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The Long Term Effects of Conflicted Territory

Archaeological sites in an Italian city

An undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania studied a little-known dialect in the Ciociaria region of Italy and its complex relationship between two dueling political powers, Rome and Naples. He hopes that his studies will serve as a model for languages worldwide facing similar obscurity, proving useful to "anyone interested in the long term effects of conflicted territory and shifting national boundaries."

Speaking an idiom markedly different from your home country’s standard language comes with challenges, but for speakers of many dialects these challenges are accompanied by a strong sense of cultural identity. However, just the opposite is true for speakers of a little-known dialect in the Ciociaria region of Italy, and this summer, University of Pennsylvania undergraduate Benjamin Finkel traveled there to find out why.

“This past spring I took professor Lillyrose Veneziano Broccia’s Italian History on Screen course, in which we investigated Italian culture over the past 2,000 years,” the sophomore from Jenkintown, Pa., says. “I quickly became fascinated with the means by which Italy’s dynamic history has contributed to its language. My research project was born out of the confluence of these dual historic and linguistic interests.”

Broccia, lecturer in the Italian studies department in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, says she is happy to see Finkel take the important question of identity, on which her course concentrated, “outside of the classroom and into the context of this exciting project.”

Finkel enrolled in the class, already harboring a fascination with the Comino Valley from a previous trip to Italy, where he learned that though many only experience the region as a corridor between Naples and Rome, “it is actually a territory that has passed between the control of those cities and their associated states for the past several hundred years. That’s what interested me at the beginning,” he says. “This is a place where you can see the history of the region in the culture, sometimes transforming within the space of miles.”

While his interest in examining “the effect of the shifting historic dominion over this one relatively small region in central Italy” was born there, the idea of doing this through linguistics was inspired by Broccia’s class.

Finkel compares the Ciociarian dialect to the Canadian mixture of English and French, with its complex relationship between two dueling political powers — in this case, Rome and Naples.

While the spread of the Roman and Neapolitan dialects in this region has been mapped by linguists, Finkel says, “the geographic representation of Ciociarian forms” has not, that is, not until his arrival in Italy this summer.

The central research question that led Finkel to Italy was whether “the nebulous nature of Ciociaria’s borders simply reflect a lack of historical self-identification in need of correction or a reality that Ciociaria is not a viable form for the region’s various cities to express their group identity.

“My research is the first that I’m aware of to consider the Ciociarian dialect from a geographic perspective in order to understand the boundaries of the region of Ciociaria,” he says.

Nearly every person he spoke to in the region was very clear on what these boundaries are; however, their individual opinions were in collective disagreement. This lack of a firm geographic identity is only to be expected, given its centuries-long history as a cultural melting pot, political prize and physically undefined region.

Moreover, this confusion gets to the heart of what drew Finkel here in the first place.

In his research proposal, he wrote that “the effect of this plurality of influence, combined with the region’s own inherent traditions, has made the shared language of the Comino Valley remarkably rich and fascinating. This diverse range of historical influence has helped to form Ciociaro into an intriguing and distinctive dialect with many unique and surprising characteristics that make it a compelling subject for academic investigation.”

Once there, it didn’t take long for Finkel to find that Ciociaro is even more complicated for Italians than it is for linguists.

Because of the trend towards a standardized Italian language, especially among younger Italians, he says, “Ciociaro is struggling to remain relevant in modern Italy.”

Many students he interviewed readily identified others as speaking Ciociaro but were less apt to admit to their own proficiency in it, preferring to associate themselves with standardized Italian, which Finkel says has become the dominant cultural voice since the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century.

Standardized Italian is omnipresent in modern television and other media, which, not coincidentally, also reinforces Ciociaro’s negative cultural connotations. Finkel says that many online recordings of the dialect are actually parodies, such as the practice of dubbing well-known TV commercials into Ciociaro for humorous effect.

However, Finkel also found people proud of their Ciociarian heritage and sometimes achieved this critical information in a way that only someone doing on-the-ground field work could, through happenstance.

“One time I was lost,” he recalls, “and was attempting to follow a winding mountain road to the hilltop village of Rocca d'Arce. When I passed a remote homestead, I decided to go ask for directions. My mind was far from any linguistic investigation; I was simply worried about finding my destination. To my delight, the family living there not only knew the way to Rocca d'Arce, but they were among the most enthusiastic proponents of Ciociaro I met during my whole trip.  It was really exciting seeing their positive outlook on the dialect.

“They considered Ciociaro an integral part of their culture and tradition and saw it as not just a dialect but a representation of who they are.  The mother is teaching her children to speak the dialect and wants to keep it alive.”

This glimmer of hope for its continuation led Finkel to believe that Ciociara may very well provide a viable identity for this fascinating region of Italy.

“There is definitely more to examine in Ciociara. One summer isn’t enough time to explore the full extent of a centuries-long linguistic evolution. But I hope that researchers, and more so the public, since it is already a focus of scholarly interest, will continue to value these dialects, both across Italy and around the globe.”

Broccia believes Finkel’s work will help secure the value of the dialect, saying it will “leave a lasting and meaningful impression on the people of the Ciociaria.”

Finkel sees his focus on this small, nebulous region of Italy as instructive on a larger scale, as well. His hope is that, as a model for the many dialects and languages around the world facing similar obscurity, his work “may ultimately prove useful to anyone interested in the long term effects of conflicted territory and shifting national boundaries.”

Information provided by the University of Pennsylvania.