- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 10/08/2011
- dialect, diglossia, Naples, Totò
Stu core analfabeta
tu ll’hè purtato a scola
e s’è mparato a scrivere,
e s’è mparato a lleggere
sultanto ‘na parola:
“Ammore” e niente cchiù.
Italian speakers will have recognised that this poem is not in Italian, although it looks a lot like it; it was in fact written in Neopolitan by Totò, the great Neopolitan actor, director and writer.
An estimated 8 million people speak Neopolitan, although the version spoken in Naples itself differs slightly from those spoken in the surrounding areas.
Like Florentine or Venetian, Neopolitan is called a dialect (see here for a discussion of the implications and meaning of this contentious term), but is not in fact a derivative of the language now called Italian, and is better thought of as a sister language. Like Naples itelf, Neopolitan has a long and fascinating history stretching back nearly three thousand years: between about 1700 and 1800, the Neopolitan comic opera was the most popular form of musical entertainment in Italy, and Neopolitan was the language of the Bourbon court.
In this globalized universe where it seems that everyone’s watching the same movies and eating the same food, there are still abysmal and overwhelming fractures separating one culture from another. How can two peoples, one of which is ignorant of Totò, truly understand each other?
Allbeit obliquely, this comment illustrates the decline that Neopolitan has suffered in recent decades. Despite its glorious history, as Wikipedia rather dryly observes, Neopolitan ‘has often fallen victim of its status as a “language without prestige”‘. No-one has ever written a standardised Neopolitan dictionary, it is not taught in schools and, although the ISO classifies Neopolitan as a language, it has still to be recognised as an official minority language of Italy.
Unlike other Italian ‘dialects’, however, Neopolitan shows no signs of dying out. On the contrary, there are many sections of the city where no other language is spoken, and immigrants often end up learning Neopolitan rather than Italian. I will return to this theme in tomorrow’s blog entry.