Deep in the Apennine mountains of southern Italy, in a region that you’ve probably never heard of, at a university you’ve probably never heard of, there’s small research institute that’s tasked with the enormous mission of documenting and preserving the dozens of local languages spoken in the region of Basilicata.
There were once hundreds of local languages—called “dialects”—throughout the Italian peninsula and its surrounding islands. Every isolated mountaintop village, every countryside hamlet had their own language that reflect their unique history of political influence, contact with foreign invaders, and culture. But ever since the Unification of Italy in 1861, the Italian state has promoted literacy rates in standard Italy to the great expense of Italy’s dialects. Today, these dialects are critically endangered, with only the eldest members of each community possessing a memory of these languages as they existed before television brought standard Italian into every household. Today, these precious dialects are only protected by institutions like the International Center for Dialectology at the University of Basilicata. But this precious research institute is about to have its budget cut.
Though barely more than a single office within the School for Human Sciences, the International Center for Dialectology (ICD) has, for the last thirteen years produced an impressive body of work, documenting, studying, and promoting the dialects of Basilicata. Historically one of the poorest and most rural regions of Italy, Basilicata is also home to some of the most unique Italian languages, made famous by the German linguists Gerard Rohlfs and Heinrich Lausberg who were fascinated with the archaic forms they found there. Today, Basilicata is like many other Italian regions, trying to hold on to its traditions and cultures while assimilating to the pressures of a global, neoliberal economy. The dialects of Basilicata are slowly being forgotten, and if they are allowed to disappear altogether, they will take with them an invaluable piece of a community’s history and culture.
Initially called the Atlante Linguistico della Basilicata (A.L.Ba – “the Linguistic Map of Basilicata”), the ICD has in its short life produced a number of indispensable resources, as well as hosting international conventions and schools to promote the field of Italian dialectology. They’ve created four volumes of linguistic maps, plotting the lexical variations from village to village throughout the entirety of the region of Basilicata. They’ve even created a common alphabet for the region’s languages, which until recently have been primarily oral traditions with limited and awkward orthographic systems. Perhaps most importantly, the ICD has trained a cohort of linguists who could continue this indispensable work into the future.
But this new generation of linguists will have to find work elsewhere if the region of Basilicata decides to cut the center’s funding in the coming weeks. In these times of great hardship, brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the impulse to tighten one’s belt is understandable. But closing the ICD could result in the irrecoverable loss of Basilicata’s dialects. In many communities, the last fluent dialect speakers are in their 90’s, making the work of the ICD an urgent priority.
Please join us in raising our voices to tell the Governor Vito Bardi and the regional Council of Basilicata that the International Center for Dialectology must be made a funding priority.
Sign our petition here.