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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‘Mi have een Droom’, by Ramsey Nasr.

What Dutch might sound like in 2059.

Humankind is bound to change, and so are languages. Dante couldn’t almost believe to his own conclusions, whereas nowadays we simply get away with the fact that our grandparents used to speak differently than they themselves do now – let alone the earlier generations. The gap widens the farther we look back. Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr has taken up the challenge and has played with it. In a very effective way, I’d dare to add. Mi have een droom (I have a dream) is set in Rotterdam, in 2059. It’s the monologue of a Rotterdammer who ponders upon the changes the city has gone through. What’s most interesting about this poem is the language Nasr has created anew blending colloquial Dutch with English, street slang (straattaal), imbued with the language of migrants, such as Arabic and Surinamese.

wullah, poetry poet, let mi takki you 1 ding: di trobbi hier is dit ben van me eigen now zo 66 jari & skerieus ben geen racist, aber alle josti op een stokki, uptodate, wats deze shit?

Nasr imagines what the language of the future looks and sounds like, on the basis of that linguistic freedom that typifies modern languages and experiments all the different possibilities that the Dutch he knows and overhears in the street can offer. The outcome is exceptional, and a nice, pretty job to listen to even if you are not familiar with the Dutch tongue. I fell in love Nasr’s own recite of his poem: the way he utters every single words, the way he moves his hands make it sound plausible, realistic even. He creates a language that works, because it gives voice to a real society that has changed the face and soul of our cities. The twofold Dutch-Palestinian identity of the poet might have a significant impact on the general ideas running in this particular work, but it doesn’t matter that much in the end. It’s the story of stories, the outburst of crowds speaking different languages and praying different gods. Nasr stitches these voices together – their sounds and tones, their imperfections and irreverence. This is the way society is going; language simply re-constructs itself following the same pattern. Is language actually impoverishing its forms and expressions, or has today’s language been enriched by the interference of the language of the ‘newcomers’?. The language Nasr invents is a breach in the linguistic borders as we know them, a wild fire wrapping everything up – or at least this is what is going to happen in 2059. For now, we just get the early sparks. Interview with Poet Laureate Ramsay Nasr (in Dutch) – the complete poem can be found on the last page.

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Roman days – or ‘to be out of element’.

To be out of element’ is an idiomatic phrase that conveys a sense of estrangement from a situation, a conversation, a determined environment. In simpler words, it’s that unpleasant feeling that you don’t fit in or belong.

Identity, by Megan Elizabethh (

Identity, by Megan Elizabethh (

This is the price to pay when you decide to be an exchange student in your native country – and if I have to be honest, I was more than prepared to see those frowns and bewildered faces people usually pull after I tell them my story. However, there is something I have found myself totally unprepared for. Many people have taken up the habit to associate my odd and unsettling situation with an automatically acquired foreignness. As I live and study in the UK, as I am in Rome for one year only as an exchange student, they assume that I am now ‘a foreigner’, I’m ‘English’, because, apparently, I speak like a foreigner, too (so I’ve been told). ‘You have an accent’, they say. My t’s have turned Anglo-Saxon, my intonation in questions goes up the English way, I say shorts, hobby, budget (all words that have entered Italian vocabulary) the British way, even if they come up in a conversation in Italian.

Some people may call it pretentiousness; others may call it an urge to estrange the self. And I somehow understand the last point. I reckon that my foreign-accent acquisition was an accelerated process on which I have worked painstakingly, nourished by a great desire to start everything up anew. But you can’t erase your past, nor can you pretend you have a different story. You end up in a limbo, between past and present. You were so eager to fit in the new society that you have detached yourself from the previous one too soon and you now belong to neither of them.

This is more or less what I am experiencing at the moment in Rome. I am Italian and act like one most of the times, but suddenly turn something else when it’s somehow convenient not to understand/speak Italian, and I have never felt as English as in these circumstances. Or I miss step-motherland, and build around me the illusion that I can recreate that particular dimension here in Italy.

That’s my sin: I always end up identifying myself with a specific ‘us’ in the wrong place. This identity chameleonism does not help my mental sanity either, and it also affects my relationship with others. It is very true that we are always someone else, depending on who’s looking at us. But before analysing how others see me, I still need to figure out what and where I want to be myself. Starting, for instance, from the language I want to use when I think and dream.

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Multilingual cultures in translation.

Can minorities train translators to face the languages of the future?

In my humble opinion, the answer is yes.

Scots may have resolved that they actually do #bettertogether, but what about the rest of European populations ‘at the margins’? Catalonia is looking into a potential referendum to break free from the

‘We are one nation’.

Spanish-Castilian sovereignty. Minorities across Europe see Scotland as a model to follow, a wise martyr determined to drop out of a system on the edge of a breakdown. And if we have to be honest, these guys have a point. This interconnected society we have come up with needs to be re-elaborated, because it promises but uncertainty. I remember to have read somewhere that all what the Scots are objecting to is what triggers increasing discontent in the rest of the UK as well. Then, is division actually the best route to take? Cultural studies on minorities are sometimes frowned upon, mainly because promoting the preservation of such cultures may echo an enclosed, narrow-minded society willing to step back from a new system. A new system that is, conversely, unwinding across borders.

Whilst working on a research project on the translation of Sardinian literature, I have resolved that this study can lead to two main general approaches, and it is completely liable to how the researcher takes up the matter. If the preservation of minorities is entirely addressed to perpetuate division and discourages dialogue, any attempt of preservation is very unlikely to be welcomed by the wider community.  Research should lead forward, research entails progress. In the present international scenario specifically, division means ‘going back’.

Personally, I do not see the preservation of minority languages as a political strategy to ignite the spirits of independentist parties. Like any other form of cultural protection, it should be done for the sake of our own identity and relationship with our past. It should be done because we desperately need to understand thoroughly the meaning of integration and intercultural understanding. And if we need to find the material earnings of these preservation campaigns (because this is how things work in the 21st century), I might have an idea.

Please, watch this video:

It might steal a big smile off you. However, the boring linguist that I am has noticed that although most of these guys here start talking to their parents in English, the conversation carries on in the family’s native language – or even more interestingly, it’s completely bilingual. Leaving what this video is about aside for one moment, these moments of family intimacy portray the reality of millions of people out there who have a foot in their native country and another in the country where they live: they are multilingual and speak hybrid languages that mix up one another. This society of migrants and travellers is now so large and established that its influence is making an impact on the world cultural production – they write books and poems, which have a remarkable success, too. This production can be a very interesting subject of study, as long as we can all have access to it.


That’s the reason translation is there for.

At this point, we want to raise a question – how can hybridity be translated?

A starts a conversation in English. B replies in Hindi. A keeps using English, but uses words in Hindi time to time.

This conversation between A and B is in a novel that will be soon translated into French. How can you keep the hybrid language, how can you tell a French reader how that conversation is actually taking place, keeping its naturalness and perfect combination of languages?

[T]he receptors of a translation should comprehend the translated text to such an extent that they can understand how the original receptors must have understood the original text”.  (Nida)

There is, of course, no straightforward answer. What’s at stake is not only an attempt to find the right lexicon or to play with a new, original jargon. There are indeed more factors including context, individual perceptions of language and identity, background stories of the words chosen by the individual speakers. Is a foreign language able to breach through this thick wall of sounds and memories?

There is no clear answer. But there is a model that translator may follow: methodologies of translating minority cultures within their respective national contexts. The radically opposite phenomenon of international mobility represents nonetheless a possible model to translate intercultural hybridity. Both these expressions of modern society can be considered as marginal. People on the move are at the margin of society as we traditionally conceived it, in a criss-cross of states, borders and passports; minorities are at the margins of the countries to which they officially belong, where their local culture is constantly subjected to the influence of the ‘national’ macro-culture and language. This kind of interaction especially gives light to a rather similar form of hybridity that sees the cross-over of two different cultures and languages and the subsequent creation of a hybrid culture that draws from both.

Translations of this kind of linguistic phenomenon are taking place already. The translation of literature in regional Italian is a striking example. Regional Italian is a mix of standard Italian and regional variants (dialects or what are formally considered languages) that resents heavily of calques translated literally or phonetically or morphologically, thus breaking that linguistic barrier between the national and the local. Sardinian literary production for instance is a very unique linguistic phenomenon as the prose of the novels

Italian linguistic diversity.

written on the islands mirrors the hybrid language Sardinians use on a daily basis. Translators have written articles about how they personally have taken up the challenge, how they have played with words and how they have challenged the target language in order to convey the same images and expressions present in the original text.

Can such a nationally-rooted hybridity influence international hybridity (= transnationalisation)? Should translator pay more attention in the local language, and find different patterns of linguistic specialisation? This is the opportunity minority have to demonstrate that marginal does not mean division. The local can help us understand the global, and vice versa. And who knows, perhaps governments will find themselves at the bottom of the line of a Domino game and this interaction going on under their nose will call for more attention and understanding of these margins… maybe even before they ask for an independence referendum.

Blog post smart art

 Foreign texts that are stylistically innovative invite the English-language translator to create sociolects striated with various dialects, registers and styles, inventing a collective assemblage that questions the seeming unity of standard English. (Venuti 1998: 11)

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B for Bilingualism

Aneta Pavlenkos’s Emotions and Multilingualism is at the moment the linguistics book that is keeping me company on my daily journeys to campus. Or while I’m working at the Gallery, during some occasional dead shift. I must admit I have just started it, therefore it’s very likely that my next articles will be affected by the amazing discoveries I will make every now and then, page after page.

Still, since the very beginning I have come across a bunch of particularly interesting points. Including a parenthesis on names and definition, a hodgepodge of letters and numbers, like a series of equations. In short, we have L1 (Language 1) i.e. the language acquired first, regardless the individual’s competence, at any phase of their life. It may happen that that this individual hasn’t been speaking L1 for decades. The latter is actually a very specific case, as generally L1 corresponds to one’s mother-tongue. L2, L3 and L4 (and so on) come afterwards, i.e. other languages acquired in everyday life contexts, NOT in educational environment. In the latter case, Second Language Acquisition scholars speak about FL, Foreign Language. Most recent studies have redetermined the linguistic vocabulary, as it now takes into account discussions on bilingualism o multilingualism; the phrase L2 user sounds by far more politically correct than ‘non-native speaker’. But hang on, the best is yet to come.

At university I have met quite a few multilingual mates whose ‘case’ were to me pretty bizarre. They designate a certain language as L1, nonetheless their competence is, grammar- or phonetics-wise, much higher in their L2. How come? I ask myself.  Is it then possible to speak about mother-tongues, even though their grammar knowledge is clearly weaker if compared with their mastery of L2?

Case n. 1.  (The awkward moment when your friends turn into ‘cases’)

L1: Dutch ; L2 English ; L3: German ; FL1: Spanish FL2: Chinese ; FL3: French

Case n. 2.

L1: Dhivehi ; L2 English ; FL1: French ; FL2: Arabic

These two cases are quite impressive, associated by a common element: the prevalence of L2 over L1 – unusual form of dominant bilingualism. My reaction might seem rather superficial yet – I reiterate – I really couldn’t comprehend the oddity. I was probably used to an Italian educational reality, where the system stresses on a cultural monolingualism, accompanied (sporadically) by a tentative pragmatic bilingualism driven by trade necessity. The possible scenario where one’s mother-tongue is almost ousted by the second-comer seems to be bizarre as unfair. Why does this happen? Easy, I tend to think from a merely monolingual point of view, an approach that can also be observed in Chomsky’s linguistics theories. I will quote a relevant passage:

Traditionally, linguistics has treated L1 competence of individual speakers as a stable property, meaning that once the speaker’s language system has ‘matured’, linguistic competence would no longer be subject to change. […] (According to MacWhinney) once a local brain area “has been committed, it then begins to accept input data that lead toward a fine-tuning of the activation weights governing processing. If a second language is then to be imposed upon this pre-existing neural structure, it would directly interfere with the established set of weights. In fact, the use of transfer in second language learning allows the learner to avoid such catastrophic interference of L2 back upon L1.

As stated later on in Pavlenko’s argument, recent studies have revolutionised the way people conceptualise bilingualism. Competence in L2 is actually a ‘much more dynamic process, subject to the influence of L1 at to its attrition on L2″. Therefore this argument modernises the idea of ‘native speaker’ breaking the frames of mind hitherto imposed by traditional linguistics. We are now encouraged to think outside the box, i.e. outside our inherently monolingual mindset. We are used to think about languages as separated entities, generally detached from one another (although we still appreciate the interconnection between them). Nevertheless this perspective analyses language adding a more realistic analytical framework. I found particularly interesting how creativity and creative writing made their way into the argument. Pavlenko mentions personalities like Joseph Conrad and Ha Jin, but really, there is no need to look into classic literature. Multilingualism enhances those abilities that are employed when shaping the language for creative reasons. Case 1 is a writer in every sense, case 2 is into journalism (and her articles are pretty good, to be fair). Ultimately, I am not saying that multilingualism creates an alternative ‘language dimension’ where different languages blend together. And I am not saying that L1 and L2 become a confusing mixture of the two either. Yet I believe that the interaction between L1 and L2 especially boosts the ability to engage with language in a more diverse spectrum of aspects.

Again, L1 shapes language competences primarily, L2 completes the work. And the final outcome may result in a particularly impressive mastery of the language, backed up by a previously existing language knowledge which, eventually, works as strengthening factor. This is a much more positive perspective of the issue, where L2 is considered an ‘expansion’ rather than a deficit. Language purists tend to look at the phenomenon as the death of L1, consequently giving L2 a negative, destructive connotation. But fortunately, this is not how things really work.

Nähdään pian!

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