Vico Pancellorum’s Secret Language

Once you’re reasonably fluent in Italian it’s just the start of your learning process! I’ve already mentioned in a recent post that there are at least twenty-six regional languages which could be said to be rather more than dialects because they have their own literature and literary societies. Most obviously, the great eighteenth Venetian playwright, Carlo Goldoni wrote both in Venetian and Italian. (There’s a good Venetian on-line machine translator at https://glosbe.com/it/vec/) .Even composers like Pergolesi did not disdain to accept opera libretti written in the Neapolitan language such as his ‘Lo frate ‘innamorato. (See https://glosbe.com/nap/it for Neapolitan if you need it, especially when listening to ‘Lo frate ‘nnamorato’).

We are lucky in Tuscany because the region’s language is the basis of current Italian. Dante saw to that when he wrote his ‘Divine Comedy’ in the ‘vulgar tongue’ (i.e. not in Latin). Having said that, there are many local variants in Tuscan Italian, not least phonetically, as anyone who’s lived in Florence knows where any ‘k’ sound is turned into ‘h’ aspirate (I.e., instead of ‘casa’ Florentines say ‘hasa’).

Lucchese is meant to be a very polished form of Tuscan Italian (indeed families of the Italian nobility used to send their daughters to schools in Lucca to pick up a ‘refined speech’.)  Yet even in the walled city it’s worth investing in a dictionary of Lucchese, such as Ippolito Nieri’s (Ponte a Moriano’s great philologist) work which can be found at https://books.google.it/books/about/Il_vocabolario_lucchese.html?id=z4w0AQAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y

Luckily, Tuscan variants are largely lexical rather than syntactical. I.e., the deep grammatical structure usually remains the same with subject-verb-object being the basic pattern with only the vocabulary changing.

Just to give you some very simple examples of Lucchese as it spoken around Lucca:

ENGLISH ITALIAN LUCCHESE
We/us Noi Noialtri (cf. Spanish ‘Nosotros’)
You come too Vieni anche tu Vieni anco te
Show him/her who you are Fargli vedere chi sei Fanni vedé chi sei

 

‘Ni’ is used in the Lucchese even more frequently than the ‘ne’ in standard Italian, replacing many different forms of ‘gli’, ‘lo’ etc.

I could go on for miles but if, as a forestiere living in this part of the world, you start to cut off the last syllable ‘re’ from infinitives and indulge in other elisions then it’s clear proof that you are turning into a Lucchese. (E.g. ‘me va fà na bella cena’ = ’I’m going to have a nice supper’.)

Going up into the mountains of the Lucchesia, especially if you’re venturing into the remoter reaches of the Garfagnana and even if you are Italian-perfect, more problems are likely to be encountered. For example, people from Bagni di Lucca have to have things said to them at least twice over in the bars of Vagli di Sotto and di Sopra at the upper end of the Serchio valley before they get the gist of what is being uttered. (And that’s before they start on the drink…).

Which reminds me, I have now come to the stage, living here for over twelve years, where, especially in the summer tourist season starting now in Bagni di Lucca, I hear people talking what seems to be an unknown foreign language, only to realise that it is English that is spoken, but in a weird part of the Islands!

Happily, Italians everywhere are glad to know you are making efforts to learn and speak their beautiful language so they will (unlike the French) slow down and try to speak a more standard Italian.

However, there are still certain areas of the world where people don’t really encourage you to speak their language (I’m thinking of the more inaccessible valleys of Wales where many people don’t like you to understand everything they are talking about). This is especially the case with particular specialist trades. Language for them is indeed like a closed shop. You’ve got to understand the language before you can practise the craft. Nowhere is this more apparent in those communities of the lucchese Mediavalle and Garfagnana where there are (or have been) metallurgical workers. In Fornovolasco, for example, the Lucchese lexical structure is mixed up with words coming from the Brescian dialect since in mediaeval times families of iron-founders from that part of Italy settled in these parts to mine and exploit the excellent ores they discovered lay in the Apuan alps.

This is also the case with ‘l’arivaro’, the ‘secret’ language of metal workers in Vico Pancellorum of which, unfortunately, there is only one fluent speaker left.

(A View of Vico Pancellorum)

On Saturday evening at Luca and Rebecca’s bookshop there was a fascinating conference given by three inhabitants from this beautiful and sequestered borgo of our comune. The speakers were Claudio Stefanini, president of ‘Il Risveglio’ local association which does a lot to give life to the village, especially with its summer exhibition, Manuel the grandson of the last speaker of the language and Lisa, a linguistics student, who is writing a thesis on the language.

(From left to right: Lisa, Manuel and Claudio.)

The main points I gathered were as follows:

  1. The language is strictly tied to the trade of tin-lining the interior of copper pots which would otherwise be poisonous to cook in.
  2. The language is syntactically the same but lexically is quite different from standard Italian.
  3. The full language is reduced to two speakers since everyone else speaking it has either died or emigrated or forgotten it.
  4. The language takes its vocabulary from an area of Calabria which, in turn took words from Albanian and Spanish. (e.g. ‘window’ is Italian ‘finestra’ but in vicoan ‘arivaro’ it is ‘ventana’.)
  5. Basic parts of the language are still in use today in Vico Pancellorum For example, a common greeting up there is ‘ere’ (pronounced as it is written). This is a variant of ‘muori’, ‘die’. If that greeting sounds morbid then there are so many Italian phrases which are used to mean the opposite. I.e. ‘ere’ actually means ‘top of the morning to you!’ Another more widespread Italian expression is ‘in Bocca al Lupo’ which means ‘may you land up in the wolf’s mouth’ which actually means ‘good luck.’ The point here is that if you wished good luck to an Italian they wouldn’t believe you! (Never, ever say ‘buona fortuna’ to anyone in this country!!!). It’s a bit like the English ‘break a leg’!
  6. The language is used by speakers for confidential matters which they want to keep secret and not let out to ‘forestieri’. i.e. anyone who wasn’t born in Vico Pancellorum.

The talk in ‘Shelley House’ was immensely well-attended with standing room only for many people, including the mayor. The best part was hearing Claudio and Manuel having an amusing conversation in ‘arivaro’.  We are promised a dictionary of the language and it will surely be fascinating to read Lisa’s completed thesis.

My own theory about forms of languages is as follows:

ENGLISH TERM ITALIAN TERM MEANING
Standard world language Lingua Nazionale The language as it is presented in standard grammars and spoken by the educated class
Allowed regional  languages Lingue regionali Often quite different and with opposed roots from the standard world language e.g. Welsh in the UK and Friulian in Italy. These languages will be distinguished easily by having locations with two separate names and separate road signs.
Dialect Dialetto Lexical and often syntactical variants of the standard language
Slang Gergo Typical ‘street’ or ‘country’ language. Examples includes cockney rhyming slang and rap.
Metalanguage Metalinguaggio Without getting into deep water because there are so many issues in discussing this term, this means any specialised language used in particular defined areas. These could go from scientific experiments to linguistic analysis to tin-lining copper pots in Vico Pancellorum. This type of language is essentially linked to a particular physical or mental activity.

 

It’s my theory that ‘l’arivaro’ is, in fact, a meta-language of a very particular kind with input from local ‘gergo’ (which it is usually referred to by the inhabitants)  and dialectical forms connected with other areas of Italy or even Europe. It’s just so sad that so many languages of whatever category are in danger of disappearing for ever in the world. For example, in Tierra del Fuego there’s only one native speaker of Yaghan the local language left. So if you meet up with Abuela on Navarrino Island in Chile and hear her talking to herself don’t imagine she’s going nutty; it’s just that she has no-one else to talk to in her language.

Now let me tell my cat Napoleon to get off my keyboard. How does one say that in Felinian?

PS Do check on the very interesting future events at ‘Shelley House’ on their facebook page at

https://www.facebook.com/events/1725797921046868/

 

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2 thoughts on “Vico Pancellorum’s Secret Language

  1. Francis, please do not make this beautiful language even more complicated for me! Jane.
    The Felinian word for please remove yourself from my keyboard is, ‘DREAMIES’; (a delicious tasting cat treat biscuit), obviously you will also have to remove yourself from the keyboard to place the cat treats into the cat’s bowl, but be quick or else the cat or another feline member in the family will be back on the keyboard – oooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhjjjjjjjjjjjjkkkkkkkkkkkkkzzzzzzzzzztttttttttttttttttttttttt

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