Mother Language Day: from the Alps to Sicily, 12 historical minorities exist in Italy

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ROME, FEBRUARY 19 – Marking the International Mother Language Day, the Italian National Commission for UNESCO has published an in-depth study on the case of Italy. This study emphasises UNESCO’s commitment to the promotion and protection of multilingualism, and presents the country-specific situation, where twelve ‘historical linguistic minorities’ are recognised at the normative level.

International Mother language Day is globally celebrated on February 21st. The world’s linguistic diversity is under severe threat as more and more languages are disappearing. Approximately 40 percent of the population does not have access to education in the language they speak. As a result, traditional knowledge and cultures are at risk of no longer being passed on to new generations.

The spectrum of the twelve historical Italian linguistic minorities – resulting from non Italian speaking cultures that, in the course of history, have variously settled and integrated on the national territory eventually becoming an essential part of the overall identity of Italians – is fascinating. Many of these minorities still maintain strong ties with their places of origin and continue to make use of their language, testifying to a significant historical continuity of cultural references, in some cases facilitated by geographical proximity. The minorities are the focus of a special law (n. 482, adopted on 15th December 1999) which provides for the “protection of the language and culture of the Albanian, Catalan, Germanic, Greek, Slovenian and Croatian populations and of those speaking French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, Occitan and Sardinian”.

  • The Albanian population in southern Italy (between 70 and 100,000 people) arrived as a result of migrations taking place between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries in a few dozen municipalities scattered from Sicily to Calabria (where the greatest concentration is present), from Basilicata to Campania, from Puglia to Molise and Abruzzo.
  • Germanic languages are spoken along the Alpine arc, in a variety of historical and sociolinguistic contexts
  • Greek minorities are concentrated in Aspromonte and in Salento
  • The Slovene population (about 60,000 people) is located along the eastern border in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia, including part of the population of the two capitals. In the province of Udine, along the border, Slavic dialects are spoken. The local population affirms that these dialects are original and different from standard Slovene
  • Three small towns in Molise host Croatian linguistic minorities (about 3,000 people)
  • Catalan minorities (about 15,000 people) are present in Alghero, Sardinia

The 1999 law also mentions “speaking populations”: the French language in Val D’Asta and in some valleys of the province of Turin, but also, following an ancient migration, in two small towns in Puglia, and in the same regions French-Provençal (from 50 to 70,000 people) and Occitan (20 to 40,000 people), spoken in the high alpine valleys of western Piedmont between Vermenagna and Val di Susa and in a town in Calabria; Friulian, practiced mostly in Friuli, and occasionally in the province of Venice; Ladin (about 30,000 people) widespread in some valleys of the province of Bolzano (where the population speaks German as a second language and enjoys greater prerogatives in the use of local varieties) and in areas of the provinces of Trento and Belluno (where it is spoken alongside Italian); Sardinian (about one million people) practiced in its various varieties in most of Sardinia, with the exception of the Catalan and Tabarkine linguistic islands and the northern part of the island, where Corsican dialects prevail (CNI notes that Corsican is recognized as a minority language in France, but not in Italy).

Other linguistic minorities include the so-called “galloitalici” or “alto italiani” dialects (about 60,000 speakers), widespread in Sicily and (with different levels of conservation) in Basilicata and Campania, as a result of medieval migrations from northern Italy; and Tabarchino (about 10,000 speakers), a variety of Ligurian origin widespread today in two centers of southern Sardinia, where it was transferred during the eighteenth century by groups of settlers coming from northern Africa.

International Mother Language Day (IMLD) was proclaimed by the General Conference of UNESCO in 1999 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism and recognized in 2002 by the UN General Assembly. UNESCO has also published an Atlas of Endangered Languages online, which provides information on the degree of extinction risk of around 2500 languages in the world, and the countries in which they are spoken, including the geographical coordinates of the areas of use of each language. The Atlas aims at increase awareness around the need to safeguard linguistic diversity, by offering portal users the possibility to enter new data, information or comments. (@OnuItalia)