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Naples and Neapolitan

An estimated 8 million people speak Neopolitan, although the version spoken in Naples itself differs slightly from those spoken in the surrounding areas.

Like Florentine or Venetian, Neopolitan is called a dialect, but is not in fact a derivative of the language now called Italian, and is better thought of as a sister language. Like Naples itelf, Neopolitan has a long and fascinating history stretching back nearly three thousand years: between about 1700 and 1800, the Neopolitan comic opera was the most popular form of musical entertainment in Italy, and Neopolitan was the language of the Bourbon court.

From Giambattista Basile to Salvatore Di Giacomo and Totò, Neopolitan has had many distinguished proponents. Apropos Totò, Umberto Eco wrote:

In this globalized universe where it seems that everyone’s watching the same movies and eating the same food, there are still abysmal and overwhelming fractures separating one culture from another. How can two peoples, one of which is ignorant of Totò, truly understand each other?

Allbeit obliquely, this comment illustrates the decline that Neopolitan has suffered in recent decades. Despite its glorious history, as Wikipedia rather dryly observes, Neopolitan ‘has often fallen victim of its status as a “language without prestige”‘. No-one has ever written a standardised Neopolitan dictionary, it is not taught in schools and, although the ISO classifies Neopolitan as a language, it has still to be recognised as an official minority language of Italy.

Unlike other Italian ‘dialects’, however, Neopolitan shows no signs of dying out. On the contrary, there are many sections of the city where no other language is spoken, and immigrants often end up learning Neopolitan rather than Italian.

During a recent visit, I talked to a teacher from a school in one of the poorer districts of Naples (not quite Gomorra, but not far off). She said various things: first, that the kids she teaches have only a minimal grasp of Italian. They speak Neopolitan at school, at home and in the street and, as a result of the fact that state funding is limited and badly distributed, there are not enough resources to teach them to speak and write Italian well.

Second, that she was worried above all that this is leading to a kind of ghettoisation, both within the city and Italy as whole. Her opinion (and she is far from reactionary) was that this served the purposes of the corrupt elements in local politics, as it removed the possibility of social advancement or even emigration for that sector of the city they rely on both for their livelihoods and to do their dirty work.

I spoke to a Neopolitan gentleman, a journalist from one of the better districts of the city, now approaching retirement age. He lamented the fact that, whilst Neopolitan was once an elegant, allusive language, the fact that it is neither taught nor celebrated has transformed it into a kind of street slang. He observed that the language as it is spoken now (in contrast to his youth) lacked a sense of formality or even distinct social settings. Whereas once he would have been adressed as ‘dottore’ as a mark of respect (in reference to the plainly evident fact that he had a university doctorate), men under the age of 30 invariably call him ‘fra’, short for fratèll, brother. This does not go down well.

A sociologist, Napoli born but long since emigrated, suggested that the only solution left was to regularise Neopolitan and teach it in schools; in short, to make the best of a bad situation, and at least allow the city’s population the dignity of speaking a language which is recognised as such. This would hopefully enable a renaissance of the language, and allow the Neopolitan classics to be taught once again, re-establishing a connection with the city’s distinguished literary history.

One of those present, a graphic designer who had left the city to live half an hour down the coast, scoffed at this, and at the parallel with Catalonia that my sociologist informant had drawn. The Catalans, he said, had spent hundreds of years fighting for the right to speak their own language, whilst the Neopolitans had rolled over in the space of two minutes (he was, of course, referring to the Unification of Italy; even if he was not totally historically accurate, his comment captures the resignation often expressed on this subject). A photographer in the group supported him, arguing that the protection and promotion of the language would only serve to deepen the gap that separates the South from the rest of Italy.

The elephant in the room in all this is, of course, the well known political dysfunctionality prevalent in Naples and the South generally; as the example of Catalonian also shows, language is often closely intertwined with politics. I will return to this, and consider further the opinions mentioned above, soon. In the meantime, please do share any opinions or experience you have of Naples and Neopolitan!

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