Did you know that UNESCO has recognised the Neapolitan dialect as an official language and a great cultural heritage? What do you know about this language? As one of the most famous Italian idioms, this linguistic system was named after the Kingdom of Naples. Indeed its reputation remains strong all over the world with phrases such as “O´ sole mio”, “O´ surdato ´nnammurato”, and words such as “Pizza” and “Mandolino”. They may even be part of general knowledge and they could indeed be considered as international words.
Neapolitan originally derived from Latin, but there were already traces of this language before the Roman Empire, since some terms are ascribable to Oscan language and to Greek, which was spoken in southern Italy until the around the late 1st and early 2nd century. In fact, Greeks and Byzantines played an important role in shaping the culture and the language of this region during the Ancient Era, and at a later stage Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Spanish and Americans came to contaminate and influence much of its linguistic evolution. Indeed, one can argue that many Neapolitan words are borrowed from the linguistic makeup of other languages. For example, the Latin phrase “intra sact”, which means “sudden” or “unexpected”, developed into “intrasatta” in Neapolitan. Moreover, from old Greek, the word “misalion”, which means “tablecloth”, evolved into “mesale”. Spanish and French language also influenced the language strongly with words such as “ayer” (yesterday), which came about as “ajére” in Neapolitan. From French, the term “boîte”, which is directly translated into the English word “can”, became “buàtta” for the Neapolitan language. Finally, there are expressions and phrases derived from Germanic languages such as “drincà” (to drink), which originated from the Old High German verb “trinkan”.
Throughout history Neapolitan has undergone many changes, but the language has nevertheless kept most of the borrowed words. In modern times, however, one of the most significant changes to Neapolitan arguably came from the large influx of English influence in the early 19th and mid-20th century. The first contact with the English language was during the Bourbonic Restoration, when Lord Horatio Nelson asked King Ferdinand IV for permission to send soldiers on a mission in order to stop Napoleon’s fleet in Toulon. Moreover, the Allied invasion of Italy during the Second World War also served to generate new terms in Neapolitan. For instance, as the occupying forces distributed American goods, such as cans of corned beef to the starving population, Neapolitan butchers began to use words such as “´o biif´” to describe fresh pieces of cow or steer meat. Lastly, as the United States of America climbed to the top as a global power following the war, its soft power also skyrocketed and began to influence cultures all over the world. In particular, modern Neapolitan has seen the rise of new words such as “´o smartfon´” (smartphone) to describe new technological devices.
From UNESCO, it is clear that dialects and endangered languages are part of the cultural heritage of mankind. Indeed, Neapolitan may be identified as such. Experts identify two main threats to linguistic systems such as these. Firstly, external forces such as military, economic, cultural and religious factors play a large role in the evolution of a language. Secondly, internal forces such as the attitude of new generations in learning or preserving an old language may completely change the evolutionary path of a linguistic system. As a language, Neapolitan is spoken in Campania, but it may also be found among the population along its borders such as in Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Lazio, Marche and Molise, although its linguistic aspect may vary. Several measures have been taken to protect the language as a cultural heritage; for example, a bill was passed by the region of Campania to protect it in order to save the artistic and the literary prestige of this wonderful language.
By Emilano Del Vecchio
Student of MA Learning & Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts
University of Luxembourg
Study visitor at TermCoord