Valeria Buonocore

Language Shift Reversal Thanks to COVID-19

Valeria Buonocore

Independent Scholar, Newcastle, Australia


Abstract: The Italian linguistic situation boasts a notable number of language varieties. Although the data collected by the 2006 ISTAT survey on language use showed that some Italian dialects and other language minorities are suffering from endangerment due to the continuous shift to standard Italian, there are some language varieties, such as Neapolitan, whose language vitality seem to slow down this process. This is due to different factors, such as the high number of speakers, the language prestige in the society, the vast literature, the trends in music and social media, the social interactions and the intergenerational transmission. Particularly, the latters have acquired a greater role in the debate about language endangerment since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As a result, scholars are currently researching about its effects on the language in use. Due to the social preventive measures imposed by governments, interactions between people all over the world have changed. Home confinement, social distancing and isolation have affected people´s lifestyle and behavior, and therefore their way of communicating. In 2020 spoken interactions have been mostly limited to the inhabitants of the same household or neighborhood, education has been suspended to stop the spread of the virus. Similarly, International, and to some extent, national mobility has been halted; hence, speakers have not felt the need to use the standard variety given the contactless confinement in a domestic environment. It is known that topicality reinforces the use of dialects. It is in this scenario that dialects decline over the last century is likely be put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, it is possible to assume that syntactic structures, only present in some language varieties, could result into the standard variety, since it is believed that native speakers have the power to contribute to their language development. This could be the case of the differential object marking, only present in some Southern Italian varieties and in other romance languages. The aim of this paper is to investigate the effects of COVID-19 on the language in use and provide the readers with critical guidance regarding future language developments and prospects.

Keywords: Italian varieties, language endangerment and revitalization, language shift reversal

1. Introduction

Numerous languages are at risk of extinction worldwide. ‘‘Every two weeks a language dies off in the world’’ (Crystal 2000;19).

The cultural heritage of mankind is partly represented by local languages and according to the UN’s cultural agency, dialects, especially, could soon disappear.

Multilingual realities have long been ignored or rejected. In many countries around the world, from the second half of the twentieth century, the progress of language studies and different sociopolitical and economic phenomena have resulted in an increasing interest in multilingualism. Among the European countries, Italy is one of the biggest representatives of multilingualism. Besides the official language and other minority languages, there are many regional languages which coexist with the standard variety. This situation of diglossia makes the majority of Italians native bilinguals of Italian and at least one other regional variety. These regional varieties differ from each other and from Standard Italian.

In the world, there are roughly 6,500 spoken languages nowadays. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers and COVID-19 represents an even bigger threat to their endangerment. As a result, linguists are worried about the possibility of an even further level of endangerment for those local varieties. Given the fact that local and minority languages are transmitted from generation to generation, the advent of COVID-19 has impacted the number of speakers worldwide and older person preyed by COVID-19 might not be able to hand to next generation their native language varieties. Contrastively, home-confinement has contributed to an increase in the use of the local variety. Could this be perhaps beneficial for local languages?

Therefore, the first part of this paper briefly introduces the multilingual Italian territory: from the ´questione della lingua´ to the present times.

Moreover, taking into account the global emergency caused by COVID-19 in 2020, people around the world have spent most of their time in lockdown, i.e. at home. Without minimizing its negative effects, it is possible to find some positive effects in the local language preservations. From a linguistic point of view, the domestic environment promotes the use of the local, minority and/or heritage languages. As a result, the second part of this paper focuses on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the language in use with main focus on the Italian varieties.

After having considered the benefits of COVID-19 for the language in use, the last part of this paper examines the potentiality of a language shift reversal from the standard variety towards the local ones. Giving the example of the differential object marking, a syntactic phenomenon present in some Southern Italian dialects which could result into the Italian standard variety. The aim of this paper is providing a starting point for further investigation in the language development.

2. The multilingual Italian context

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are more than 30 languages in danger in Italy presently.

This unique linguistic situation of multilingualism in Italy is rooted in its historical background. Starting with the questione della lingua in the Middle Age (see, e.g., Lepschy 1993: 16–35, and Moss 2000), regarding the debate around which variety among the copious Italian dialects should become the national language, and the affirmation of the Florentine from the cultured class in the Sixteenth century as the most prestigious variety (cf. Maiden 2014), the Italian territory has maintained its status of multilingual country.

Moreover, the coexistence of Italian and minority languages in Italy can be addressed to its late unification, only achieved at the end of the Nineteenth century (cf. Maiden 2014). As a result, the lack of unity has long prevented from having a single official language which was finally achieved in the last decades under the impetus of language policy influenced by demographic, economic and, in part, educational factors.

According to the first ISTAT survey on the use of dialects in 1987/1988, 56.9% of the Italian population was mastering both Italian and the local dialect within the family and preferring mainly the local dialect for spoken interactions.

Although education and language policies resulted in having more than 90% of the people adopting Italian for their interactions, most of them preserves the use of one of the many characteristic dialects of the country or one of the 14 minority languages.

It is common to associate the term dialects with ‘‘subdivisions of a particular language’’ (Chambers and Trudgill 1998, 3) or ‘‘a system of signs deriving from a common language, living or defunct, normally with a concrete geographical limitation, but not strongly differentiated vis-à-vis others of the same origin’’(Alvar 1996, 13). Therefore, it is possible to state that these definitions do not apply to the Italian context, in which dialects have their own system and vitality. According to Tosi (2004), this unusual condition of linguistic diversity in Italy is the result of different factors.

“One factor is that the so-called ‘dialects’ of Italy are actually Romance languages and not dialects of Italian different from the standard. Another is that Italian is a far less standardized language than other Romance languages” (Tosi 2004, p.1)

Nonetheless, the development of Italian in the past 150 years has been the cause of a language shift from local languages towards Standard Italian. According to Berruto´s calculations, only a little part of the population would still use their dialect at the end of the Twenty-first century (cf. Holtus and Radtke 1994).

Furthermore, the analysis about the major evaluative factors of language vitality drawn up by UNESCO and the data offered by the 2006 ISTAT survey on language use revealed that so-called ‘Italian dialects’ were suffering a higher exposure to endangerment.

Many external phenomena have been designated by experts as threat to those dialect, such as migration and rapid urbanization, progress, military and/or cultural dominations, but also some fundamental internal forces, such as fashion and trends resulting into younger generations sacrificing the use of ´old-fashioned´ dialects in favour of the ´new´ standard variety.

On the other hand, some new trends in music and social media have brought the appreciation for identity and ´vintage´ again into the limelight. In fact, the demise for some Italian dialects seems to be still far away. Local varieties like Neapolitan, Sicilian and Venetian are still spoken by a large percentage of the population (cf. Coluzzi 2009, 39-54). This is thanks to their variety prestige in the society, their vast literature, the trends in music and social media, the social interactions and the intergenerational transmission. As mentioned above, particularly the latters have acquired a greater role in the debate about language endangerment since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Although the debate in Italy on the vitality of dialects and their future, little has been done to develop strategies to reverse the worrying language shift that both minority languages and dialects are undergoing (cf. Coluzzi 2009, 39-54). Could be COVID-19 the unusual creator of a potential unexpected language shift reversal?

3. Can a virus be beneficial for the preservation of dialects?

2020 has been the year of the coronavirus which has spread across countries worldwide. Its outcome is not only a global health crisis, but also severe economic and socio-psychological consequences.

Due to a range of social preventive measures imposed by the governments, interactions between people all over the world have changed. Home confinement, social distancing and isolation have been affecting people´s lifestyle and behaviour, and therefore their way of communicating.

The consequent closure of schools and public amenities, home-office work, forced lockdowns and isolation, the chase for the patient 0, and limited civil liberties have inevitably generated different responses in individuals.

Nonetheless, in the same way in which the world has stopped, language endangerment could be reduced. Isolation and home confinement promote the use of the domestic register which allows minority languages and dialects to acquire new vitality.

With regard to the linguistic situation, the Italian heritage is one of the richest and varied in Europe. If in the past centuries, the deficits in education in Italy have hindered the convergence towards a single language, the current discontinuous formal learning is likely to result into a language shift reversal towards dialects. As a matter of fact, it is known that topicality reinforces the use of dialects; hence, dialects´ decline over the last century is likely to be put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, Furthermore, the Italian central government has granted more autonomy to the regions in order to have more efficient measures to stop the spread of the virus. The citizens´ life is regionally centered and geographically limited. From a linguistic point of view, this has resulted in an increase in the use of the regional varieties.

According to Wicherkiewicz (2001), regional languages tend to undergo different sociolinguistic processes:

“They are used actively predominantly in the cultural life of the region [..] the most common situation being diglossia; monolinguals of regional languages can no longer be found; the education in, and teaching of, regional languages is still hardly developed, [which] deepens [further] the generation gap in active language use; the regional languages are present in the mass-media only at a (sub)regional level: local press, regional radio broadcasting stations, hardly any televisions; religious services in regional languages are still rare; literature in these languages covers only [few] literary domains: mainly regional folklore and traditions, children's literature, poetry, etc. ’ In this case, too, most or all of these processes characterize the so-called Italian ‘dialects” (Wicherkiewicz 2001, pp.5-6)

Not to be confused with a regional variety of Italian, or ‘regional Italian’, which is a variety of Italian showing some traits, particularly in phonology and lexicon, that derive mostly from the local ‘dialect’. Although Standard Italian spread through Italy in the 20th century, regional areas of Italy used variations of Italian languages and dialects and became known as Regional Italian (italiano regionale).

From March 2020, people all over the world have been home-confined. Although mass media overwhelmingly use the standard variety, home conversations are the ones which occur the most and now with an even higher frequency. Therefore, dialects and regional Italian varieties have been given a new vitality.

Could this not be a trigger for having some forms of the local varieties affecting the standard and not vice versa, as it was the case before the pandemic?

As a matter of fact, it is possible to assume that syntactic structures, only present in some local varieties, could emerge in the standard variety. It is commonly believed that native speakers have the power to contribute to their language development; hence, speakers of the main local varieties could start using unconsciously some synctactic constructions also in the standard variety.

This could be the case of the ´differential object marking´, a syntactic phenomenon present in some romance languages and some Southern Italian varieties but not in Standard Italian.

4. What is the ´differential object marking´ and why is this likely to emerge in Standard Italian?

Whenever a language overtly case-marks “some direct objects, but not others, depending on semantic and pragmatic features of the direct object[such as] animacy, defiteness and topicality” (Aissen 2003:435), this can be defined as ´differential object marking´ ((henceforth DOM, term coined by Bossong 1985,1991). Animacy, definitess and topicality are mainly arranged along implicational scales (cf. Comrie 1975, Aissen 2003, Croft 2003). According to Aissen (2003, 437), the animacy scale is the main factor for the distribution of the differential object marker. Furthermore, some additional factors such as co-argument asymmetries temporal and aspectual and modal verbal categories have been claimed to be responsible in the distribution of DOM in many languages (cf. Primus 2011; Malchukov and de Hoop 2011).

In Romanian the general differential object marker is the preposition pe, whereas in Spanish it is the preposition a. as shown in (1):

(1) a. rom.

L-am văzut pe Mario. [+HUMAN]

CL.3.SG.ACC-have.1.SG seen PE Mario.

´I saw Mario.´

b. sp.

Yo a Mario

1 SG.NOM saw A Mario

´I saw Mario.´

Nonetheless, this phenomenon is not present in the standard Italian variety but it is abundantly in use in some Southern Italian varieties such as Neapolitan, Sicilian, Calabrian and Apulian. In these local varieties the prepositional marker a coincides with the prepositional introducer of datives a, as shown in (2):

(2) a. it.

Ho visto Ø Mario

have.1.SG seen Ø Mario

´I saw Mario.´

neap. Verette a Mario.

sicil. Visti a Mario.

calab. Vitti a Mario.

apul. Je vist a Mario.

The DOM and its distribution in the Southern Italian varieties has been the topic of extensive research. The analysis in this paper is limited because the material and the arguments presented aim to be a starting point for a broader set of research themes and approaches. For example, the possibility of the prepositional accusative of some Romance languages and dialects to enter the Italian standard variety in the future. This hypothesis is considered in relation to the new reality everyone has had to face during the COVID-19 pandemic. The community´s compliance with preventive measure is likely to affect not only its behaviors but also its languages.

Finally, it is possible to believe that in the same way in which COVID-19 has limited the community´s freedom, it might slow down (if not reverse) the language shift towards the Standard.


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