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.]