Camonica, an alpine valley in the province of Brescia where my hometown is located. Despite being a small area (1356 km2), I have already encountered some interesting phenomena denoting a high level of linguistic variation between different towns and villages. There are also problematic aspects of the data collection component, in particular, being able to find speakers with a level of fluency that has not been thoroughly impacted by standard Italian. In other words, variation is also found cross-generationally: the younger the speakers, the fewer the chances to elicit a non “italianized” version of the different dialects. This brings us back to the issue I was previously illustrating, namely the endangered nature of the local vernaculars in Italy.

Lake Moro, Valle Camonica. Photo taken by the author.

Lastly, research within the Italian dialectology field is also crucial in the understanding of the linguistic experiences of Italians migrating to other countries, like Canada. As mentioned earlier, standard Italian has become more uniformly widespread less than a century ago, while the major migration waves of Italians towards North America and Canada started in the second half of the XIX century. Thus, we can assume that Italian migrants would be fluent speakers of local languages and dialects, instead of standard Italian. This has had consequences for how Italians from different regions acquired English. In other words, in terms of second language acquisition of English, Italians migrating to Canada in the XIX and XX century had a different experience when compared to someone like myself, who moved to Canada in recent years. This is not only related to the different migratory framework, but also to a different linguistic background: while the dominant language for those Italians was most likely a local language (e.g. Sicilian, Neapolitan, Lombard varieties, Venetan, etc.), the dominant language of Italians learning English as a second language today tends to be standard Italian. Thus, data collection and research within Italian dialectology, regardless of the linguistics branch or theoretical approach adopted, is also crucial for the understanding of the linguistic component of the Italian migration across the Atlantic.

Ultimately, this kind of research presents a unique opportunity for formal linguistics to support deeper explorations of language use in Italian diaspora communities. With the support of the Elia Chair Scholarship, I am delighted to be able to pursue this research and I look forward to further engaging and collaborating with this research community.