February 20, 2006

German and Italian and Ladin and...English?!...in Bolzano

In the Provincia Autonoma di Trento, the southern half of the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy, roughly everything is Italian and nothing is German, though one does find a few things like Krapfen in pastry shops and the occasional Imbiss sign on a little free-standing snack shop; we have not (yet) heard German spoken on the streets of Trento. But if you take the train north to Bolzano, less than an hour away, you cross the line between Trentino and the Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano-Alto Adige/Autonome Provinz Bozen-Südtirol, where things are very different.

First you notice the place names, which are bilingual -- on maps, either first Italian and then German (as on our big Michelin map of northern Italy, which even has the Italian name underlined in red) or first German and then Italian (as on our big Kompass map of Trentino and environs, but with no red emphasis on the German name). In the train stations themselves, the signs have Italian first, German second. If this signage is a residue of the old fascist government's efforts to Italianize the South Tirol by transplanting thousands of Italians there, it doesn't seem to have worked awfully well: on the streets of Bolzano we heard a lot of German and no Italian (though someone must have been speaking it somewhere there). In the official tourist office and all but one of the shops, people addressed us in German -- possibly, of course, because we look so extremely unfashionable as to be implausible Italian speakers. In the restaurant where we had lunch, the menu was as German (or rather Austrian) as the spoken language, though it was a bilingual German/Italian menu. We were especially struck by the local bookstore system: on one street there was an Italian bookstore, with no visible word of German in the place; a few doors away there was a German bookstore, with no visible (or audible) word of Italian.

Then there's Ladin. According to one of our maps, there are seven Ladin villages in Trentino, and there must be many more in Bolzano-Alto Adige; according to Ethnologue, there were 30,000-35,000 speakers of Ladin in Italy as of 1976. It has some official status in Bolzano-Alto Adige, because there are laws regarding Ladin education in Ladin villages; Ladin schools have been in operation for over thirty years, and the Uniun Generela di ladins dles Dolomites was founded in 1946. But a Ladin presence on signage in Bolzano, at least on the signs we saw in our brief visit to the city center, was confined to the exit sign on the railway platform, which was in German, Italian, and Ladin -- whose orthography is striking, for a Romance language, because of the umlauts over some of the e's.

Bolzano has a new university, with several highly successful departments, including Computer Science. And we heard yesterday from a computer-scientist friend in Trento that the official language of the university is...English. And yet some people claim that English is not taking over the world, at the expense of all those other really really interesting languages!

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 20, 2006 04:43 AM