Italian language: Zenoeixi, The Ligurian Dialect

Nov 17, 2019 6264

Here we are again on our trip to discovering all the different languages and dialetti of Italy. If my itinerary is correct, our next stop is the Liguria region, a very important republic even before Italy existed and homeland to many great traders and voyagers of the past. You probably know the most famous one – Cristoforo Colombo. Who? Pardon, I forgot you call him Christopher Columbus. In any case, the guy who was trying to reach India and accidentally bumped into the American continent. Him. 

Liguria has a long and intriguing history and we can say the same about its dialect. First of all, dialetto ligure or Zenéise comes from Latin and is part of the Gallo-Italic branch, just like the Piedmontese and Lombard languages, and it is used to refer to the bigger umbrella that holds within all the different Ligurian dialects. Just like the latter, Ligurian is considered a minority language and it’s protected by the first article of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1999). With the Ligurian dialect we refer to the evolution that Latin went through in this particular region and its result, not the language of the Liguria people who inhabited the area before the Roman colonization. 

The general feature of Ligurian is the mutation of the “l” sounds into “r” and the progressive disappearance of the “r” sounds which left space to a longer vowel, like in caro in Italian, caru in dialect, now pronounced “kaau.” Then, each variation has different characteristics. The five main variations are: Oriental, Geonese, Center-Occidental, Alpine Ligurian and Oltregiogo. As I said before, Ligurian mainly comes from Latin, but thanks to its importance in the past, you can easily find words from Arabic – like camallo in Ligurian, facchino in Italian, “bellhop” in English, – from Greek – mandillo in Ligurian, fazzoletto in Italian, “tissue” in English, – but also Spanish, French and so on. In other words, Ligurians didn’t only trade goods. 

What is extremely interesting about this language is that, despite Liguria being the third smallest region of Italy, there are about 350.000 speakers around the world. Well, they must have immigrated you say. Yes and no. For sure, there must be a reason that in the 13th century, the great Anonimo Genovese wrote: “Tanti sun li Zenoeixi, e per lo mondo si desteixi, che und'eli van o stan un'aotra Zenoa ge fan.” (There are so many Genoese people, around the world and scattered, who create a new Genoa wherever they go and settle). However, in the past dialetto ligure, the Genovese variation in particular, was so important when trading, that it easily spread. You can find speakers in the Principality of Monaco, where this language is not official but it is actually taught in schools, and in Sardinia (about 10,000 speakers) and Corsica where it is called ligure coloniale. 

As any dialect or minority language in Italy, Ligurian is going through a deep crisis. In fact, according to a 2006 study by the Italian National Institute of Statistics, only 8,3% of the people living in Liguria speaks any type of dialect, and only the 17,6% knows both dialect and Italian. The numbers are even more worrying since out of these speakers only 6% communicate in dialect with friends and 19,6% use both languages. Generally speaking, only baby boomers and people living in rural areas know Ligurian. In 2009, due to the progressive decrease of speakers, some politicians tried to sponsor elective classes of Ligurian in elementary schools by sponsoring training courses for teachers who were interested in promoting and preserving this part of their culture.

However, as it always happens when speaking about dialects in Italy, the project divided the public opinion. It was mostly supported by the School Unions, which saw in the proposal a great opportunity to train in something new all the teachers who were interested in while promoting the local culture; on the other hand, the academic world saw this project as something aa a last ditch attempt to save something that has no linguistic reason to be saved. To the academics, not only was it like teaching in an unnatural way (since dialects have generally been taught in households and by relatives) a dead language that would have not been very useful to the kids, but they also brought out the crucial problem of which variation to teach. How do you decide on only one in a fair way? What about the kids that were born outside of Liguria or even abroad? 

Anyway, even if the present is not so rosy, Ligurian has a great past. The first written recording of this dialect dates back to 1190 in a bilingual text by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras. When talking about Genoese literature we can’t forget the verse by Anonimo Genovese, who wrote beautiful rhymes on religion and morality in the late 13th century and early 14th century. But even today, we find texts in this dialect, like the translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” into Ligurian in the early 1900s, and the great Italian song-writer Fabrizio De André published an album in 1983, “Crêuza de mä,” which is entirely in the Genoese dialect. 

Despite everything, I think there is a very important word to know in Ligurian even if you are not Italian, and that is fugàssa, “focaccia.” Why? Because if you try the real deal in Liguria, you won’t be able to ever stop eating it.


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