In Italy there are many dialects, but only Sardinian, Friulian, and Ladin are recognized by the Italian State as official minority languages. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger however lists Neapolitan as one of 31 endangered languages in Italy which includes among others, Piedmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, Sicilian, Venetian, and Emilian-Romagnol. Neapolitan, like these other Italian dialects, is not a variant of Italian, but rather has its own grammar, orthography, pronunciation, and vocabulary, the base born from Latin to which was mixed the languages of the people who inhabited and dominated the city of Naples: the Greeks, Normans, French, and Spanish.
For a short time from 1442 until 1458, Neapolitan was the official language of the Kingdom of Naples. It was replaced by Tuscan which became the model for Italian literature starting around 1500. Centuries of debate among scholars about a common language ended in 1525 with Pietro Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua or Prose of a Common Language. The common Tuscan of Petrarca, Boccaccio and Dante was deemed the most valid among all of the languages present in Italy to become the model of one common literary language across the entire peninsula.
There exists vast literature in the Neapolitan dialect, as there is in almost all Italian dialects. In 1339, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Epistola napoletana – the Neapolitan Epistle, which can be considered the first work in Neapolitan. The work i Ricordi or The Memories by Loise De Rosa of 1470 is in dialect. Also during this century some Neapolitan authors, among which is Jacopo Sannazzaro, drew from the monologues of the gliommeri – composers or street performers, using and imitating the language of the people.
Literature in dialect greatly developed in the 1600s, the two major works of this period are laVaiasseide by Giulio Cesare Cortese (1612) e Lo cunto de li cunti di Giovan Battista Basile (1634) that were considered examples for anyone who wanted to write in Neapolitan.
In 1728 Francesco Oliva wrote the first grammar for Neapolitan. During the 19th century and early 20th century there were many authors that wrote poems and especially plays in dialect: Salvatore Di Giacomo, Ferdinando Russo, Eduardo Scarpetta, Raffaele Viviani, Eduardo De Filippo.
Notwithstanding this long and prestigious literary tradition, and not to speak of the famous musical tradition, the dialect was considered the language of the ignorant, those who that, after Italian unification, did not understand Italian and for whom the newspapers wrote in Neapolitan so they could understand the laws of Kingdom of Italy.
Even 150 years after Italian Unification, speaking in dialect is not considered a good thing. It is spoken in the home, but not in all families, and often, those who speak Neapolitan don’t speak proper Italian. That is why Neapolitan will forever remain the language of the people.
Elisabetta De Rosa was born in Naples in 1981; in 2004 she earned her degree in Modern Literature at the University of Naples Federico II with a thesis on the Study of Italian Philology. She teaches the Italian language at a school for foreigners and High School Literature. See all of Elisabetta De Rosa’s Articles on Napoli Unplugged.
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