A few days ago I discussed this article from New Scientist, and I linked the idea of language diversity that emerges from the study to the main topic of this blog, using it as yet another tool in my effort to popularise the task of the translator. By addressing specific differences, and using appropriate examples, we can explain our work without having to resort to that kind of metaphysical lingo that, admittedly, translators use a bit too often and only serves to perpetuate the misconceptions about our profession.
Today I would like to quote another passage from the same article, which is less related to translation proper, but is one that I find extremely interesting and worth thinking about:
In recent years, much has been made of the idea that humans possess a “language instinct”: infants easily learn to speak because all languages follow a set of rules built into their brains. While there is no doubt that human thinking influences the form that language takes, if Evans and Levinson are correct, language in turn shapes our brains. This suggests that humans are more diverse than we thought, with our brains having differences depending on the language environment in which we grew up. And that leads to a disturbing conclusion: every time a language becomes extinct, humanity loses an important piece of diversity.
My mind immediately goes to the Italian scenario. Besides the many minority “foreign” languages spoken in very limited areas (Albanian, Catalan, German, Greek, Slovene, Croatian, French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan) only three regional languages are recognised as such: Friulian, Ladin, and Sardinian. Then we have a long list of distinct regional languages that the UNESCO recognises but that are considered “dialects” by the Italian government. Some of these languages are spoken by extremely small communities, but others have been the native tongues of most Italian people until very recently (Emilian-Romagnol, Ligurian, Lombard, Neapolitan, Piedmontese, Sicilian,Venetian) and they are all listed as vulnerable or endangered.
One of the problems is, of course, about where to draw the line between dialect and language (although, linguistically speaking, it’s not hard to see how the above are all proper languages). But the funny thing is, even when you hear people speaking “standard Italian”, their speech will most likely be full of loanwords and calques from their local regional language. Without those, Italian would be considerably duller. Still another problem for whoever wants to protect regional languages in contemporary Italy is that Lega Nord (a xenophobic, backwards and tradition-obsessed right-wing group, advocating secession of the North from the South) is lobbying for regional languages for all the wrong reasons, and all other efforts to protect them are often seen as passé and backwards, both by the Left and Right. This, if you ask me, is a very, very sad state of affairs. Don’t get me wrong, languages are constantly changes. It wouldn’t make any sense to impose eighteenth-century Genoese on modern Ligurians, but my parent’s generation was already speaking a more “italianised” version of Ligurian, which nonetheless was still a separate language. As a proud sponsor of multilingualism as a way to open one’s mind, I can’t really see the point in losing our extraordinary linguistic diversity without a fight.
I can’t help but think of the Senegalese friends I made in France. Most of them speak Wolof, but some were originally from distinct ethnic groups, in which case they would speak the language of their own ethnic group, plus Wolof as the majority language in the country, plus French, plus some English, at varying levels.
Why does it sound so scary to teach proper Italian to students in schools (something that, judging by some quick googling, we are far from accomplishing), prepare them to speak at least decent English, while also protecting and promoting the cultural richness that regional languages represent?