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Prego? The Future Of Dialects In Italy

Old local languages stuck in the shadows
Old local languages stuck in the shadows
Davide Sacco

TURIN - It’s a little like Babel. In Italy, words can have one meaning on one side of the street and something entirely different on the other. From the mountains to the sea, from the north to the south, this is the land of endless dialects.

But because families are using these local languages less and less, there is a danger that they will slowly disappear. That's why, both to celebrate linguistic pride and to preserve Italian culture, the National Union of Pro Loco is dedicating a specific day (January 17) to celebrate the country's dialects every year.

"The aim is to preserve unique expressions of local communities, along with all the culture that the dialects convey," says the union's Gabriele Desiderio. "Seeing as the transfer from generation to generation is decreasing, we want to send a warning signal that a cultural heritage may be lost."

It's not just words or expressions that are at stake but also traditional knowledge, says Tullio Telmon, dialectologist and former president of the Italian Linguistic Society. “We're talking also about the skills that were handed down along with the specific language — and names, place names, words that you would not imagine because they involve entire worlds."

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(source: wikimedia)

Distinguishing between different languages and regions is tricky. The boundaries (when there are any) are short-lived, and there are continuous changes and influences. The northern dialects are different from the southern ones, and then there is the Latin divide between western and eastern Europe. This cuts Italy (and Europe) into two, leaving enormous instability of language. During the two world wars, for example, many soldiers were fighting side-by-side with fellow Italians with whom they couldn’t communicate.

Whether these varying forms of expression should be characterized as "dialects' or "local languages' is open to interpretation, though Telmon says the two are actually synonymous. "But I prefer to say "local languages' because the word "dialect" historically has had a negative connotation. Up to 20 years ago, its use was felt as a kind of social inferiority. Now, as everyone has learned the national "standard" language, the local one has an added value."

Telmon says that these local languages will die unless parents communicate with their children using them. "Support and learning in schools are always welcome, but the action of learning one’s mother tongue from a parent is unique," he says.

Many make the mistake of deferring to standard Italian, believing it will serve their children better.

“There are parents who, misled by modernity, teach the most popular language at the time," Telmon says. "The solution, instead, is multilingualism. There was a time of incorrect linguistic education, when they were convinced that learning a local language as a mother tongue impeded the child from learning standard Italian. But learning doesn’t work like that. Up until about 10 years old, most children can learn two, three, even five different languages without any problems.”

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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