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Review of  An Introduction to Italian Dialectology

Reviewer: Chiara Meluzzi
Book Title: An Introduction to Italian Dialectology
Book Author: Gianrenzo P. Clivio Marcel Danesi Sara Maida-Nicol
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): Italian
Issue Number: 23.717

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AUTHOR: Clivio, Gianrenzo P.; Danesi, Marcel and Maida-Nicol, Sara
TITLE: An Introduction to Italian Dialectology
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Romance Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Lincom Europa
YEAR: 2011

Chiara Meluzzi, University of Pavia-Free University of Bozen, Italy

The book is an introduction to Italian language and dialectology for non-Italian
students. For this reason, each Italian example is followed by an English
translation, and also by phonetic or phonological transcription, and by glosses.
The book has a preface and five chapters. In the preface, Danesi and Maida-Nicol
dedicate the book to Clivio, who passed away in 2006.

Chapter 1 is a general introduction to dialectology and Italian and its
dialects. In the first part, dialectology is defined as “the study of dialects”
(p. 11), themselves ‘variants’ of language since “there is a standard or model
form of a language from which the dialect diverge” (p. 12). The authors present
two main techniques of traditional dialectological analysis: the comparison of
forms and structures between variants, and possible explanations of these
differences. They also treat a major dialectological tool, dialect atlases, and
method, the historical-comparative approach. The second part is a short history
of Italian, from its origin in Vulgar Latin, to literary (Tuscan) Standard
Italian (SI), and Italian dialectology. At the end of this chapter, the authors
introduce the notion of ‘diasystem’, i.e. “systems (phonological, morphological,
etc.) that reflect variation concretely” (p. 50, see Weinreich 1953).

Chapter 2 deals with the phonetic and phonological description of Italian and
its dialects. After a short guide to key notions of phonetic and phonological
analysis, the authors analyse the vowel and consonant systems of Italian and its
dialects. The chapter is filled with examples, including phonetic transcription
and English translation. The authors present the diachronic evolution from Latin
to distinctly Italian features. For example, consonant gemination is described
as “a distinguishing feature of Italian phonology generally, with respect to
other Romance languages” (p. 89). Double consonants have phonemic status in SI,
with minimal pairs like ‘rossa’ (“red”) with /ss/ vs. ‘rosa’ (“pink”) with /s/.
The chapter concludes with a short introduction to suprasegmental phenomena,
such as syllabic structure of SI and some striking prosodic features of Italian

Chapter 3 deals with other grammatical diasystems of Italian and its dialects,
in particular morphology and lexicon. The morphological analysis focuses on
parts of speech (POS), both in diachrony (i.e. from Latin to SI) and in
synchrony (i.e. between SI and the dialects). An example of diachronic evolution
is the creation of definite articles in SI. An example of synchronic variation
among dialects is the first person plural ending of present indicative verbs: SI
‘-iamo’ (as in ‘cantiamo’ “we sing”) becomes ‘-uma’ (‘cantuma’) in Piedmontese
and Lombardian, and ‘-emo’ (‘cantemo’) in Venetian. The lexical analysis shows
how many Italian words come from various diasystems: even if Italian lexemes
come especially from Latin, there are ancient loanwords from Arabic (e.g.
‘albicocca’ “apricot”), French (e.g. ‘mangiare’ “to eat”), German (e.g. ‘guerra’
“war”), and recent ones from English (e.g. ‘computer’ or ‘email’). Finally, many
words entered SI from the Italian dialects, for example, Sicilian ‘intrallazzo’
(“illicit affair”) or Roman ‘caciara’ (“confusion”).

Chapter 4 deals with two main themes of dialectology, diglossia and language or
dialect contact. For diglossia the authors deal with differences between SI and
its dialects at all levels of analysis, from phonology to vocabulary (see
Ferguson 1959). The authors cover some Italian immigrant communities in contact
with other languages, especially in North America. The lexicons of these
communities show many words borrowed from the languages of the host societies,
and they show how these loanwords are adapted to the phonological and
morphological system of Italian. An example of this adaptation is the form
‘pusciare’ from the English “to push”, while in SI the normal form is
‘spingere’. The chapter ends by introducing the notion of language as “identity
code”, an important feature of Italian spoken outside of Italy, but also of
dialects still used in Italy in conversation or in computer-mediated
communication (CMC).

Chapter 5 deals with the influence of CMC on language, and recent research on
this topic. The authors also provide a short list of common Italian cyberforms ,
as ‘c6?’ for ‘ci sei?’ (“Are you there?”) or ‘xò’ for ‘però’ (“but / however”).
They also note that “dialect speech in Italy is undergoing a resurgence through
the digital media” (p. 195). This could provide an opportunity for future
research, since “dialects are taking on more and more symbolic value as
identity-preserving codes”(p. 198).

The authors present the book as an introduction for non-specialists and
non-Italian scholars. For this reason, some topics are not explored in detail
and some problems are simplified. Moreover, maps showing the distribution of the
main linguistic phenomena in the Italian peninsula are very helpful, especially
for non-Italians. Unfortunately, except for chapter 3, the book lacks a section
on ‘further readings’ for those wanting to further investigate on specific topics.

Chapter 1 a very good, though brief, history of Italian with examples of early
Italian texts, like the famous ‘Indovinello Veronese’ (“The Veronese Riddle”),
accompanied by a good linguistic analysis showing major changes from Latin to
Italian. The explanation of relationships between SI and its dialects is very
clear and helpful for non-Italian students, who will be able to easily grasp
differences among Italian varieties in the peninsula.

Chapter 2, an introduction to Italian phonology, is unfortunately very
problematic and filled with phonetic and phonological inaccuracies. At the
phonetic level, in the analysis of SI consonants (p. 84), the authors do not
include the labiodental nasal [ɱ], though a dental nasal has a labiodental
articulation before the labiodental fricatives [f] or [v], as in ‘anfora’
[‘aɱfora] (“amphora”) or ‘invano’ [iɱ’va:no] (“in vain”). Moreover, the decision
to use non-IPA symbols in their transcriptions is awkward. And the authors use
the same non-IPA symbol for different values: the symbol /λ/ (IPA /ʎ/?) on p. 63
is used to indicate the palatal articulation of /l/ before a palatal consonant
as in ‘falce’ (“sickle”), while on p. 68 the same symbol is used for the palatal
consonant itself, transcribed in Italian orthography as as in ‘figlio’
(“son”). This introduces another problematic point: the palatal articulation of
/l/ and /n/ before a palatal consonant. The authors assume that both the dental
lateral [l] and the dental nasal [n] are palatalized before a palatal consonant.
That is correct, but it is innacurate to transcribe this palatalized
articulation with the same symbol as the proper palatal consonants /ʎ/ and /ɲ/,
that represent different sounds with a dorsopalatal articulation. As with
‘falce’ (“sickle”), a palatalized /l/ with an alveo-palatal articulation is
quite different from the dorso-palatal / ʎ/ in ‘figlio’ (“son”), with a proper
palatal lateral /ʎ/. The same can be said for the nasal, which presents a
palatalized [n] in the word ‘oncia’ (“ounce”), but a different sound in ‘gnomo’,
transcribable as [‘ɲɔ:mo]. In IPA, the palatalized consonants are usually
transcribed with a small raised /j/ after the consonant (also Laver 1994: 323).
Some Italian scholars prefer special symbols for the palatal articulation of /l/
and /n/ with the same value as IPA diacritics (see Canepari 2006: 81). In any
case, it is problematic to use the same symbol for two phonetic values: this is
a lack of precision which creates confusion
for readers.

Moreover, the authors transcribe stress on the corresponding vowel instead of
marking the stressed syllable as usually done; the word ‘becco’ (“beak”) is
transcribed as [bé-kko] (p. 64), not [‘bek.ko]. Note as well that the authors
consider the geminate consonants uniquely part of the second syllable (p. 107),
while most phonological theories split consonants over the two syllables, with
the first consonant closing the first syllable and the second consonant opening
the following syllable as for the second transcription of the word “becco” above
(also Nespor 1993). The analysis of “gemination” in Italian is controversial.
Without pursuing the issue, I note simply that if the authors are following
another approach to syllablification, it would be important to offer a short
explanation of this choice, with references to the usual view. Finally, in the
analysis of prosodic variation among Italian dialects, the authors conclude that
“in this area of phonology there is a very little variation across diasystems”
(p. 110). However, prosody is a major difference between northern and southern
Italian varieties and not only “a matter of degree”, as the authors state, but a
distinguishing feature among the varieties (e.g., Sorianello 2006).

Chapter 3 is clear and the material well-explained: the main morphological
features of Italian are presented with tables and maps that clarify the
theoretical discussion. Concerning syntactic variation, the authors also provide
some references for further readings. It would have been useful to do the same
for other levels of analysis and in particular for morphology, a rich topic in
Italian dialectology (for a short introduction, see Grassi et al. 2005). The
lexical analysis amply illustrates differences between northern, central and
southern diasystems: for example, the verb “to kill” (SI ‘uccidere/ammazzare’)
corresponds to ‘matar’ in Venetian, ‘ammazzare’ in Tuscan, ‘accidere/scannari’
in Sicilian (p. 145).

Chapter 4 clearly introductes major problems of contact linguistics.
Particularly notable is the value given to the relationship between language and
identity, especially among immigrants. The assumption that, in these contexts,
dialects become part of an ‘identity code’ is supported by a wide range of
examples. Unfortunately, the original copy I received contains a major
production problem; pp. 169-172 were omitted, and pp. 69-72 were printed in
their place. A second copy from the publisher did not include this problem.

Chapter 5 presents some recent work on CMC in Italian, opening the way to future
research on this topic. The authors’ assumption that “in the contemporary world,
writing has taken on a Janus-faced nature” (p. 185) is fascinating. They also
argue that it would represent the evolution of Italian language and its dialects

In conclusion, this book represents an introduction to Italian dialectology, as
intended by the authors. Young scholars and non-specialists, especially
non-Italians, can find a useful guide to Italian diachronic and synchronic
variation. The examples are clear and well-laid-out, with useful glosses and
translations to help students without knowledge of Italian. However, the
problems highlighted in chapter 2 represent a weakness of the text, which would
benefit from revision.

Canepari, Luciano. 2006. Avviamento alla fonetica. Torino: Einaudi.

Ferguson, Charles. 1959. Diglossia. Word. 15. 325-340.

Grassi, Corrado. Sombrero, Alberto A. Telmon, Tullio. 2005. Fondamenti di
dialettologia italiana. Roma: Laterza.

Laver, John. 1994. Principles of phonetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marazzini, Claudio. 2009. Storia della lingua attraverso i testi. Bologna: Il

Nespor, Marina. 1993. Fonologia. Bologna: Il Mulino.

Sorianello, Patrizia. 2006. Prosodia. Modelli e ricerca empirica. Roma: Carocci.

Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in Contact. New York: Linguistic Circle of New

Chiara Meluzzi is a doctoral student at the University of Pavia and the Free University of Bozen (Italy). After a Master’s thesis on female language in Ancient Greek comedy at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Vercelli), for her PhD dissertation she is now working on the sociolinguistics of the Italian variety spoken in Bozen (South Tyrol). Her primary research interests include sociolinguistics, pragmatics, dialectology, language contact and historical linguistics.