Prejudiced linguists

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Emilio Servidio wrote to me about the things-people-don't-have-words-for trope, but continued with some ruminations on a different topic that I thought might interest you. I supply his reflections here with his permission as a guest post.


It worries me that linguistic prejudice can distort reality in the eyes of otherwise smart and sensitive people. It even happens to some linguists I know. I witnessed an especially disturbing episode recently.

The standard variety of Italian is based on a long literary tradition stemming from 14th century Tuscan writers. The standard pronunciation, the so called Amended Florentine Pronunciation (AFP), is a very artificial one, exclusively used by classically trained actors and radio speakers. Everybody else in Italy only knows his own regional variety of Italian, and even though grammar differ only slightly, phonological differences are huge.

For some reason, since the Seventies some Northern pronunciations got more and more prestigious. This has not been officially recognized in any way, but it has been noticed by sociolinguists at least on an informal level. What is funny is that instead of just claiming "The standard has changed guys, the Northern pronunciation rules!", people on the one hand became oblivious of the dramatic differences of the Northen accents from the AFP, and on the other hand they became overly sensitive to the differences of other varieties from their own.

A couple of months ago I was attending the main dialectology conference in Italy. A (supposedly) distiguished dialectologist from the Veneto region made a public remark of the following sort: "To be honest, I don't think people in Rome speak Italian at all. When I listen even to the most educated Romans, I don't find a real competence of the Italian language, as I find among well educated people in Veneto".

What disturbs me most is not that a scientist of language falls victim of prescriptivist prejudice. Maybe it is just human. What is worst is that the claim is factually and demonstrably wrong. This is dramatically evident if one looks at phonology. Roman Italian shares with AFP a seven vowels system, syntactic doubling, a clear distinction between simple and geminated consonants. Veneto Italian is well known to lack all of these phonological features. As for grammar proper, nothing special could be said that makes VI appears closer to the Standard than RI.

So the prejudice is so strong to make a well known professional linguist, author of a couple of textbooks, unable to see and evaluate correctly elementary facts about Italian varieties that should be evident to every smart undergraduate. What can I say? Linguists themselves are not immune from moronicity.

[The above is a guest post by Emilio Servidio. Comments are open because he requested it.]

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82 Comments »

  1. D.O. said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    How foreigners learn Italian? Do they study AFP, dialect of the teacher, or what?

  2. John Cowan said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

    They are taught AFP; what they end up learning is anybody's guess, probably a mixture of AFP, the teacher's phonology, and the phonology of their native language.

    When my mother, Marianne Cowan, taught elementary German in the U.S., she was very careful to explain that in her idiolect (otherwise quite standard; she was the only child of bourgeois origin in her village, and her stuffy family insisted on standard pronunciation and lexis) she rendered all final g as ch. The standard prescribes that this be done only in the adjective-forming suffix -ig, all other final g becoming k. "So if you hear me saying Tach for Tag," she would conclude, "do as I say, not as I do!"

  3. Faldone said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    "So if you hear me saying Tach for Tag," she would conclude, "do as I say, not as I do!"

    Except that in this case what she is doing is saying.

  4. jfruh said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    "Everybody else in Italy only knows his own regional variety of Italian, "

    Can you explain to an English speaker what you mean by "only knows"? Do you mean "is only able to competently speak"? I assume that the different varieties are all mutually intelligible, or at least are all mutually intelligible with AFP, yes?

  5. Ron Stack said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

    When I studied Italian the teacher didn't want to talk about dialects at all. He was from Bari and seemed embarrassed by the dialect he grew up with. He actually refused to provide any examples of that dialect, no matter how much the class pleaded, claiming (and he seemed serious!) that even hearing his native dialect would inhibit our ability to learn "real" Italian.

    He told us that he learned "normal" Italian in school but I don't recall him actually saying that there was a specific Standard Italian. Rather, I had the sense that there was a range of acceptable Italian but that some of the regional dialects (like his own) were very much outside the mainstream.

    What's the real story?

  6. D said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    D.O: There is nothing particularly special about Italian in this case. A lot of languages have a "standard pronunciation" that very few people actually speak in their daily lives. Foreigners are often taught these pronunciations, it is debatable how wise this is I guess. For instance, here in Sweden most teachers teach Oxford English pronunciation.

    Of course no one ends up actually talking like that.

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    Is the attitude expressed by the Veneto linguist related to regionalist politics?

  8. Leonardo Boiko said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    Except that in this case what she is doing is saying.

    [raises hand] Ooh ooh I know that one! It’s Austin’s Speech Act Theory!

  9. Shannon said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    jfruh — yes, the differences between regional varieties of standard Italian are about 95% pronunciation differences — accents. While in certain areas of Italy it's more common to use certain tenses (like US English tends to use less present perfect and UK English tends to use more), other than a handful of regional idioms or words, there are no serious issues in terms of grammar or vocabulary from north to south.

    If we start to talk about dialect, the story changes completely. Most Italians would be somewhere between completely unable and mostly unable to understand dialects from regions far from their own. For example, the film Gomorrah had subtitles when it was shown in Italy.

    Ron Stack — I lived in Bari for five years, and I can tell you that a large percentage of middle class people wouldhave been punished if they tried to speak in dialect at home. I had a number of friends who got smacked even for telling jokes with the punchline in dialect. In Bari it's often seen as low-class to speak in dialect. You can mainly hear it in markets and similar areas. However, I now live in Veneto and the situation is exactly the opposite. Here even in the most high-class stores dialect is spoken without shame.

  10. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

    @Ron Stack: in Italian "dialetto" does not mean "language variety" (in the way, say, British English and American English might be regarded as two "dialects" – I am obviously oversimplying here). For us, a dialect is a substandard form of Italian, with its own lexicon and sometimes variations on grammar, which I believe explains your teacher's attitude. I don't really speak any "Italian dialect" as such, as I was never exposed to any, but my standard Italian variety clearly marks me out as being from Northern Italy (e.g. no doubling of initial consonants, my Es and Os etc), although hardly anybody can pipoint exactly where I am from. Apart from the Veneto dialect, I find it very hard to understand anybody speaking any dialect (Italian meaning), but I have no problem with accents, even if very different from mine, provided the speakers speak standard Italian.
    I am not a linguist, but I'd also say that "Northern pronunciation rules" is a fact!

  11. JR said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    D: The problem is that there are dialects and there are dialects. A student in the US who learns Spanish can go to any Spanish-speaking country and have little problem adapting to the local pronunciation. A student who learns German, otoh, will have a very hard time if they go to, say, Bern, Switzerland. Swiss German, imo, is basically a different language. And I have met Swiss who cannot speak Standard German.

    I have heard conflicting things about Italy. The author writes: "Everybody else in Italy only knows his own regional variety of Italian." But friends of mine have said: "No, people don't go around speaking their dialects all the time. Your college Italian will be fine."

  12. JR said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Darn, that's what I get for typing so slow. Thanks for the clarification, Shannon and Paolo!

  13. Ellen K. said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    Paolo, sounds to me like what you are describing, when you describe what a dialetto is, is a language variety. That is it supposedly substandard does not make it not a language variety.

  14. PrettyPinkPonies said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    Welcome to the world of LEARNING ARABIC, where nearly everyone thinks their LANGUAGE (i.e. Cairene Egyptian Arabic, Jordanian Standard Arabic) is just badly-pronounced Classical Arabic. It's all just "Arabic" to like 95% of speakers.

    Grrrr

  15. Tadeusz said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

    Could you clarify the dialetto issues a bit more? Is a dialetto a rural variety only, or a regional variety (spoken in towns and in villages)? I would not call dialetti (hope the plural is OK) SUBstandard but rather NON-standard, if I would like to avoid any bias.
    As for the dialect professor from Veneto: as he was praising his own variety of Italian, it is quite clear that a well-known psychological mechanism was at work: my language is the best.

  16. Mark Etherton said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

    Isn't it possible that the distinguished dialectologist was teasing his audience?

  17. Manuela said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

    Ellen K and Tadeusz

    Can't answer for Paolo, but dialetti (plural of dialetto) are probably closer to being separate languages from Italian than, say, British English is from American English. So, for example, if you're from Bari, Puglia, like I am (sort of), you will speak the local variety of Italian (phonologically different, but pretty similar to the standard in terms of syntax and, to an extent, lexicon), but you will also speak, to different degrees of proficiency, the local 'dialetto', in this case Barese.

    I'm not originally from Bari, as I only moved there when I was 10, and my parents are from two other cities altogether, so I speak the Bari variety of Italian, but I have only passive knowledge of the local 'dialetto', i.e. I can understand it most of the time but I speak it very badly.

    What often happens is that people codeswitch between Barese and Italian, or use certain Barese constructions when they're speaking Italian. An example: The progressive in Italian is 'sto (aux) facendo' (I'm doing), with the main vern in the gerund participle. In Barese the progressive is 'stog (aux) a (prep) fasc, with the main verb in the infinitive. But you'll often hear people in Bari doing a mix of the two, i.e. 'sto a fare'. Of course, it's debatable how much the 'sto a fare' is part of the regional variety of Italian, or a "borrowing" from the dialect.

    As for people's attitudes to either dialetti or variety, a lot of it depends on the city. Northern varieties tend to have more prestige, but not everyone in the north has the same attitude to the dialetti. In Genoa, where I also lived, hardly anyone speaks the local dialetto, but in Trieste (where I was born) the nurses in my nursery spoke Triestino to us. Southern dialect and varieties have more stigma attached to them, but there's a huge difference between Naples and Bari. The Naples dialect has a big and nationally recognised literature and theatrical tradition, and Naples pop music is famous all over Italy. Barese, on the other had, has none of that, so it has a lot more stigma.

    Finally, one cannot talk about the Northern dialects without mentioning the Northern League, a far right secessionist party (currently in the government coalition) which promotes all things regional. At one point they even suggested that only people who spoke the local dialect should be allowed to teach in the North, one of the many ways in which the have tried to stop teachers from the South -where there's too many of them- moving to the north -where there's not enough fo them.

  18. jfruh said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    Paolo/Shannon — so, just to clarify, it seems like there are three layers at work here:

    1) Amended Florentine Pronunciation, a fairly artificial version of the language, which nobody really speaks "natively."
    2) A series of local "accents," for lack of a better word, in which pronounciation varies (sometimes significantly?) from AFP, but vocabulary and grammar that vary from AFP/standard Italian in only trivial ways.
    3) Local dialetti, or dialects, which are quite different from AFP in pronounciation, grammar, and vocabulary, to the extent that they may be mutually unintelligible.

    So, what the teacher in Ron Stack's anecdote didn't want to share was the Bari dialect — presumably he was already speaking in the Bari accent. And also presumably the dialetti are what underlie the accents. The question is, is the linguist in the original post speaking about accents or dialects? Or do people really make that distinction in their minds?

  19. Gregory Dyke said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    I think this is one of the more pressing areas of popular linguistics. The idea that people with perfect linguistic competence should be stigmatised for their dialect and even lead to believe that what they say is somehow wrong is not only sad, but is commonly held in pretty much all the countries I know of.

    I also wonder at how linguistically flexible we are and would love to read a well informed article with examples on the subject. Someone above remarked that a speaker of German would be lost in Bern. This may be the case, but after having learnt some amount of (high) german in school (french-speaking part of switzerland), I was initially just as baffled by the phonological aspects as by the lexical and grammatical aspects (swiss-german speakers would speak (their version of) "standard German to me to help me understand and I would be just as lost as if they had spoken Swiss-German). After nearly 10 years of infrequent attempts to speak Swiss German I can now understand it about as well as German and can make attempts at producing sentences in the various dialects. I'd hasard a guess that humans are actually quite good at this sort of thing (achieving mutual intelligibility when the bridge to be crossed is not that wide) and that we should celebrate it more.

    Does anyone have any recommendations on books or websites which address these issues, written with a "general public" in mind: e.g. what are, precisely, the differences between various dialects of various language continuums, how much is pronunciation, how much is grammar, how much is lexical? how does speaking play out in context? What can learners do about it?

  20. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    @Gregory Dyke: on describing the current situation of the Italian pronunciation, I found this useful as a member of the "general public":

    […] there is a further problem which undermines sound-symbol correspondences in Italian. The relative stability and uniformity of the written norm is not matched by a homogeneous spoken norm, which is in fact marked by strong regional variation, even among educated speakers. As the Italian linguist Canepari (1983) pointed out, the Florentine model on which Standard Italian was based failed to extend to the rest of the peninsula because of the strong presence of competing dialects. At present there is no standard pronunciation of Italian equivalent to RP in Standard British English, but instead many regional standards whose pronunciation is strongly influenced by dialects. The strongest unifying force, beside the mass media, is the homogeneous orthography, and, as linguists have repeatedly pointed out, the recommended pronunciation for foreign learners is the one based on the spelling. The allophonic contrasts between {e, ɛ}, {o, ɔ}, and {s, z} are etymologically motivated (eg, pesca /ˈpeska/ [=peach] from Latin pĕrsicum, contrasting with pesca /ˈpɛska/ [=fishing] from Latin piscarī), being used in Tuscany (the Florentine region), but nowhere else in Italy.

    The tendency to unify regional pronunciations on the basis of a regular spelling system in Italian may be seen as the exact opposite of the historical development of English, where the unified pronunciation model of RP was established against a historical, non-phonetic orthography, which does not provide a pronunciation model encouraging convergence of regional accents.

    Source: http://www.englishspellingsociety.org/journals/j20/italian.php

  21. Marc B. Leavitt said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    When I learned Italian I was taught the Tuscan dialect (i.e., Fiorentino). I also learned that Italy had decided in the late 19th century when the state formed, that one dialect would be taught as a national language; the various local dialects continued to be spoken as before in the respective regions. In my part of New Jersey all of the pizzarias are run by Neapolitans and I can attest to the fact that when I overhear the staff talking among themselves, I barely understand one word in 10; however, when I speak to them in my university-learned Italian, they always respond in kind. All Italians are taught the standard language in school, but in practice they speak a combination of standard and dialect in their daily lives, which varies in amount and emphasis by region.

  22. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

    @Manuela painted a far more accurate picture than I would be able to do — I fully agree with her analysis.

    However, I'd like to add a couple of comments in reply to @Marc B. Leavitt. As you say, the amount of dialect varies by region but also by age and social status/education.
    I'm in my early 40's, university education, I live in Bologna and I'd say most of my friends, from various parts of Italy and with similar backgrounds, don't speak any dialect in their daily life, unless maybe if they are on the phone with their grandparents (or parents, if they are from Veneto or Trieste); quite a few, like myself, might have a passive knowledge of the dialect of the area where they grew up, but would not be able to speak it. Every now and then [educated] speakers of standard Italian might use dialect words for everyday's objects, tools or food, but usually they are all very well aware they are regionalisms and "mark" them as such in their speech (e.g. "as we say in Liguria") as otherwise other speakers might question them on the meaning of the words.
    It might be different in other regions, e.g. I was in Calabria (Southern Italy) last summer and I was surprised to see that young people in their 20s spoke dialect to each other, which would never happen, say, in Romagna (Northern Italy).

  23. Josh Treleaven said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

    I think he was using irony.

  24. vanya said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

    " Everybody else in Italy only knows his own regional variety of Italian,"

    This is so misleading as to be essentially untrue. Many, many Italians, particularly in the North, speak what is essentially the standard Italian you would learn in school, even in daily life. Yes, they may adopt some small pronunciation differences and non-standard grammar, but you will find those divergences in any major language. I find in daily casual speech that educated Italians actually on a daily basis speak a language much closer to the "classroom" or "media" standard than do the French. Dialects are often reserved only for friends and family, and maybe not even family if it's a "mixed" marriage of people from different regions.

    Emilio seems confused. Obviously his interlocutor wasn't saying that Venetian dialect is closer to standard than Roman dialect. He was saying that most people from Veneto speak the "media language" better than Romans can. And I agree – if you actually listen to educated Italians in business settings or in most daily interactions this is probably true. The Roman accent really does diverge from "standard" more than the typical speech of a Milanese or a Venetian. Partially because there is no Roman "language" – Roman dialect is more or less intelligible to anyone who speaks Italian. Venetian and Lombard are completely separate languages – so well educated people from Veneto, when they speak Italian as opposed to Venetian, will speak fairly closely to the media standard. I don't think Romans perceive their dialect as a separate language they way Northerners do, so they don't feel the need to speak "standard."

  25. Heidi said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    So is Corsican a dialect of (archaic) Italian, or a language, or? I've heard Corsicans call it a language, but I suspect that's more a political statement than a linguistic judgement.

  26. Phil said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    I forget who I heard this story from, so apologies in advance if it was (a) someone incredibly well-known or (b) you, caro lettore (and profuse apologies in the case of [c] both). But it goes like this:

    Italian linguist, returning to his hotel after speaking at a conference in Venice, waiting for the vaporetto, starts idly listening in on the people in front of him in the queue – and realises he can't make out a word they're saying. Runs a quick mental check against all the dialetti he can muster, comes up empty. Listens more closely… what is it, Turkish? Georgian? Basque? Navajo?… Utterly baffled, he decides there's nothing for it but to ask them what language they're speaking, although he suspects he won't be able to find a common language in which to ask them. Nevertheless, he puts the question to them in Italian, and is surprised when they answer immediately: it's Venetian dialect.

  27. Phil said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    Or perhaps I should say, Venetian.

    Thanks for the clarification, vanya. I remember there being a bit of a storm a few years back when the Pope (the last one) dropped into 'Roman' here's the story). From that small sample, it sounds like a bit more than an accent but rather less than a dialect.

  28. Colin Reid said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

    I was taught Spanish by someone from the Basque country. She claimed the Basques speak the most 'standard' Spanish, because it's not coloured by the local dialect/language (Basque being so far away from Spanish that not much crossover is possible).

    @Manuela: no doubt if the Northern League got their wish and created an independent Padania, they'd have to invent a new standard language called 'Padanese', based on some amalgam of northern languages.

    I've read that Northern Italian languages are considered Gallo-Romance (along with e.g. French), while there's disagreement over whether the Italic family (inc. standard Italian, along with the dialects of central and southern Italy) should be classified as Western Romance or Eastern Romance. That sounds like quite a gulf to me, even if it's been subsequently eroded by Italianisation of the northern dialects.

  29. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

    There's a difference between a Catalan speaking Castilian with a Catalan accent and a Catalan speaking Catalan. There are dialects that are basically variant pronunciations of "Italian" and there are other Italian languages like Neapolitan and Venetian, right? So the question is which other city (aside from Florence) is closest to Florentine pronunciation. It could be that "standard Italian" in Milan is closer than in Rome to Florentine pronunciation. Please clarify (someone who knows more than I do about this), if this is pretty much what we're talking about.

  30. Geoff Nunberg said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    In my experience dialettale often means simply "nonstandard" nowadays. I once used the word intralazzo "scheme, racket" and was advised by my interlocutor, an Italian linguist, that the word was "dialettale." What region is it used in, I asked, and he said, "Oh, everywhere." And Italiano can have converse implications. Having learned the language in Rome, I acquired the local habit of inserting an epinthetic /t/ between /r/ and /s/, so that orso "bear" and orzo "barley" became homonyms. Hearing me pronounce morso "bite" as "morzo," a Florentine friend corrected me: "Non devi dire 'morzo' — non e' Italiano," which struck me as sort of like having someone say that my New York pronunciation of dog with low back vowel "isn't English." But she intended the observation in a purely descriptive way.

  31. Sid Smith said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

    The division between Northern and Southern Italy is a snobbery that borders on racism. My Italian ex-girlfriend, tho a Communist and a school teacher, would astound me with her remarks about her southern compatriots, describing them as (I apologise for this) 'Africans' and 'Arabs'.

    The support enjoyed by the Northern League is built on a range of notions about the south: that it's primitive, corrupt, criminal, priest-ridden, and survives on tax money provided by the 'European' north. Southern dialects are tainted by these associations.

    I say all this as a Lancastrian, whose accent carries similar connotations for South Britons as (say) a Southern US accent would do for a New Yorker. By comparison, the divisions in Italy are off the scale.

  32. Paolo said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    @Jonathan Mayhew: I am sure linguists might have a different opinion, but the simplified view of Italians like me, non-linguists but with an interest in languages, is that what you call dialects are just standard Italian varieties with local accents — if you saw whatever was said in writing, you wouldn't be able to tell where the person was from.
    And Venetian and Neapolitan are not "languages" but dialetti (despite what the Northern League & their obnoxious followers say), only Sardinian and Friulian are classified as languages because the plural of nouns is formed by adding -s (like in French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese) rather than changing the final vowel like in standard Italian and all Italian dialects (and Romanian) — at least this is what Italians are taught in school.

  33. Hermann Burchard said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

    As a further comment about Neapolitan vs. std Italian: Recently, two Italian politicians were at odds, in a case covered by the press. One of them used a verbal slur, about which the Telegraph (online, London 27 Nov 2010) wrote: Drawing on Naple's rich and earthy street dialect, which is so impenetrable to other Italians that it almost ranks as a different language [..] The slur had Italians running to their dictionaries.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    vanya: I find in daily casual speech that educated Italians actually on a daily basis speak a language much closer to the "classroom" or "media" standard than do the French.

    For French this is not a question of dialect but of register. Colloquial French (which does vary between regions) is quite different from written French, or French spoken by radio or TV announcers or politicians, which is often an oral version of written texts. Even when I was in elementary school (decades ago), we had to be careful to distinguish between what was suitable for saying ("Je dirais …") and for writing ("J'écrirais …").

  35. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    According to Wikipedia, "According to Ethnologue, Venetian and Italian belong to different sub-branches of the Italo-Western branch: Venetian is a member of the Gallo-Iberian group, which also includes Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese and French, among others; whereas Italian is a member of the Italo-Dalmatian group. More precisely, Venetian belongs to the Gallo-Romance sub-branch of Gallo-Iberian, which includes French but not Spanish, Catalan and Portuguese. In that classification, therefore, Venetian is more closely related to French, Catalan and Spanish than to Italian."

    Now that might not be reliable, since I haven't checked ethnologue myself, but this would mean that Venetian is a language unto itself. There are Venetian-Italian bilingual dictionaries, for example. That would imply a substantial difference in lexicon, not just "standard Italian with local accents."

  36. Jon Lennox said,

    March 4, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    I notice a lovely convergence between this post and the previous one.

    Has anyone asked Sonia Gandhi how she answered the "mother tongue" question in the Indian census? In particular, I'm curious whether she'd say Italian or Venetian.

  37. JR said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 1:18 am

    @Gregory Dyke: I'm not sure if I understood you correctly, but I would say that there are way, way too many variables involved to be able to scientifically determine to what extent dialects or languages are mutually intelligible or to measure the distance between them. I have come to only rely on my personal experience and the experience of a few number of people who seem reliable.

    After all, I have heard Germans say things like: "Oh, Dutch is very similar to German. We can understand it pretty well." That is total bullshit, but, for someone who knows little about German or Dutch, why shouldn't they believe them?

    I've also had a linguistic PhD candidate at a well-respected US university somewhat vehemently insist to me that dialect differences amongst English speakers in the US is as great as dialect differences in the German-speaking realm. Which, again, I think is total bullshit, but, then again, I'm not a linguist, so…

  38. Frans said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    After all, I have heard Germans say things like: "Oh, Dutch is very similar to German. We can understand it pretty well." That is total bullshit, but, for someone who knows little about German or Dutch, why shouldn't they believe them?

    I'd say that depends a bit on what they mean by German and Dutch. It may not be bullshit as much as inaccurate description. But even if someone could only speak Standard German they could probably make out more Dutch than most other foreign languages, albeit mangled by a lot of false friends. That may be a far cry from understanding it "pretty well," but a lot depends on context. The Germans you mention may also be confused by the fact that most Dutch people speak some rudimentary German, i.e., they'll speak an accented German with Dutch words and constructions thrown in. If those Germans think they can understand it "pretty well" I'd almost wonder if they confuse that for Dutch, but then again, they may just mean it as a hyperbole when contrasted to a Romance language like French or Italian.

  39. rre said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 7:04 am

    "For instance, here in Sweden most teachers teach Oxford English pronunciation.

    Of course no one ends up actually talking like that."

    My housemate in London was from Sweden and he sounded pretty much like he was from Oxford. I could tell some of his vowels weren't quite right but I have an ear for that sort of thing. He only got confused when he had to analyse some Ali G tapes for a client and needed to ask me to translate.
    Does that make any sense? It's late here.

  40. rre said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    "I say all this as a Lancastrian, whose accent carries similar connotations for South Britons as (say) a Southern US accent would do for a New Yorker. By comparison, the divisions in Italy are off the scale."

    It's quite different I think. London obviously houses vast numbers of Northerners as well as incomers from Scotland, Ireland, Australia and so on. In Italy, at least until the last few decades, moving a long way was something people would do if they were unsuccessful, as opposed to the way emigration is seen in say Australia, where working abroad is very prestigious. Success meant having work close to your family. So while a Londoner might go off to Liverpool to train as a surgeon, it would be far more unusual for someone from the deep south of Italy to go to Milan, and the two areas were as foreign as, say, the Netherlands and Germany (I suspect even more foreign).

  41. army1987 said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 7:13 am

    @jfruh:
    Even that is too simplified. The levels are:
    1. The vernacular dialect, which is the only one most people spoke outside schools before radio and television became widespread; in Tuscany and Rome this is mostly mutually intelligible with standard Italian (the way Cockney is with English), in the rest of the centre (pink area in this map) kind-of, and in other region it isn't (as with Scots and English), so that linguistically they could be considered different languages (and have their own ISO 639 codes), but their speakers don't usually consider them that way because they don't have an army and a navy;
    2. A version of Italian, whose phonology is influenced by dialect 1., and which has lots of non-standard grammatical features (such as "sto a fare" mentioned by Manuela, which usually becomes "sto a fà" with the dropping of the last syllable of infinitives, or the dummy locative clitic ci added to forms of avere “to have” when used with its literal or quasi-literal meaning), which have more or less the same sociolinguistic status as English ain't, gonna, doin' or double negatives;
    3. Speech closely resembling standard (written) Italian, without the features described in 2. but with a slight regional accent (comparable to “Estuary English”), which Canepari calls “mediatic”;
    4. Amended Florentine Pronunciation, corresponding to English RP.

    Now, in places such as Rome, people can get around with using a mixture of 1 and 2 (which aren't that far away to begin with), and all other Italians will understand, so they don't ever need 3, let alone 4. (I myself only use 3 in very formal situations or when speaking with non-native Italian speakers, and it's not uncommon for a professor to use 2 or even 1 in lectures.)

    In places such as Veneto, on the other hand, 2 is close to non-existent (because people weren't used to speak dialects mutually intelligible with Italian in informal situations until one or two generations ago, so when they did speak Italian they spoke “school” Italian), and 1 is dying out among younger people, so they end up never using anything lower than 3 (and the standard used in the media is getting closer and closer to level 3 of northern Italian). That's the professor's point.

    The only weird thing is that in central-southern Italy (pale purple area in the map linked above), level 2 does exist and is becoming stronger and stronger, despite 1 and 3 being mutually unintelligible.

  42. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    When I lived in Italy I mostly acquired what I believe to be AFP or whatever would be called "Standard Italian"; though I lost virtually everything after years of not speaking the language, when I studied Italian from a textbook in college it seemed very familiar, while my own personal study of materials on the various "dialects" (i.e., languages such as Bergamasque) didn't feel familiar at all. I think that's to be expected since I only learned and spoke Italian at school. On the other hand, while I sometimes have intuitions about other aspects of pronunciation, I don't have any about raddoppiamento sintattico and a few other aspects of "standard" Italian. So it could be that the language I learned wasn't completely prescriptivist.

  43. Manuela said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    @ vanya

    "Obviously his interlocutor wasn't saying that Venetian dialect is closer to standard than Roman dialect. He was saying that most people from Veneto speak the "media language" better than Romans can."

    No, you completely miss Emilio Servidio's point, i.e. that the notion of standard Italian is changing and that nowadays it is closer to the Northern varieties than any other variety. This is because the Northern varieties have more prestige than the southern ones (hardly surprising: the north is far richer than the South, and Southerners are routinely represented as lazy, corrupt and ignorant). This does not mean that Northerners are "better" than other Italians at speaking the standard, it just means that the standard is modelled on their speech.

    "Roman dialect is more or less intelligible to anyone who speaks Italian."

    That may well be the case, but a lot of it is due to the fact that Italians are much more exposed to the Roman dialect than most other dialects, as there are many actors, directors and comedians who use Roman in their work, and there's a huge literature in Roman.

    "Venetian and Lombard are completely separate languages – so well educated people from Veneto, when they speak Italian as opposed to Venetian, will speak fairly closely to the media standard"

    Venetian and Lombard are no more and no less separate languages than any other Italian dialects. Defining where varieties or dialects stop and separate languages start is notoriously difficult, and it is mostly a political/historical decision anyway. In any case, even if you decided that Venetian is a language and Roman isn't, and that's what Romans themselves believe, what does that have to do with how either of them speak Italian?

    @ Paolo

    "And Venetian and Neapolitan are not "languages" but dialetti (despite what the Northern League & their obnoxious followers say), only Sardinian and Friulian are classified as languages"

    I love to listen to my compatriots discuss which dialects are languages and which ones are not. Often it's a desire to give prestige to a stigmatised dialect, as with Sardinian, other times it's a way of showing superiority of one dialect over others (Venetian is a language, not like Barese, which is a mere dialect!). Either way, I think it's a pointless exercise: nobody has a definition of what constitutes a separate language, and what difference does it make anyway?

  44. Hans said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    @JR: On Dutch and German – I'm German and I grew up near the Dutch border; at home we spoke Standard German, not Plattdeutsch (which is nearer to Dutch than Standard German is). I used to listen to Dutch radio a lot and understood most of it. I had more trouble understanding Austrian dialects on my childhood holidays in the Alps than I had understanding Dutch, so I wouldn't dismiss Germans telling that they can understand Dutch easily as "bullshit". In my experience, understanding written Duch is especially easy, while understanding spoken Dutch is more difficult, but still possible.

  45. Manuela said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 8:17 am

    @ army1987

    Nice post. I'm slightly confused on one thing though. If 2 is practically non existant in Veneto because Venetian is or was unintelligible, wouldn't you expect the same in the southern regions, where the 1 and 3 are, as you say, also mutually unintelligible?

    I know very little about about language-contact-induced language change, and especially in relation to the Italian varieties. Could you (or anyone else listening) point me towards any literature on these "type 2" varieties, and the influence of dialects and standard Italian on each other?

  46. Manuela said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    @ army1987

    oops, just realised that had an answer to my question in your last paragraph. So I'll rephrase it. Do you know what explanations have been put forward for this anomaly?

  47. Nightstallion said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    @John Cowan: That would be Germany's German, BTW; Austrian German does not pronounce adjectival -ig as [iç], but as [ik].

  48. army1987 said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    @Manuela:
    I don't know whether anyone else tried to supply an explanation as to why regional Italian is more prone to include non-standard features in the south than in the north. I used to think that this might be due to the fact that some of those features (e.g. infinitives in rather than -are) are also present in Neapolitan and related dialects, but then there are some features (such as me, te, se rather than mi, ti, si as clitic pronouns) which are found in Venetian (as well as in colloquial central and central-southern Italian) but not usually in colloquial Italian as spoken in Veneto.

  49. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    After we get all warmed up on Italian, we ought to tackle Norwegian. Or maybe Scandinavian in general. (Is Danish a language or a throat disorder?)

  50. army1987 said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    And Venetian and Neapolitan are not "languages" but dialetti (despite what the Northern League & their obnoxious followers say), only Sardinian and Friulian are classified as languages because the plural of nouns is formed by adding -s (like in French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese) rather than changing the final vowel like in standard Italian and all Italian dialects (and Romanian) — at least this is what Italians are taught in school.
    The plural in spoken Neapolitan is not formed by changing the final vowel of the noun (they are always pronounced as schwa when unstressed), but by changing the article (the vowel and/or whether it causes doubling of a following consonant) and/or the stressed vowel: /ugwaj'jon@/ “the boy”, /igwaj'jun@/ “the boys”, /agwaj'jon@/ “the girl”, /iggwaj'jon@/ “the girls”. In any event, this sounds like quite a silly criterion to discriminate languages from dialects.

    That may well be the case, but a lot of it is due to the fact that Italians are much more exposed to the Roman dialect than most other dialects, as there are many actors, directors and comedians who use Roman in their work, and there's a huge literature in Roman.
    It is also the case that Roman is way more similar to Tuscan than most other central dialects, due to massive Tuscan immigration in Rome after the 1527 Sack of Rome.

  51. army1987 said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    The allophonic contrasts between {e, ɛ}, {o, ɔ}, and {s, z} [...], being used in Tuscany (the Florentine region), but nowhere else in Italy.
    1. What the hell? "Allophonic" and then they show a minimal pair?
    2. That's quite true about /s/ ~ /z/, but a contrast between mid-open and mid-close vowel is found to some extent among most speakers in central and central-southern Italy (blue, pink, and pale purple area of this map), though their lexical incidence is not always the same as in Florence (e.g. many would use /e/ in pesca “peach” making it a homophone of pesca “fishing”), and many speakers vacillate between the two for many words. Among the most robust minimal pairs /tɛ/ “tea” and te /te/ “you” (acc. sing.), and botte /botte/ “cask” and botte /bɔtte/ “whacks”.

  52. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    @ Manuela:

    I love to listen to my compatriots discuss which dialects are languages and which ones are not. Often it's a desire to give prestige to a stigmatised dialect, as with Sardinian, other times it's a way of showing superiority of one dialect over others (Venetian is a language, not like Barese, which is a mere dialect!). Either way, I think it's a pointless exercise: nobody has a definition of what constitutes a separate language, and what difference does it make anyway?

    I find this a strange point. To take a common analogy, in evolutionary biology the question of whether an organism is classified as a separate species or not can be highly contested, and the whole theoretical concept of species, genus etc. is not exactly black and white. Nevertheless, hypotheses are proposed, accepted, rejected etc. without requiring total consensus, and if the process was abandoned the science would grind to a halt.

    Presumably a great deal of work has been done on the criteria for classifying things as languages or dialects. Are you really saying it's pointless for linguistic science to investigate this issue? It goes without saying that classification can be politically contentious in biology too.

    @ army1987

    The plural in spoken Neapolitan is not formed by changing the final vowel of the noun (they are always pronounced as schwa when unstressed), but by changing the article…

    What happens when there's no article?

  53. a George said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    @Paolo: "only Sardinian and Friulian are classified as languages". But is it not strange that a Sardinian was the head of the TV series started in 1960 "non è mai troppo tardi"? ( "it is never too late") This was a series made to combat analfabetism, and the language spoken was standard TV language. Italian TV must have had a great equalising influence on "dialect". I know that it had a major influence on my own acquisition of Italian; Carosello was ideal for this purpose.

  54. Giacomo Badano said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

    There seems to be a lot of confusion in regards to what is a language and what is a dialect. Professional linguists say that a language is a local language that has surged to political predominance. To make an example, standard French was the language spoken at the Paris court. It became standard because of the importance acquired by the French monarchy over the centuries. "Standard" languages always imply and underscore a political statement: they are expression of an educated elite.
    In this sense, standard Italian was the expression of the educated elite of Italy even before the unification. But of course standard Italian, like standard French, was originally only spoken in a restricted area of the country: Florence and its surroundings.
    The other regions had other local languages. There is a major, all-important subdivision between Northern and Central – Southern languages. This is the La Spezia-Rimini line, known to every linguist. It marks the separation between Gallo-Italian languages, spoken in Liguria, Piedmont (not Vallée D'Aosta), Lombardy and Emilia Romagna – and the other properly Italian languages spoken in the other regions. Veneto, Friuli can also be included into the Northern group, with larger Italian influence for the former and probably Slavic for the latter. Italy proper starts below this line, that is below the famous Rubicon river that Caesar crossed with his army.
    Again: there is a division between North and South, it is factual and not fictional, and is the expression of a profound difference dating back from the most ancient times.
    These local languages, which the Italians call "dialetti", were and some of them still are, languages of prestige. The Genoese always proudly spoke Genoese. It was the language of the Republic in the middle ages, when documents were written in Latin and nobody, really nobody, spoke standard Italian. Turin's elite has always spoken French, but in smaller centers Piedmontese was the language of the elite. My family comes from a small glassmaking center in Northern Italy, where the local language has been proudly spoken from the 10th century on, until the last world war. I could make many other examples to show that the "dialetti" have been languages of culture, iterature, tradecraft, etc.
    Each of these "dialetti" has a many local varieties, which differ for pronunciation and vocabulary. For example, the Genoese spoken in Genoa is different from that spoken in La Turbie and Montecarlo. However native speakers and linguists alike recognize it as essentially the same language.
    This said, the prestige of these local languages has waned after the war. On the one hand, the Fascist regime imposed a very strict policy of eradication, similar to what the French did from the '30s of the nineteenth century to the end of the war. On the other hand, the dialetti went the same way as the rest of the Italian rural culture. They disappeared to the new industrial society that was created after the war. Dialetti are still stigmatized as a sign of backwardness. Of course they are not: like all languages they only serve the purpose of communicating.
    The Northern League party could have done something good, had it tried to restore the prestige of some dialetti by pointing out that they've been great languages of culture and trade. They chose instead to use them as a mark of opposition, of supposed "superiority". In so doing they played into the hands of those who claim that local languages are a source of division and hatred. At the cost of being rebarbative: I did not live the disappearance of local dialects in the North as a great unifying moment. It is, instead, a sign of the profound divisions that undermine the cohesion of the Italian state. The swiss did not need to murder their local languages to cement their unity. We and the Germans did so to copy the French.
    And now on what is spoken in Italy and by whom. Official statistics say that about 50 to 70% of the population is bilingual either passively or actively in standard Italian and their local language. This reaches peaks of 70-80% in the South and the islands. Numbers go down in towns. For instance in the great industrial centers of the North, only 10-20% of the individuals are capable of speaking the local language.
    To give an idea of what happened in Italy after the war: my parents came from two different towns and had a passive knowledge of two different "dialetti", so that I did not learn any. I was brought up and educated in standard Italian and only got to speak some Genoese by listening to the locals in my home village. I have now a perfect understanding of the Genoese, but I would not venture to use it in business…

  55. army1987 said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    @Pflaumbaum:
    I think that the fact that Neapolitan (and all the Romance languages I know anything of) uses articles in many cases where English wouldn't, and the noun–adjective and subject–verb agreements, make it quite unlikely for sentences to occur in which you can't tell whether a given noun is singular or plural, though I don't think such sentences are impossible. (But then, is fish in I like fish singular or plural, and why does it matter?)

    BTW, I think that in order to say that Neapolitan is not a language, you'd need a *very* narrow-viewed purely sociopolitical definition of “language” (one according to which Irish was not a language before 1922); that would exclude pretty much most languages of the Americas other than English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

  56. John Cowan said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 5:39 pm

    a George: Actually, that's not too surprising. People who grow up knowing that their own language variety (Sardinian in this case) is decidedly different from the standard can become experts in the standard because it is in a different box inside their heads, so to speak. The first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, when criticized for the pronunciations he gave in the dictionary, replied that as a Border Scot he knew the standard accent better than his critics, because he had carefully studied it, whereas they merely spoke it.

    As a whole, of course, English does not have a standard accent; the attitudes of different anglophones to different accents are extremely complex, with most people seeing some accents as "better" than their own and others "worse". This is also the story for Norwegian, if I understand correctly, though officially in Norway all dialects are equally acceptable, whereas in anglophone lands there are no official rules.

    The Ethnologue, that wretched hive of scum and splittainy :-), lists 13 Romance languages other than Standard Italian that are natively spoken on Italian soil: Catalan, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Franco-Provençal, (Standard) French, Friulian, Ladin, Ligurian, Lombard, Napoletano-Calabrese, Occitan, Piemontese, Sicilian, Venetian. Army1987's map lists only 11, but seems to be in basic agreement.

    (Sardinia is a special case. The Ethnologue lists five local languages: Corsican on Maddalena Island, Campidanese in the south, Nuorese-Logudorese in the center (which perhaps should be called separate languages in themselves), Sassarese in the northwest, Gallurese in the northeast. These last two are indeterminate between Sardinian varieties with a Corsican superstrate and Corsican varieties with a Sardinian substrate. The map just shows Sardinian and Corsican, period. There is also Italkian, but it's basically dead; a few Italian Jews use some Italkian phrases in their otherwise standard Italian.)

  57. army1987 said,

    March 5, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

    Here's another map with finer subdivisions. My idea of what should count as "different languages" is somewhere in between the two maps, and pretty close to what the Ethnologue says.

  58. Manuela said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    @ Pflaumbaum

    "Presumably a great deal of work has been done on the criteria for classifying things as languages or dialects. Are you really saying it's pointless for linguistic science to investigate this issue?"

    A great deal work has indeed been done, and I think that the consensus is that languages and dialects/varieties are on a continuum, and that where exactly you draw the line can be pretty arbitrary, and often due to sociopolitical reasons.

    I'm not saying that it is pointless to investigate this issue. I'm saying that a) a lot of the discussion of which dialects are really languages rests on very shaky grounds linguistically (see the post above about plurals), and is often made to score political points, and b) if you assume that what is and is not a language is a fairly arbitrary definition, worrying about whether something is a dialect or a language is more about what definition you're applying rather than any ontological fact about that variety.

  59. Rodger C said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    "The first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, when criticized for the pronunciations he gave in the dictionary, replied that as a Border Scot he knew the standard accent better than his critics, because he had carefully studied it, whereas they merely spoke it."

    Having grown up in WV, I often feel myself to be in something close to this situation, which is why I peeve at the vowels of some NPR announcers, who I feel ought to know better, especially younger ones who come from were it's rill snoy.

  60. adriano said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    It is believed that Tuscans used to speak the purest form of Italian just because they happened to be the heirs of ancient Etruscans, who, likewise, were believed to speak the purest Latin, because of the sad fact that the Etruscan language had been completely wiped out by the Roman conquest of Tuscia. That is, they had to learn Latin as a foreign language.

  61. John Cowan said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    Army1987: Do you think your views are fairly mainstream views in Italy, or would most people give a different list? Or is there a wide diversity of views with no mainstream?

  62. army1987 said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    I think there's a wide diversity of views with no mainstream, though I think I've seen a four-way "broad dialect/Italian-influenced dialect/dialect-influenced Italian/standard Italian" distinction before in several places.

  63. JR said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 1:15 am

    @Frans: Yes, maybe they are saying compared to French or even Swedish that Dutch is pretty easy to understand. And I will say that learning Dutch if you know German is easy.

    @Hans: See, this is why I said that it dialect/language differences are hard to quantify! You don't think context helped you? I mean, you live near the border and had a keen interesting in understanding and you listened to the radio broadcasts numerous times. When my Spanish finally got up to a near fluent level, but while still at a learning stage, I was shocked with how quickly I could understand certain Portuguese speakers. It was just a matter of adjusting to "a weird Spanish pronunciation." But from German to Dutch, it seems to me that, in addition to the "bizarre" Dutch pronunciations of things like past participles, so many basic words are very different: "maar," "want," "heel," "trekken," "kijken," "nu," "dus," "misschien," etc. You don't think so?

    On the radio news, they end with the "waarschuwing voor de scheepvaart." I guess since you know that that phrase comes up during the weather report, you might guess it has to do with warnings for ships, but don't you think stuff like that would cause most Germans problems?

  64. Piero said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 3:59 am

    Adriano: There is no such thing as "the purest form of Italian." Tuscan was chosen as the standard literary form of Italian for historical reasons: the most successful early writers in what at the time was called "Vulgar Language" (i.e., not semi-standard Latin) happened to be Tuscan. Dante was the first to write high literature in the language spoken by commoners. He also wrote an essay (in Latin) on why Tuscan was as dignified a candidate for a literary language as Occitan, that at the time had a respected status as a literary language.

  65. Frans said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    I mean, you live near the border and had a keen interesting in understanding and you listened to the radio broadcasts numerous times.

    I suppose I'll add my personal experience to the mix, though it's almost certainly atypical. I lived far from the German border and only had a rudimentary knowledge of German[1], but after my parents got a satellite dish when I was about 10 years old I could almost completely comprehend most German TV within just a few weeks. I tried to do the same thing with French, but I never really got beyond the "yay, I recognize a few words here and there" phase, except perhaps when Chirac was speaking (although making out words and understanding what's being said aren't the same thing). I don't think I ever had much trouble making out words and syllables in German, and understanding came very quickly.

    [1] Though presumably including most the words you mentioned like jetzt, aber, dazu, vielleicht, count nouns, etc., picked up on a couple of visits to Germany and Luxembourg.

    On the radio news, they end with the "waarschuwing voor de scheepvaart." I guess since you know that that phrase comes up during the weather report, you might guess it has to do with warnings for ships, but don't you think stuff like that would cause most Germans problems?

    From the top of my head I can't recall hearing any kind of Warnung for Schifffahrt on German weather forecasts, but if anything this illustrates exactly what made me pick up German so fast. Schip -> Schiff, vaart -> Fahrt. But perhaps this is an example that works better from Dutch to German than vice versa because of Schiff/Schiffe vs. schip/schepen. I'd posit manchmal as the type of word that causes some minor issues, because at least to me it sounded more like "many times" than "sometimes" (which, incidentally, is really easy itself because of its similarity to soms and also somtijds, albeit the latter is rarely used anymore, if ever).

    My stance on this issue is probably somewhat contradictory. On the one hand I think that German is very easy to pick up: especially understanding, but also speaking and reading; writing much less so due to the case endings which aren't as pronounced in speech. Yet, on the other hand, most Dutch people's German is remarkably bad (they probably speak better English), while probably sufficient to give directions to German tourists.

    PS Regarding Portuguese, I have the impression that I can pick up slightly more meaning from Portuguese with my knowledge of French than I can from Spanish (and yet more from Italian).

  66. speedwell said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    Layman here with a related issue…

    As a monoglot English speaker, I've naturally been aware of dialects and accents in English. I was just in Colombia a couple weeks ago for a business trip. I speak a little touristy Spanish (I'm from Texas). I very suddenly noticed, without understanding what they were saying, that the native cab driver, my Mexican co-worker, and my Argentinian co-worker all had different accents. They laughed when I pointed this out, and agreed.

    It's happening all the time though and it's driving me nuts. It's like I just noticed all of this. My German learning tapes sound different from my Hanover co-workers. My London team member sounds different from the Cornish engineers. My boss, from the Orkney Islands, has a different Scottish accent from his Edinburgh-educated friend. My Mumbai co-worker and Chennai co-worker sound different from each other, and from speakers here in Houston.

    It's exactly like seeing new colors and not knowing what they represent. It makes it very intimidating to learn a new language. How do you deal with this issue when you are teaching someone a new language? Do you just gloss it over with "some people say it differently"?

  67. vanya said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    "Yet, on the other hand, most Dutch people's German is remarkably bad (they probably speak better English), while probably sufficient to give directions to German tourists."

    But the Dutch seem to understand German fairly well. A few years ago I went to a performance by a German cabarettist in Amsterdam. The show was entirely in rapid and colloquial German with no concessions made for non-native speakers, but the sizeable audience, at least judging by the conversations around me at intermission, must have been 90% Dutch. And people were laughing in the right places. I can't think of any other non-German speaking cities where German speaking entertainers can easily find a ready audience. (Copenhagen? Prague?)

  68. Keith said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    Marie-Lucie,

    I agree that French has a great variety in register, and I've also come across this distinction about what is acceptable in speech but less so in writing.

    But I've also encountered many examples of dialectal usage of a "standard French" word, or of a word taken from the regional language being inserted into a stream of "standard French".

    Here are three anecdotes that spring to mind, all from spoken French.

    1. I was in a market with my wife in Perpignan, in about 1994. She had bought a pair of sandals, and the merchant asked if she wanted a bag to carry them. Instead of using the word "sac", he used the word "bourse" ("Vous voulez une bourse?"). I suspect that using this word in reinforced by the local Catalan language, "borsa".

    2. I was talking with some neighbours down in South West France, where the Limousin variety of Occitan is still widely spoken. The wife berated her husband for pronouncing "pierre" ("stone") as "peyre", saying "speak French to him [i.e., me], or he won't understand".

    3. Often, as in invitation to enter somebody's house, I've heard "finissez d'entrer" (literally "finish coming in"). This seems to be a translation from the Limousin expression "Chabatz d'entrar".

    K.

  69. emilio said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

    Thanks to everybody for commenting my post. All the issues that have been raised here have been discussed sensibly and authoritatively, so I will just sum up some basic notions.

    1. What some linguists call (and I call myself) regional Italians (italiani regionali) is approximately equivalent to the English meaning of "dialects". They are linguistic varieties with minor grammatical differences, mostly the same lexicon, and a huge phonological variation (pronunciations). The post was all about these regional Italians, not about dialetti. Notice also that even though differences in prestige do exist among regional pronunciations of Italian, no pronunciation is strictly enforced at school or elsewhere. The classical AFP is only thought in actors' schools. Today most if not all people in Italy have one regional Italian as their native tongues, that is, everybody's native tongue is basically Italian with one of a number of pronunciations.

    2. The dialetti (Italian meaning of the word) are entirely a different story. Dialetti are sister languages of Italian, each of them stemming from Vulgar Latin along a different tradition. Most of them are unintelligible or barely intelligible to Italian speakers. There are a number of them, even though as every linguist knows counting languages is a tricky affair. At least four macro-areas have been distinguished (Northern, Median, Southern, Far Southern). Ethnologue, reasonably, opts for a finer grained classification. Dialetti used to be native tongues to 98% of Italian citizens in 1861 (according to T. De Mauro). After one century and a half of repression, they are declining. Most young people today do not speak a dialetto, or at most they have a passive competence developed in communicating with their grandparents. So for many Italian the local dialetto is a second language at best.
    Notice also that a regional Italian and the local dialetto are related in less than obvious ways: many linguistic features of a regional Italian are shared with its corresponding dialetto, but many others are not.

  70. Nathan Myers said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    In New York I was enjoying listening to a pair of pizza vendors' conversation, and asked what language they were speaking. Affronted, they announced "Italian!", and then mimicked Roman Italian, and laughed. What they had been speaking sounded, to me, almost Arabic, but I don't know Arabic. Does Sicilian have much Arabic flavor? Is there another language that Sicilian's sound inventory would be considered closer to?

  71. army1987 said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    @Emilio:
    But then, in my experience it *is* the case that Veneto Italian is closer to Standard Italian than Roman Italian is. Not phonologically of course, but people from central Italy (and I am one of them) do tend to use lots of non-standard expressions imported from Romanesco in their spoken Italian, whereas northern Italian use essentially the same language in speech as in writing. (An English analogue would be someone speaking with a standard southern British dialect but with lots of words like "ain't", double negatives, omitting pronouns and auxiliaries, etc., compared to someone with bother-father, Mary-marry-merry, roses-Rosa's, do-dew mergers but using exclusively standard lexicogrammar. Most people who are not phoneticians would likely think of the latter as speaking "better" English.)

  72. Anthony said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

    @Sid Smith – re: "My Italian ex-girlfriend, tho a Communist and a school teacher, would astound me with her remarks about her southern compatriots, describing them as (I apologise for this) 'Africans' and 'Arabs'."

    In my (short) travels in Italy back in 1984, and talking to Italians, Southern Italians return the favor – wherever you are in Italy, the people somewhat to the north of you are all Germans (said with at least the amount of disdain that an Englishman shows when calling them "Jerries").

  73. Emilio said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    @army1987
    I see your point, but I don't think it holds on the relevant level at least. The claim I criticized was explicitly about comparing the most "educated" speakers (say, university graduates). I would say that educated people in Rome speak a (slightly) regional Italian, with a distinctive phonology and a few minor lexical and grammatical peculiarities. Just like they do anywhere alse in Italy. Of course, we're relying on personal impressions and informal estimates. One could in principle find reasonable ways to investigate the matter empirically. Something preliminary was done in the 90s (D'Achille and Giovanardi), and the results supported my views: the university graduates shared many phonological features with less educated speakers, but they didn't share their "nonstandard" morphological features. More research should be done. But until then, one shouldn't let himself be misguided by prejudice. That is all the post was about.

  74. Frans said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:41 am

    @vanya:

    But the Dutch seem to understand German fairly well. A few years ago I went to a performance by a German cabarettist in Amsterdam. The show was entirely in rapid and colloquial German with no concessions made for non-native speakers, but the sizeable audience, at least judging by the conversations around me at intermission, must have been 90% Dutch. And people were laughing in the right places. I can't think of any other non-German speaking cities where German speaking entertainers can easily find a ready audience. (Copenhagen? Prague?)

    Amsterdam is Amsterdam, by which I mean all theater is able to find more of an audience there than elsewhere in the country, but especially more niche forms like cabaret in a foreign language other than English. But I should qualify that when I say most Dutch people's German is remarkably bad, it might very well be at the same or an even better level than when I say a Dutch person's *insert just about any foreign language other than English, German or French* is remarkably good. It says more about my expectations than about how well the person actually speaks the language. To put it in Wikipedia terminology[1], I would expect the majority of Dutch people to be relatively equally divided among de-1, de-2, de-3 instead of the large majority at de-1. Of course this is all anecdotal and nothing to take my word for, but perhaps the lack of students for German courses at universities speaks for itself.

    [1] http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kategorie:User_de

  75. JR said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 3:26 am

    @Frans: Thanks for your posts. Nice reading.

    Do you think this might be the case of the more "altered" language having an easier time understanding the more "conservative" language? This is what they say about Portuguese-speakers being able to better understand Spanish-speakers compared to vis versa. (Note that I said I can only understand "certain" Portuguese speakers with my Spanish. At the Brasil vs. Portugal game during the World Cup, I couldn't even tell if the girls behind me from Porto, Portugal were even speaking a Romance language.)

    I knew when I wrote about "waarschuwing voor de scheepvaart" that that was a phrase that sharp-minded persons could figure out. Again, the easiest language for Germans to learn would be Dutch. But my point is that that doesn't mean that, right now, Germans can understand Dutch easily. They need to work at it. I took Dutch classes at a German university near the border, and more than half of the class could not proceed to the next level because they got a poor grade in the first class.

    @speedwell: Don't worry. It takes a lot of work to learn a foreign language, but it is a fun process and the rewards are great.

    We do like to make our students aware of differences in pronunciation and such. But, we can't know everything about every dialect. (In this way, American teachers can often be better than native speakers, btw, since the latter often only know their dialect.) At the university, this isn't a problem, since students usually have different teachers with different accents from one semester to the next. What usually happens is that the student spends time abroad in a certain country and then adopts that accent as their own. Nothing good about a mixed-up accent/dialect.

  76. JR said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 3:33 am

    @speedwell: For example, in the US, it is the norm to not have the "vosotros" form appear on any Spanish tests. The students are not required to learn it. But, of course, they will have some teachers from Spain who do use that form when they speak to their class. Or teachers from Argentina who use the "vos" form. But I have never come across a student who has been confused by this.

  77. Frans said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    @JR:

    Do you think this might be the case of the more "altered" language having an easier time understanding the more "conservative" language? This is what they say about Portuguese-speakers being able to better understand Spanish-speakers compared to vis versa. (Note that I said I can only understand "certain" Portuguese speakers with my Spanish. At the Brasil vs. Portugal game during the World Cup, I couldn't even tell if the girls behind me from Porto, Portugal were even speaking a Romance language.)

    I may be biased due to being a native speaker of Dutch, but I find Dutch and English, with a relative lack of cases and a more rigid word order, easier to pick up than languages with cases. I'm not quite sure what you mean by "altered"? As I already mentioned, it's primarily words and verbs that are easy to pick up in German (and word order luckily isn't quite as flexible as it theoretically could be); cases are a lot trickier.

    You might also like to read this blog post, and some things I didn't mention there are Flemish verbs like bekomen (cf. bekommen) instead of krijgen, but as you'll notice while reading the post, it's possible that Flemish Dutch is easier for a German speaker than Dutch Dutch. However, I feel that my standard Northern Dutch pronunciation is closer to standard German vowels and consonants than a standard Southern Dutch pronunciation (for instance Northern Dutch and standard German share the /ʋ/ whereas Southern Dutch has a /w/).

    I knew when I wrote about "waarschuwing voor de scheepvaart" that that was a phrase that sharp-minded persons could figure out. Again, the easiest language for Germans to learn would be Dutch. But my point is that that doesn't mean that, right now, Germans can understand Dutch easily. They need to work at it. I took Dutch classes at a German university near the border, and more than half of the class could not proceed to the next level because they got a poor grade in the first class

    I doubt that'd be very different for Dutch people, but you never know. ;)

  78. Licia said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    If you’d like to hear what Italian dialetti sound like, you might try VIVALDI (Vivaio Acustico delle Lingue e dei Dialetti d'Italia, hosted by Humboldt-Universität Berlin; German interface also available). You can listen to speakers from 9 Italian regions telling the parable of the prodigal son in their own dialect.

  79. John Cowan said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:41 am

    Emilio, what you describe is essentially the case in every First World country with a standardized version of its language, excepting of course the countries of immigration such as the U.S., Australia, and Brazil.

    Frans: When I was in the Netherlands in 1987, I took a boat trip on the Meuse near Maastricht, and all features of interest were announced and explained in Dutch, English, French, and German in that order. Consequently, all the German tourists had to stand in the boat's stern, looking at the feature of interest currently being described as it rapidly vanished from sight. I think this well expresses the status of German in the Netherlands, at least at that time.

    As for the converse case, the 1808 story "Kannitverstan" (German original, English translation, Esperanto translation) by Johann Peter Hebel shows us the moral reflections that not understanding Dutch could arouse in a German from Württemberg (it was based on a true story dating from 1757). I wonder if there's a Dutch translation anywhere?

  80. Frans said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 4:39 am

    I think this well expresses the status of German in the Netherlands, at least at that time.

    I don't doubt that WW2 bears a lot of responsibility for the status of German and English in particular, even to this day, and not only in the Netherlands. That said, in my experience Dutch is usually first (for obvious reasons), but sometimes English, English usually second, but sometimes German, and the third and fourth positions German or French more or less at random. But there might be some cognitive dissonance on my part because I like French less.

    I wonder if there's a Dutch translation anywhere?

    I couldn't find one initially, but then I translated the first line and a Dutch translation revealed itself.

    PS Nice website. It abides completely by my style without trying to impose anything on me. :D

  81. Frans said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 5:26 am

    PPS Verstaan in the meaning of "to comprehend/understand" is almost exclusively Southern Dutch; in Northern Dutch we use begrijpen. "Ik versta je niet" is "I can't hear you" and "ik begrijp je niet" is "I can't understand you." I guess this used to be different. In fact verstaan in the meaning of begrijpen might perhaps even be called a Germanism when used in Northern Dutch.

    In southern Dutch there also seems to be the idiom "begrijpen en verstaan," but as far as I can tell that's just a stylistic figure akin to saying "understand and comprehend" that's become an idiom.

  82. Besançon said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    Educated speakers from Central Italy can speak Standard Italian
    "by the book," that is, using the standard grammar and the correct pronunciation (given in dictionaries, for example in Oxford-Paravia Italian English Dictionary).
    On the other hand, educate speakers from Northern and Southern Italy never really master the standard pronunciation. They always sound accented.
    Standard Pronunciation (lingua toscana in bocca romana) is required for all actors and dubbers at RAI tv and LA7. Central Italians can master the standard pronunciation in a few days, but Northerners need to work very hard on how to pronounce Italian E's and O's correctly and how to use phonetic and syntactic consonant doubling, as well as s/z, (it's really ugly when Northerners pronounce "qualsiasi" as [kwalziazi].

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