I read an essay many years ago entitled The Faintest Echo of our Language by Chang-rae Lee. In a moving narrative, Lee uses the death of his mother to reflect on the role language played in her life, in her cultural identity, and in her connections to the people around her. A South Korean immigrant living outside of New York City, Lee’s mother never learned English. As her children grew and learned English in school (and forgot more and more Korean), she became both dependent on them to do anything that required language and at the same time she became completely disconnected from them. Without a common language to communicate to her family in, she became almost a stranger in her own house. Cut off in a speecheless world he says “She died, as I knew she would, hearing the faintest echo of our langage at the last moment of her mind.”
I didn’t know it then, but I would come to understand her story a bit. Living in a world where no sounds are familiar to you, where you are unable to communicate, unable to do even the most basic day to day tasks can be completely isolating. But, as was the case for Chang-rae Lee’s mother, it goes deeper than that, much deeper. Our entire identity, our shared history, our culture and values, everything we know about ourselves is wrapped up into our langague.
So what happens when a language is supplanted by another? What happens when children learn to speak, read and write a language different from their parents and their grandparents? What part of their history and cultural identity gets lost in translation? And how many generations does it take before a language is completely wiped out?
And what of the language itself? It becomes a symbol, a sterotype. A language spoken by the ignorant, those too uneducated or too lazy to learn the new language and by extension, anyone who speaks it is ignorant.
As Elisabetta de Rosa points out in her article The Neapolitan Dialect, this has become the fate of the Neapolitan langauge. A language with a rich literary, poetic, and musical history, and yet it has no official status within Italy, is not taught in schools, and is still, even after 150 years of Italian unification, considered the language of the ignorant.
But the news is not all grim. According to an article in ildenaro.it, the Region of Campania voted unanimously in 2008 to protect and preserve the language.
The Sixth Regional Commission (Culture and Social Policy) unanimously approved the proposed legislation: Regulations for the study, protection and enhancement of the Neapolitan language, dialects and folk tradition. The draft law is a combination of a legislative initiative presented by the Province of Naples and a proposed law presented by the Regional Council Tonino Scala. President Franco Casillo of Pd says, “With the approval of this piece of legislation in committee, they want to protect and preserve the traditions, customs and habits that characterize our culture. The linguistic heritage, songs, rhymes, and all forms of popular traditions will be considered cultural heritage. Also important is the establishment of a regional register of associations and individuals that carry the shared memories and the Neapolitan language into the future.” Translated from Tutela del dialetto, primo via libera al Ddl campano
How this legislation has translated into action I have yet to determine. But it is a start, and hopefully, between public and private endeavors, the Neapolitan language will live on in the hearts, the minds, and most importantly, on the tongues of the Neapolitan people.