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Review of  Towards a New Standard

Reviewer: Matteo Tarsi
Book Title: Towards a New Standard
Book Author: Massimo Cerruti Claudia Crocco Stefania Marzo
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Italian
Issue Number: 29.1473

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Towards a New Standard,” edited by Massimo Cerruti, Claudia Crocco, and Stefania Marzo, is a collection of articles which aims at shedding new light on the restandardization processes which are taking place in Italian. The volume is organized into three parts (I-III) with an introduction by the editors and an epilogue by Peter Auer.

In the Introduction, the editors discuss a number of points at the basis of the theoretical and empirical foundations of this book. To begin with, they address the core of the specific terminology used. They explain and contextualize the following concepts: Italian (standard language), Italo-Romance dialect, neo-standard Italian, regional standard, demotization. In particular, they explain that the linguistic landscape in Italy is such that the Italian codified standard is not natively spoken by anyone. Instead, the language spoken by natives may be either an Italo-Romance dialect and/or a regional variety of Italian, i.e. Italian influenced by a regional substratum. Demotization is explained as a phenomenon of acquisition of sociolinguistically lower features by the high variety, viz. the Italian standard, resulting in neo-standard Italian. Neo-standard Italian is therefore defined as the linguistic outcome of a process of downward convergence where features previously deemed as non-standard are increasingly accepted in the national standard “by mere usage” (Ammon 2003). Owing to this, a new norm has emerged, according to the authors. In a nutshell, while the traditional norm has not (yet) been superseded by the new standard, it has nevertheless lost its predominant position in the Italian linguistic scenario. The new emerging norm mediates between the codified standard and the regional varieties of Italian. This would be confirmed by the increasing acceptance of regional linguistic features into formal spoken and even written language.

Part I “Restandardization tendencies”

While opening with a rather lengthy introductory part on neo-standard and restandardization, in Section 3 Berruto focuses on “some major facts in syntax and morphology” which bear witness to the emergence of an Italian new standard. He divides the section in seven subsections and gives a succinct account of the following phenomena: marked sentence structures (3.1); use of verb forms (viz. indicative over conjunctive and conditional, 3.2); the so-called “multifunctional che” (It. ‘che polivalente’), viz. the generalization of such complementizer to the detriment of other complementizers (3.3); the use of oblique forms of the third person pronoun in place of the nominative (e.g. ‘lui’ instead of ‘egli’ etc.) and respective clitic pronouns (3.4); syntactic innovations such as the formation of an interrogative clause with multiple foci, allegedly by means of English influence, and the ordinal relative superlative (3.5); word formation (in particular with neo-classical prefixoids such as giga-, iper-, maxi-, mega- etc., 3.6); and facts of general “linguistic custom”, e.g. the use of ‘tipo’ (Eng. ‘kind’) as an adverb.

Cerruti gives an overview and analysis of relative constructions which bear witness to the emergence of a new standard. In particular, he focuses on the convergence of sub-standard and traditional standard, viz. the emergence of the neo-standard norm by means of the acceptance of sub-standard constructions into the domain of, at least spoken, standard Italian.

Crocco’s chapter focuses on the phonology of neo-standard Italian. After giving an overview of the main tenets of regional diversification in the pronunciation of Italian, Crocco goes onto explaining phonetic and phonological features of regional Italian(s) in comparison with the standard norm. As a consequence of the fact that standard pronunciation has historically never been promoted as much as standard Italian grammar, variation in pronunciation is a widespread phenomenon. Crocco’s analysis builds upon this assumption and highlights the most notable differences which can be encountered in regional varieties of Italian by giving a sample of cases both for what concerns the vowel system and for the consonant system. Moreover, Crocco addresses the socio-stylistic markedness of segmental and supra-segmental features. In Section 4, Crocco gives an historical overview of school policy and orthography. Section 5 is finally dedicated to restandardization in pronunciation.

Finally, De Pascale, Marzo, and Speelman explore the linguistic sociological meaning of the birth of a new standard. They perform an experiment with a sample of speakers from southern Italy which are asked to rate nine speech samples, one of which was in standard Italian and the others in different regional Italians. The result of this case-study shows that the Milanese variety is increasingly looked at as prestige variety.

Part II “Regional standards”

Regis offers an analysis of three different syntactic phenomena in the Piedmontese regional variety of Italian, which he calls “standard Piedmontese Italian”. The phenomena he focuses on are the following: the selection of the definite articles ‘lo’ and ‘gli’ (Eng. ‘the’ in sing. and pl.) to the detriment of ‘il’ and ‘i’ in the case of the word ‘suocero, suoceri’ (Eng. ‘father-in-law, parents-in-law’); the spreading of the specifically Piedmontese focus particle ‘solo più’ in the speech of speakers non native to Piedmont; and the omission of the preverbal negation when a postverbal negative quantifier or reinforcer is used. By following van Coetsem’s model (1988) for language contact phenomena, these three case-studies demonstrate the spreading of Piedmontese regional features in language domains previously dominated by the Italian standard. In terms of language contact theory, these features give an example of how languages adopt gap-filling features such as ‘solo più’ on the one hand, while on the other they tend to the simplification of some grammatical structures.

Vietti’s chapter explores the emergence of a new standard in Bozen. Basing his analysis on koneization theory (cf. Kershwill 2002, Siegel 1985 and 2001), Vietti gives first a sociolinguistic and historical overview of the recent immigration patterns in the area. Subsequently, Vietti offers two case-studies, namely that of the affricates in that variety of Italian (based on a previous thorough study by Meluzzi 2014), and voicing variation in bilingual speakers (Italian/Bozen German). The results of his analysis point at the emergence of a new koine in that area and is thus classifiable as a case of emergence of neo-standard features in Italian.

Calamai’s chapter addresses the issue of standard vs. vernacular in Tuscany. Whereas an amended version of the Florentine variety has been chosen during the Humanist period as the basis for standard Italian, speakers of Tuscan varieties of Italian cannot be said to speak the standard variety. On this Dante Alighieri had already expressed himself in his “De vulgari eloquentia” in the beginning of the 14th century. With this in mind, Calamai explores the relationship between standard and vernacular in Tuscany. According to her analysis, Tuscan dialects show both dialect convergence and divergence, thus demonstrating a complex relationship between standard and vernacular.

In conclusion, Amenta explores the interaction between dialect and Italian in Sicily by bringing under discussion a case-study, namely that of phrasal verb constructions (e.g. ‘andare via’ vs. ‘partire’ [Eng. ‘go away’]). Thanks to a chronological perspective, Amenta’s analysis comes to the conclusion that this kind of construction has always been present in Sicily and that its use was once typical of formal style and written language. Thus, this construction is native to the local variety (and also widespread in other varieties of Italian/Italian dialects) and it is now again making its way into the norm.

Part III “Crossing the borders”

Bombi focuses her analysis on Anglicisms with particular reference to word-formation processes. Moving from Gusmani’s studies (1986) on linguistic interference, Bombi first introduces the terminology used throughout the chapter (2). In Section 3 the author offers an analysis of so-called “induced morphemes” (cf. Gusmani 1986:140). In her examples, Bombi includes not just actual derivational morphemes but also “morpheme-like” suffixoids, e.g. Eng. -burger ‘beef patty’ → ‘patty’. In Section 4 the author moves on to analyzing neoclassical compounds, the origins of some of which are definitively attributable to language contact with English. Nevertheless, as the author rightly shows, the pattern has been “nativized” in Italian and thus become productive. In Section 5, Bombi addresses a further issue, namely that of blending in word-formation. Although very productive e.g. in newspaper writing and the advertising industry, this word-formation pattern is bound to be ephemeral. Nevertheless, the examples brought into discussion bear witness to the acquisition in Italian of a new, exogenous, word-formation pattern and may be rightly classified as a language contact phenomenon.

While also focusing on language contact with English, Asnaghi analyzes the distribution of English loanwords vs. native synonyms along the Italian peninsula. Her analysis takes into consideration word couples in which one word is a loanword and the other is one or more native words (e.g. ‘nickname’ : ‘soprannome’; ‘break’ : ‘pausa’; ‘boss’ : ‘capo’, etc.). After having discussed her methodology of research and having mapped her results onto geographical maps, Asnaghi concludes that the use of loanword vs. endogenous word varies on a regional basis. In general, Anglicisms seem to coexist side by side in Italian, e.g. in journalistic writing where they are preferred in the North of Italy to their native counterparts.

In the concluding chapter of Part III, Pandolfi explores the influence of the other two official languages of Switzerland, French and German, on Italian. By noting that Swiss Italian obeys a partially autonomous local standard, Pandolfi hypothesizes that Italian may be a pluricentric language. She supports her hypothesis by analyzing different sets of phenomena which range from the lexicon (5) to syntax (6) to morphology (7) and, finally to honorific pronoun usage (8).

In the Epilogue, Peter Auer contextualizes the emergence of the Italian neo-standard in the wider European linguistic landscape and specifically draws examples from the situation in Germany. In conclusion, he discusses the relationship between demotization and destandardization by arguing in favor of a coexistence of the two.


According to Auer’s words in the Epilogue (p. 372), the volume “sets an agenda for future research in Europe”. Undoubtedly, much work has to be done in this research field in order to better understand restandardization processes both from a single-language perspective and from a theoretical point of view. However, the essays contained in this volume are problematic for several reasons. In this evaluation I shall highlight the main critical points.

From a general theoretical standpoint, the book claims that a new standard is emerging in Italian. This new standard, or neo-standard, would be the outcome of restandardization/demotization processes which have taken place in Italian especially due to its spread as a national language vs. local vernaculars. The neo-standard would then be defined as the ending point of the interrelationship between standard language and several substrata. The claim that a new norm is being shaped in Italy seems problematic because, whereas evidence undoubtedly shows that some dialectal features have found their way into Italian as a nation-wide phenomenon and moreover that a less formal register is nowadays widely accepted also in domains where it was once impossible to encounter it, the varied evidence brought up in this book would rather suggest that these restandardization processes are taking place at the same time in various local varieties of Italian. Thus, there is no new norm or standard being accepted in the whole of the peninsula. In addition to this, the single case-studies presented in the book point rather to the fact that the “downward convergence” is theoretically a general phenomenon but is put in practice at a very local level. This is due to the fact that efforts have been made since the Unification of Italy in 1861 to unify the peninsula also from a linguistic point of view. As a consequence, regional varieties of Italian have arisen and they are now finding their way as such towards nation-wide acceptance. This last point is correctly brought up by the editors in the Introduction (p. 16), but is used as further proof of the rise of a new standard.

For what concerns the single chapters, I have taken note of some problematic passages. I shall here list and comment on the most important and conclude with a general comment on the book as a whole.

Part I “Restandardization tendencies”

Berruto’s chapter contains several inconsistencies in glossing, and the English used throughout clearly strikes me as distinctly influenced by the author’s mother tongue. Berruto provides translations of Italian terms but these are widely objectionable. For example (p. 46), when talking about ‘averci’ (E. ‘to possess, to own, to be endowed with’) he translates it as ‘to have there’, in attempting to render both the verb and the particle. In theory, the particle ‘ci’ could be translated both as ‘there’ and ‘here’. In this particular case however ‘here’ should have been chosen, and not ‘there’, for the verb denotes possess and ‘ci’ basically means ‘with oneself’ (cf. also It. ‘avere con sé’). This example should suffice because questionable translations in Berruto’s chapter are too many to be listed here (see e.g. pp. 53 and 54). Example 29 (p. 46) is to my eyes incorrectly commented. The example goes as follows:

(29) Ce l’-hai l-e carot-e
there carrot-pl
‘have you got the carrots’

Speaking about the verb, Berruto says that its widespread use triggers that of the clitic pronoun ‘lo’ (which he translates as ‘him’, but it is also used as Eng. ‘it’). In the example under discussion however the object to which said clitic pronoun refers is ‘carote’ (Eng. ‘carrots’), which is feminine. The way the example is written does not enable the general reader to see whether ‘l’ ’ in ‘l’hai’ is really the pronoun which Berruto claims it is. I claim it is not. In fact, that pronoun is feminine plural, thus ‘le’, because it refers to ‘carote’, which is feminine plural (cf. also that Berruto omits gender and number of ‘l’ ’ in the gloss). Finally, worth mentioning is also a careless use by Berruto of Google as source of data: In order to further demonstrate his point, Berruto claims that “a query on Google” gives such and such results (see pp. 38 and 39), not even specifying the day on which he made the query. It goes without saying that these queries bring nothing to Berruto’s argumentation.

The following two articles by Cerruti and Crocco are generally well written. However, they show at times a lack of precision which I was in general surprised to see in a book published by such a renowned academic publisher. As examples I quote in Cerruti’s contribution p. 65, footnote 4, and p. 90 in Crocco’s chapter. Cerruti says on p. 65 that “a clitic pronoun may be used for all syntactic roles except for the subject” and explains in footnote 4 that “the one exception is Tuscan Italian, which may employ a clitic pronoun even in subject relativization”. This is too generic and thus misleading, for there are several varieties spoken in Tuscany. The variety he is making reference to is of course the most known one, Florentine. Such use is not pan-Tuscan and therefore it should not be referred to as such. Moreover, this general and apparently harmless statement by Cerruti openly clashes with Calamai’s overview on pp. 215-218. In Crocco’s chapter it is instead northern Italian varieties which are vaguely referred to. In the introduction, the author reports that “According to a number of studies (which she does not mention, N/A), this divergence (viz. difference in evaluation of single regional accents, N/A), could result in the reevaluation of the most prestigious regional pronunciation - the northern pronunciation - to a new standard accent.” The author does not mention which pronunciation she is making reference to, and this is thus misleading because there are several different pronunciations in northern Italy. Finally, an error on p. 97 should be mentioned: The author says that “a typical feature of several central varieties and southern varieties is the affrication of /s/ followed by the sonorants /r l n/: e.g. polso ‘wrist’ ['poltso] [...].” As the examples she lists show, said affrication occurs when /s/ is PRECEDED by said sonorants. This example is also significant, for such errors should have been addressed in the peer-review process and editorial review which I believe all the contributions have undergone. I should come back to this issue in the conclusions of my evaluation.

The chapter by De Pascale, Marzo, and Speelman offers a case-study which is, as rightly admitted by the authors, very limited in scope. It is therefore doubtful whether such results could be generalized to the whole of Campania or even southern Italy. Moreover, when quoting De Mauro’s (1970) model, the authors ought in my opinion to point out that, even though (as they in fact say) De Mauro’s mapping does not reflect the (actual) administrative division of the peninsula, it approximately reflects the geography of pre-unitary Italy. In addition to this, and as a general trend throughout the book, it may be noted that when the authors make reference to northern Italy, they more often than not refer to north-western Italy (Piedmont and Lombardy) without specifying it.

Part II “Regional standards”

Regis’ chapter on Piedmontese regional Italian presents a number of issues, mostly related to a general lack of precision and biased use of data. One may start from pp. 160-161 where in order to bring further support to his point (the widespread use of ‘solo più’ in the speech of people living in Piedmont, both native and not), Regis writes (I quote the passage verbatim): “[...] it is worth noting that the PRI (Piedmontese Regional Italian, N/A) solo più seems to be often acquired by speakers who have come to live in Piedmont from other areas; in fact, I know many immigrants from Southern Italy who use solo più in their speech (and probably in their writing as well, though I do not have any evidence of this), some of them still preserving strong phonetic traces of their original dialect.” Here Regis is drawing definitive evidence from his own acquaintances and makes an assumption he admittedly cannot prove. On pp. 164-165 Regis gives examples from a newspaper article by Giovanna Zincone, a full professor of Sociology at the University of Turin. Regis says that (quoted verbatim): “I have not managed to find any information about Zincone’s birthplace, but her surname is clearly of southern origin, and she graduated in Rome, making it likely that the Neg3 structure had been acquired by Zincone during her prolonged stay in Piedmont.” Inferring one’s immediate origin from one’s surname is a quite dangerous modus operandi, considering that significant emigration has taken place from southern Italy towards the more economically dynamic northern regions during the postwar era, not least towards Turin. Within a sociolinguistic framework, this seems to be an unscientific way of retrieving information.
In conclusion, it may be noted that the large majority of examples from the so-called “model texts” come from local/regional newspapers. Even “La Stampa”, which has of course national coverage, is not read daily in the whole of Italy. It would have been interesting, and perhaps more insightful, to have sought more evidence from widely read newspapers and magazines (e.g. “L’Espresso”, “Il Corriere della Sera”, “La Repubblica”, etc.).

There are two main criticisms of Vietti’s chapter on the new standard in Bozen. First of all, the author’s use of English is not the best. Moreover, the spelling used by the author is widely inconsistent with regard to spelling norm as he in fact sometimes uses British sometimes American spellings, especially <-ise> and <-ize>. With regard to the content of Vietti’s contribution it is striking to notice that half of the research chapter (4) is to a great extent based on Meluzzi (2014). One wonders why the author has not co-authored the chapter with Meluzzi given also that Vietti was Meluzzi’s supervisor for the Ph.D. thesis upon which he bases subsection 4.1 (cf. Linguist List 28.3269, Diss: “Le affricate dentali nell’italiano di Bolzano: un approccio sociofonetico”). Moreover, Vietti’s use of his source is at times erroneous. For example, talking about alveolar affricates, Vietti attributes to Meluzzi (2014: 45-50) that “there is a widespread geographical variability leading to voicing neutralization.” What one instead concludes by reading those very pages in Meluzzi’s work is that there is a great deal of diatopic variation alongside the Italian peninsula, and that said variation results in a varied distribution of voiced and voiceless alveolar affricates in different varieties of Italian. Another example is on p. 197, footnote 15, when Vietti writes that “the [reading, N/A] list is constituted by 310 words containing affricates in different phonetic contexts [...].” In Meluzzi (2014: 62) it is clearly stated that the list only contained 66 words which had dental affricates (cf. also Appendix 1 in Meluzzi (2014: 201-202)). Vietti’s conclusion, namely that the Bozen variety of Italian has emerged via a koneization process, is very similar to those encountered in Meluzzi’s work (cf. Meluzzi 2014: 169).

Also Calamai’s contribution shows inconsistencies with regard to spelling norm as already mentioned for Vietti’s chapter. In addition, Calamai’s chapter is not free from parenthetical comments which add nothing to the argumentation and sound rather amateurish. For example, speaking about the variety/ies of Italian spoken in Tuscany, the author writes (quoted verbatim): “Local Italian may also be used by highly-educated speakers and, likewise, illiterate people may speak a rather correct Italian (which, however, may sound like Old Italian to a non-Tuscan ear).” Is this really true? I.e. do “non-Tuscan ears”, viz. speakers from outside Tuscany, have a knowledge of Old Italian so that they recognize the varieties of Italian spoken in Tuscany as archaizing? What does the author want to get at? Similarly, on pp. 219-220 the author claims that the weakening of /t/ is “sensitive to morphological constraints” (according to Giannelli and Savoia 1991) because it occurs in past participles and adds that “by extension, [it also occurs] in some lexical forms which are built on the model of past participles.” The author then brings as example the word ‘patata’ (Eng. ‘potato’).First, it is not clear how the word ‘patata’ may be “built on the model of past participles”. Secondly, it seems to me more likely that such weakening is due to the phonological context being that VtV > VhV in weakly stressed positions. This has a parallel in the spirantization of /t/ (VtV > VθV) in the same, but stressed, contexts, as the pronunciation of ‘patata’ in Tuscan varieties shows, namely [pa'θaha].

Amenta’s contribution is fairly free from dubious points, although the English used in the article, and especially in the translations of the examples, might have been better. However, Amenta’s chapter adds something to the discussion on phrasal verb constructions in Italian, namely that they were present both from an early stage and in a geographical area free from Germanic linguistic influence.

Part III “Crossing the borders”

In Bombi’s chapter, errors concerning the alphabetical order in the bibliography (e.g. Gualdo, Giovanardi, Grossman, Gusmani sic!) hint at a poor review process.

Asnaghi bases her analysis on Gusmani’s seminal work on language interference, and in particular on “homeonyms” (omoionimi, viz. ‘having similar meaning’, in Gusmani’s words. The English word is mine). However, there is at least one notable shortcoming in her contribution. On p. 297 she says that her research “is based on a linguistic sample gathered from newspaper websites based across the territory where Italian is used as a prominent language, namely Italy and the Italian speaking area of Switzerland.” Unfortunately, the data from Switzerland is not displayed in the relative section.

Finally, Pandolfi’s contribution offers an interesting analysis of Swiss Italian in comparison with Italian in Italy. I shall just briefly comment on Section 5.3 “Neologisms” in saying that, according to the author, she has excluded those in common with Italian in Italy. However, she lists ‘alberghino’ (Eng. ‘small hotel’) which I do not see how it can be exclusively Swiss Italian as suffixation with -ino is very widespread also in Italy. In comparison one may take ‘italicità’ (Eng. ‘italianness’) which in Italy is commonly referred to as ‘italianità’.

Unfortunately, “Towards a New Standard” is to my eyes too much invalidated by a number of issues which I deem to be crucial when publishing a work which wants “to set an agenda”, as Auer puts it in the Epilogue. These issues are three: numerous errors pertaining to the use of the English language, an occasional biased and/or non-scientific use of data, and occasional informal comments such as those by Regis and Calamai.

Finally, on the first of the three issues listed above, the work of the editors and the peer-review process should have been more thorough. On the other two issues I have to say that throughout the whole book a certain sense of carelessness is detectable, of course at varying degrees, but which nevertheless plays no secondary role in my evaluation.


Ammon, Ulrich. 2003. “On the social forces that determine what is standard in a language and on conditions of successful implementation.” Sociolinguistica 17. 1-10.

Berruto, Gaetano. 1987. Sociolinguistica dell’italiano contemporaneo. Roma: La Nuova Italia Scientifica.

De Mauro, Tullio. 1970 [1963]. Storia linguistica dell’Italia unita. 2nd edn. Roma / Bari: Laterza.

Giannelli, Luciano and Leonardo Maria Savoia. 1991. “Restrizioni sull’esito [h] da t in fiorentino e nelle altre varietà toscane.” Studi Italiani di Linguistica Teorica e Applicata 20. 3-57.

Gusmani, Roberto. 1986. Saggi sull’interferenza linguistica. Firenze: Le Lettere.

Kershwill, Paul. 2002. “Koneization and accommodation.” In J.K. Chambers, Peter Trudgill and Natalie Shilling-Estes (eds.), The handbook of language variation and change. 669-701. Oxford: Blackwell.

Meluzzi, Chiara. 2014. Le affricate dentali nell’italiano di Bolzano: un approccio sociofonetico. Unpublished PhD dissertation at the Università di Pavia. [Dissertation abstract on Linguist List 28.3269].

Siegel, Jeff. 1985. “Koines and koneization.” Language in Society 14(3). 357-378.

Siegel, Jeff. 2001. “Koine formation and creole genesis.” In Smith Norval and Tonjes Veenstra (eds.), Creolization and Contact. 175-197. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Van Coetsem, Frans. 1988. Loan Phonology and the two Transfer Types in Language Contact. Dodrecht: Foris.
I am a Ph.D­​ student in Icelandic Linguistics at the University of Iceland, Reykjavík, and I am currently a visting scholar at the Department of Nordic Languages of the University of Uppsala, Sweden. My research focuses on how loanwords and native words were used in Old and Middle Icelandic. Among my other research interests are: history of linguistics (especially in the 18th century, etymology, loanword studies and language planning and policy studies).

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