By Dr Cristina Marinetti
When asked to translate Carlo Goldoni’s Le baruffe Chiozzotte (‘The Chioggian Brawls’) for the English stage, Clifford Bax replied that Goldoni’s thick Venetian dialect was untranslatable, ‘for to use ordinary English would be to make wild peasants talk like gentlefolk, and to use any English dialect would be like mooring gondolas at Hull’. While beautifully crystallizing the inevitable compromise involved in representing and making accessible what is linguistically and culturally other, Bax’s conundrum also highlights a fundamental aspect of Venetian life and culture that is seldom talked about outside Italy: the Venetian dialect.
Unlike Venetian painting, art and architecture, which have gained international currency because of their historical influence in Europe and beyond, the language of Venice seldom features in international discussions of the city’s history and cultural heritage. And yet, at the start of the Third Millennium, Venetian remains the native language of most of the 63,000 or so inhabitants of the city, and one of the most prestigious of Italy’s dialects. While no longer the language of state and institutions, as was the case well into the nineteenth century, Venetian is very widely spoken in informal contexts, both within and outside the family. For the boatman as for the shopkeeper, the librarian and the civil servant, Venetian (often intermixed with Standard Italian) is still the principal medium of communication throughout the six historic districts (sestieri) of Venice and functions as a very powerful marker of identity in everyday life that distinguishes the natives (venessiani) from the non-Venetians (foresti, lit. woodlanders).
Although I am primarily an Italian speaker, now living and working mostly in English, I often find myself turning on my Venetianness with friends and family when I go back to Venice, partly to rekindle the warmth and humour of an idiom learnt at my grandparents’ knees but also as a way of demonstrating my belonging, of marking myself out as a native. Like residents who pay onesixth of the price of a tourist ticket for the vaporetto, Venetian speakers get the best tables at restaurants and events as well as better deals in shops and cafes – the so-called ‘presso da Venessian’ (‘Venetian price’), which waiters are trained to automatically apply to tables of Venetian speakers. In a city that has seen its butchers’ and bakers’ turned into mask shops and takeaway pizza outlets and its community centres converted into boutique hotels or exhibition venues for tourist consumption, the Venetian dialect gives the natives a way of claiming back part of the city by marking out spaces that are not accessible to mass tourism.
But even as a tourist it is impossible to escape the Venetian dialect, which is everywhere in the city, embedded in the very geography of a unique landscape that has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. So walking around Venice, map in hand, our tourist will learn to navigate along calli (‘streets’) and fondamente (‘embankments’), go through a sotoportego (‘underpass’), across a campieo (‘little square’) and stop at a bacaro (‘bar’) for an ombra de vin (‘glass of wine’). And perhaps, if she is curious enough to seek out connections between language, history and culture, she will puzzle at the sign rio terà and marvel at the fact that she’s now walking on a stretch of land which was once a rio (‘small canal’) and was claimed back (‘interred’ – terà) during prosperous times when the city’s population was increasing by the thousands.
The influence of Venetian dialect on Venetian geography is pervasive but also reciprocal. Venice’s landscape and architecture have had a profound effect on language which is manifest in everyday conversation. The common expression andemo bever un’ombra (‘let’s go for a drink’) comes from the tradition of breaking up the morning or afternoon work by drinking a glass of wine while sitting in the shade (ombra) of the Campanile in St. Mark’s. Likewise, the standard Venetian reply to a request for directions is un ponte e ’na cae (‘over the bridge and down the calle’) which tells you more about the somewhat optimistic perception of distance of the natives and their confidence in navigating shortcuts than about how to reach your destination.
The confidence and pride of the Venetian speaker is very unusual in contemporary Italy, where dialect speaking is disappearing in favour of the regional standard and, especially in the younger generations, is associated with low education and social status. Venice’s unique identity as a world heritage site may have gone some way in fostering such confidence but its roots are most likely found in the glorious past of the Serenissima Republic. In the sixteenth century, at the height of the Republic’s economic power and military might, Venetian was one of the most influential of the romance languages of Europe and was spoken right across the Eastern Mediterranean not only by merchants and traders but also by aristocrats and rulers, including famously the Ottoman Sultan. Some very distinguished linguists even suggest that had Venice prevailed against the European powers of the League of Cambrai between 1508 and 1515, Venetian and not literary Tuscan would have become the basis for contemporary Italian.
Although Venice lost and literary Tuscan won out as the model for written language, Venetian has remained an incredibly rich and influential language, especially in the spoken form. The most recent and comprehensive historical dictionary of Venetian, the result of decades of research in Venice and across the Mediterranean, offers a picture of sixteenth-century Venetian as a global language, transnational and hybridised, which by refusing the written codification of literary Tuscan remained flexible and open to the experiences and multiple voices of a cosmopolitan city of trade. And this is the language that we find in Venetian Renaissance comedy and later, in the eighteenth century, in Goldoni, where characters interact in multiple tongues, alternating the language of fishermen and aristocrats with stylised Tuscan, Spanish, mock-Turkish and Armenian. If Bax were writing now, instead of the early twentieth century, he may have to re-think the untranslatability of Venetian and see in the multi-layered and hybridised language of Goldoni a very striking parallel with the idioms of our cosmopolitan condition.
‘For the boatman as for the shopkeeper, the librarian and the civil servant, Venetian (often intermixed with Standard Italian) is still the principal medium of communication throughout the six historic districts (sestieri) of Venice and functions as a very powerful marker of identity in everyday life that distinguishes the natives (venessiani) from the non-Venetians (foresti, lit. woodlanders).’
Dr Cristina Marinetti is an Assistant Professor in Warwick’s Centre for Applied Linguistics and in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. She studied foreign languages at Ca’ Foscari – the University of Venice – and also has a PhD in Translation Studies from the University of Warwick. Cristina’s research interests include Italian and British theatre history, with a specialisation in Goldoni and the Commedia dell’Arte, and philosophical and cultural approaches to translation.
Dr. Cristina Marinetti
Centre for Applied Linguistics
C dot Marinetti at warwick dot ac dot uk