Language. Mobility. Environment.

Exploring Venice (i.e. a sneak peek into a linguist’s travel journal)

VeneziaVenice does not look real’.

This rather obscure sentence inaugurates my travel journal, a gem from last Christmas’s haul. November 2014 pinpoints the end of a dull existence devoid of a full Venetian experience. Since then, I have hopelessly fallen in love. It was late evening and Venice’s street lights do not really light up the darkness, so everything – the canals, the buildings – looked vague, unreal.

Hang on, did I say street lights? HA! Well, that was silly wasn’t it?

IMG_2317This is exactly what makes Venice so captivating – and disorientating. We grow up with a very simple idea of the urban space – houses, schools, hospitals, parks. All interconnected by a thick web of roads. Venice challenges that idea, re-conceptualises how a city can be made functional. And like commonly conceived urban spaces depend on roads, so Venice depends on canals: ambulances and taxis are boats, which means that the mailman and the dustman have their own boats, too.

The atypical situation that typifies Venice has obviously affected the language spoken in the city. And I am not speaking necessarily of the Venetian language itself – all languages spoken within the Venetian lagoon (be it Italian, English or Chinese) somehow change as they breach into the Venetian alternative universe. The reason is simple: you wouldn’t say such things as ‘I am parking my car’, ‘you need to cross the road’, ‘let’s get to the other side even though there’s no pedestrian crossing’. These expressions do not make any sense in Venice and language, as a result, is forced to re-shape itself due to geographical necessity.

Throughout the centuries, the Venetian language has mirrored the maritime and mercantile spirit of its people. Technical jargon has often spilt over everyday language, so a carabera, originally a storehouse, is today a very messy house. And when you wander about doing nothing, or are not be able to walk straight (too many drinks, perhaps?) you’ll probably claim that you’re going a torzio (around, not straight) just like an ungoverned boat drifting away in the sea (that’s what that expression originally meant).

Nizioleto means 'small sheet' in Venetial language.

Nizioleto means ‘small sheet’ in Venetian language.

Venice is the administrative centre of Regione Veneto, which includes other well-known Shakespearian sites such as Padua and Verona. Veneto is also where dialetto veneto is spoken, a northern Italian evolution of the Latin language spoken there. In English we call ‘Venetian’ both the language spoken in the macro-area of Veneto and the local variant spoken in Venice (veneziano or veneto lagunare), but locals tend to highlight the presence of a conspicuous number of break points. Regardless of their differences, the lingua veneta is considered a linguistic group per se of the northern Italian dialects, mainly characterised by flat vowels and the lack of double consonants (conversely, a peculiarity of Italian). The last point in particular was at the core of a linguistic debate raised after the restoration of Venice’s nizioleti, i.e. the old ‘road’ signs painted on the buildings’ walls (a bit like cheap frescoes). In 2013, what appears to be a local language activist has blackened out the extra consonants in some of the signs that had been recently restored. Sottoportego della Madonetta, with that unnatural –tt-, was probably not only seen very out of place but also as a threatening influence of the national language over the local variant.

One R is better than two.

One R is better than two.

The nizioleti represent an element that help reconstruct the history of Venice: they tell us what happened in that particular calle in the past, be it a fish market or a brothel, and they are an interesting record of written language. The nizioleti were in fact taken into account for the GVU project (Grafia Veneta Unitaria, or Common Venetian Spelling) – carried out by a group of linguists and experts, the GVU project tries to respond to that urge to preserve the local language by providing a standardised writing system. This would supposedly ease the conservation of its written records and a more effective implementation of the local language teaching into the school curriculum. Expectedly, many praise the effort, many others turn up their nose.



Venice speaks the veneto lagunare, or lagoon venetian. This linguistic area includes main Venice, Murano and Burano, Lido, Chioggia and Caorle. The Burano variant is said to be the closest to the language commonly spoken in Venice in the XVII century. What else would you expect from a tiny, colourful island that takes 40 minutes to reach on a water bus?

'El principe picinin' - The little prince translated into Venetian.

‘El principe picinin’ – The little prince translated into Venetian.

Fortunately, in spite of the generally opposite global trend, the lingua veneziana is not dramatically endangered. A recent survey included in a dissertation project  has reported that the younger generations frequently speak veneziano, and that the younger speakers are intentioned to hand down the knowledge of the local language to their descendants. If this corresponds to reality, does the Venetian case represent a model that should be followed and can it be followed? Or is it just a unique case that lives on the glories of its past?

For more info on Venetian toponyms (in Italian):

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Invisible cities.

The paradox of tourism lies behind the secretive re-conceptualisation of a place’s identity, bound to the exclusive perspective of who is visiting. Each of us approaches space differently, and each of us shares a specific relationship with those places where our life unfolds. Airports, for example, mean both arrivals and departures, reconciliations and goodbyes. Each traveller looks at the airport from their own perspective, so as each member of the staff relates to the spaces inside the airport differently from one another.

CartolinaTourism corresponds to an avalanche of identities projected onto a single place, visited by people who carry with them the most interesting stories. And tourism challenges also identities and compels them to conform to a pre-given standard that wants to sell before it wants to live. What happens then to the local spirit, the identity projected by those who work there, live there, eat there every day? What hides behind the flawless façade that the industry of tourism has framed in a photoshopped postcard?

Every time you step in a new city, you are entering a multi-layered dimension in which different varieties of the same city occupy the same geographical space. The eye must be trained to spot the multitude of signs that call for this concealed co-existence. And these signs will tell you the true stories of the city, those who cannot be found in guidebooks and airline companies’ magazines. Take Rome, for example. The eternal city, the dawn of civilisation: Colosseum, Piazza Navona, the Ara Pacis, Trevi Fountain. This is the timeless idea of Rome, carved in its ancient walls. But it does not portray faithfully what Rome is today.

I think I have ended up in the most controversial, multi-faceted and enigmatic city in Europe. There is so much to explore one could spend a lifetime and still that would not be enough to grasp the immensity of Rome. An immensity that is replicated in a variety of copies and sub-copies of reality unfolding as ‘invisible cities’ piled up on one another. The cat shelter in Largo Argentina, right in the middle of ancient Roman ruins; the 500 hundred women painted in San Lorenzo, and Termini station – which is a magic, labyrinthine portal to everywhere in the world.

Cats among old Roman ruins.

Cats among old Roman ruins.

The 500 women in San Lorenzo.

The 500 women in San Lorenzo.

Termini Train Station.

Termini Train Station.

“Travelling must be considered as a continuation of life, rather than an interruption. The contrast between ugly and beautiful, majestic monuments and old warehouses falling apart, is what encompasses a form of beauty that is closer to reality”.

I am on the tram now, on my way home. The people looking at each other with resignation – because we all look like canned sardines in the most miserable-looking tram I have ever seen in my life – are recounting the true story of one of the most visited cities in the world. They teach me that the expectations publicised in tourist guides are fake masks, because they sell an incomplete image of Rome, of the world, of life. No one really wants to visit the aseptic room of a hospital. Travelling must be considered as a continuation of life, rather than an interruption. The contrast between ugly and beautiful, majestic monuments and old warehouses falling apart, is what encompasses a form of beauty that is closer to reality. Rome is a metaphor of life, and this realisation is a gift I will keep with me every time I am outside, looking up and admiring the stripes of blue sky between the Roman stunning palazzi and those ugly apartment blocks.

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