The languages of Bolzano/Bozen

by Jeanette Sakel
I recently gave an invited talk in Bolzano/Bozen in Northern Italy, and I could not help but be amazed by the linguistic situations of the Alto Adige/Südtirol region of Italy. And since there is even a Guardian article about the language situation in this region today, I decided it was time for a new blog post.
Südtirol used to be part of The Austrian-Hungarian Empire, but became part of Italy at the end of the First World War. Yet, even a century later, the majority of people in this region still feel Austrian, or if not Austrian then at least ‘more’ Austrian than Italian. Local varieties of German are typically spoken here by the majority of local inhabitants. High German is only really used in highly official situations, if at all.

Italian, then, is the National language. Yet, it does not enjoy a particularly high status in this region. There are many Italian ‘outsiders’ in Bolzano, yet I had the impression that (unless they have high-profile jobs such as university lecturers), they are regarded as citizens with a lower status than the indigenous Germanic people of the region.

This is, you may say, a typical situation of linguistic and cultural contact, in which one language has a higher status than another. Yet, in this case both languages have a high status – but in different ways. German as the high status regional majority language, Italian as the national language. This issue seems to have led to two very separate societies: for simplicity I’ll label them the Italians and the Germans (there are also smaller minorities which sit outside these exact groups). They each have their own schools (with very different school systems), clubs, services, etc. Indeed, it seems to be possible to lead very separate cultural and linguistic lives within one small town. What is interesting is that the Italians feel it is their country and they have the right to speak their language. The Germans, on the other hand, are very conscious of not just maintaining but ‘living’ their cultural and linguistic heritage.

As an outsider and (academic) ‘tourist’, I must have got things wrong on a few occasions. My use of High German certainly set me apart as a tourist (as locals would use their dialects when speaking to each other). Being used to speaking English or trying out my somewhat rusty Italian when in Italy, I had to remind myself to speak German (not easy!). Yet, on occasion that wouldn’t work. For example, when grabbing a quick cup of coffee in a small coffee shop near the university, my German request was met with a look of ‘I don’t understand’. Indeed, the lady behind the counter looked for help from other locals in the shop. I’m not sure if that was really necessary for translation purposes, as I had asked for a cappuccino (a loanword from Italian in German, pronounced in the Italian way). Unless she was a recent addition to the Bolzano scene, she was probably making a very different point. I then noticed that she was clearly looking very ‘Italian’, but using looks to judge which language to use can get you into deep water, too!
Despite this being a bilingual region, I had the impression that it was indeed quite monolingual, restricted to specific communities. If you want to negotiate both strands of cultural and linguistic life, you have to be the bilingual, accommodating to your interlocutors. My academic colleagues had mastered this very well, speaking German and Italian, irrespective of their linguistic backgrounds.

Even our international workshop group of Italians, Swiss and British participants had a good time living the bilingual life (and not just researching it). At one dinner, we all communicated in German – with the occasional English or Italian code-switch.

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