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Par excellence: italiano popolare in the 21st century

Par excellence: italiano popolare in the 21st century 1. Introduction: research questions and objectives This project deals with two sociolinguistic issues that have particularly challenged researchers in recent years. On a broader and theoretical sociolinguistic level, this project contributes to the current debate that centers around the notion of ‘language variety”. On a descriptive and empirical level, it wants to contribute to a strongly debated issue in Italian sociolinguistics, viz. the definition and description of what is called ‘italiano popolare’. Thee descriptive and empirical part serves as a starting point to address the theoretical sociolinguistic issue. This research is conducted using quantitative corpus-based tools that have already been useful to demonstrate the existence of language varieties across Europe (see for examples Ghyselen & De Vogelaer 2018, Villena Ponsoda & Vida Castro 2020, Cerruti & Vietti 2002). In the next two sections, we will briefly discuss the background of the two (theoretical and descriptive) issues. 1.1. The notion of language variety In western sociolinguistic literature, there is agreement on what a language variety is, namely «a sub-set of formal and/or substantial features which correlates with a particular type of socio-situational features» (Catford 1965: 84) that, in order to be recognized as such, requires «the co-occurrence of certain linguistic features with certain social features of speakers and/or usage situations» (Berruto 2012[1987]: 129, my translation). In the last few years, new waves in variationist studies have strongly questioned the notion of language variety, which according to several scholars constitutes an abstract, unempirical construct, produced by the «dominant postcolonial ideology» (for a discussion, see Berruto 2018, my translation). Such a criticism can in part be understandable, considering that many variationist works have attempted to give an aprioristic description of what a language variety is by relying on a top-down method of inquiry. Nevertheless, this limit is circumvented in studies that offer increasing attention to the implementation of quantitative methodological tools that allow to analyse language variation with a bottom-up approach, the very same approach which will characterize this PhD project. In this way, it will be possible to attempt to answer one of the questions listed above: «how can we outline with scientific accuracy what a language variety is?». There is already good and established work ground from which to start. We can take it for granted that we can imagine a language space as a multidimensional continuum in which geographic, situational and social varieties are located and «though not clearly-cut separated from other varieties, [they are] identified by a particular frequency of certain variants, by the co-occurrence of several features and possibly by some diagnostic traits, which appear in that variety only» (Berruto 2010: 236, to which one can also refer for a valid schematic representation). Thus, even if its borders may be fuzzy, a linguistic variety can be identified with a certain confidence thanks to the «empirical study of the systematic co-occurrence of groups of linguistic features in the context of external variables» (Ghyselen & De Vogelaer 2018: 4). The issue has been studied also from the point of view of perception of speakers, but this approach seems to lack the ability to describe «processes which have been fruitfully investigated in quantitative variationist research» (Guy & Hinskens 2016: 3). Covariationist approach, instead, allows to graphically depict language variation with statistical analysis tools which can return representative results for the entire linguistic community that makes use of the variety under investigation. For what concerns the Italian situation, the “variety problem” has involved with particular interest the language variety known as italiano popolare, viz. the kind of Italian distant from the standard norm, spoken by the low-educated speakers. From a certain perspective, in fact, it would be reasonable to say that the very same idea of a community of low-educated speakers – and the variety they speak – no longer exists in Italy. However, by relying on empirical data, this assumption seems to be untrue, or at least in need to be proved. Thus, the other main question to which this PhD project wants to answer is whether italiano popolare has really disappeared from the radars of the Italian repertory or if it still resists in some form. In order to answer both questions, we will make use of quantitative variationist sociolinguistic analysis tools. 1.2. Why study italiano popolare? The state of the art Since the 1960s, Italian linguistics literature has adopted the term italiano popolare (see De Mauro 1970; Cortelazzo 1972) to describe the only available variety to speakers who were born and raised in a purely or strictly dialectal social context and had not gained a high level of education. Compared to the standard norm, this was described as an “imperfect”, diastratically-marked and socially ‘low’ Italian. A fifty-years long socio-linguistic-cultural change process, resulting in the de-dialectalization of standard Italian (Cerruti 2017), also meant a smaller number of semi-cultivated / low-educated / low-cultured (these definitions are interchangeable) speakers and the rearrangement of the Italian linguistic repertory. This led some scholars to raise some doubts on the survival of italiano popolare in the 21st century (among others, Lepschy 2002). The main point of these authors was: if the number of semi-cultivated speakers is now nearly close to irrelevance, does italiano popolare still exist? The very same words – esiste ancora l’italiano popolare? – were taken up by Gaetano Berruto for a paper (2014) where the Author eventually solved the «basic misunderstanding» at the basis of the question: namely, considering all the traits of this variety as being «generically sub-standard, occurring in all spontaneous and unsupervised spoken varieties of language» (Berruto 2014: 287, my translation). Indeed, even if a physiological downsizing of italiano popolare happened, the persistence of some socio-economic differences makes it possible to isolate linguistics traits used only (or mostly) by groups of speakers belonging to disadvantaged social classes. Whether the variety they speak can be considered popolare or not, it is worth being studied. Also, one must consider that in the past, due to well-known technical limitations, studies on italiano popolare have drawn their conclusions «predominantly from [the analysis of] written texts» (D’Achille 2010: 724, my translation). The importance of broadening the spectrum of inquiry on spoken corpora has been pointed out (see Berruto 2014: 286), and some recent works have shed a first light on the traits that characterize the contemporary speech of elder (Guerini 2016, ed.) and young (Ballarè, Cerruti & Goria 2018) low-educated speakers. Following this path, for my MA thesis I analysed with a qualitative approach the speech of thirteen speakers under the age of 30 who didn’t get a bachelor’s degree, all living in the westernmost part of Abruzzo (Italy) historically known as Marsica. To conduct the analysis, I gathered via semi-structured interviews nine hours of spoken materials that now constitute a corpus called Nec Sine (available on Sketch Engine, on request). The results of the study show that, although education doesn’t seem to be the main factor in determining the linguistic behaviour of the investigated group, it still plays a role. Indeed, beside the predictable outcome that speakers showing lowest levels of education tend to produce a higher number of sub-standard traits, it appears that the simple fact of having attended only one year of university classes has a considerable influence on their linguistic production. The latter aspect has been then analysed with a quantitative approach in Santilli (submitted for publication) with the help of the #LancsBox suite (Brezina 2018). Better understanding the “physiognomy” of contemporary italiano popolare not only will allow us to determine to what extent it can be considered an obsolescent variety. It will also compel the scientific community to start a serious and bias-free debate on the existence of social low varieties in an age when discrepancies coming from different socio-cultural backgrounds are vaguer than in the past. This project will have to provide answers, but also raise new questions: if italiano popolare no longer exists, what is the language variety of those who hadn’t the chance to access university education? How important is nowadays the independent variable 'type of higher education' in variationist studies? The question is far from being marginal: underestimating its scope could fuel the risk is to downgrade low diastratic varieties to mere situational varieties, i.e., language varieties which are available to anyone independently from their social background. In doing so, however, the important difference that separates the possibility of high educated speakers to use low register at their will from the limitation of low educated speakers to access more prestigious varieties would be erased, and this is something sociolinguists cannot allow to happen. 2. Methodology of the project The main aim of the project is to give a description of contemporary italiano popolare. The methodology to do that can be summarized in three main tasks. 2.1. Defining the traits of italiano popolare Literature agrees on the fact that nowadays italiano popolare shares a vast number of traits with other varieties and registers of Italian; nevertheless, it should also show typical, idiovarietary features appearing only in the speech of semi-cultivated speakers. Hence, a preparatory step of the project will be to define – for some of these traits – the set of sub-standard variants as opposed to the standard ones. Part of this work as already been done for example in Marzo (2015) and Berruto (2016). In these works, the occurrence of sub-standard and standard variants for specific morphosyntactic traits has been analysed to demonstrate if some kind of diastratic variation still exists among speakers. Some of these traits are: the use of the ‘polivalent’ relativizer che ‘that’, the overextension of datival clitics, the formation of conditional sentences, just to quote few. This project wants to replicate these exploratory inquiries and aims to do that with the help of a wider number of corpora so that it will be possible to take into account all levels of variation. 2.2. Corpus selection and comparison of corpora of speakers from different geographic areas, social backgrounds and ages Data collected in the Nec Sine corpus have given a preliminary picture that needs to be better defined with a comprehensive quantitative survey. Thus, it is necessary to gather more data from semi-cultivated young Abruzzese speakers until a more representative number of informants is reached. Nec Sine, with new conversations transcribed and tagged, will be compared to other local, spoken corpora presenting data from low-educated speakers (e.g.: ParlaTO: www.corpusparlato.com, see Ballarè & Cerruti 2020). Interest will be put on the language of heritage speakers living in Belgium, whose production cannot reach the level of “correctness” of native and cultured speakers. For this reason, heritage Italian has been considered as a kind of italiano popolare, but a study on the correlation between linguistic simplification and independent variables (such as exposure to national language, gender and speakers’ generation) shows that italiano popolare and heritage Italian vary according to different patterns (Marzo 2015). One of the aims of the project will be to better understand how and to what extent the two variation patterns differ. It is also the case to make clearer how relevant linguistic differences between speakers with different social positions are in contemporary Italian society. In order to understand this, the Nec Sine corpus should be provided with a “young cultivated speakers” module, whose productions will be compared to the ones of KIP corpus (www.kiparla.it, see Mauri et al. 2019), the latter gathering speakers from Bologna and Turin. Other spoken corpora of Italian will be used as a mean of comparison, such as LIP (badip.uni-graz.at/en, www.parlaritaliano.it/index.php/it/volip) and C-ORAL-ROM (Cresti & Moneglia 2005). Moreover, given that italiano popolare is «always also a regional Italian» (Berruto 1983: 71, my translation) but not the other way around (see Regis 2017: 148), one has to understand how the variety of young semi-cultivated speakers differs from the one of the elder generation, whose utterances are strongly influenced by the dialectal background. Again, some resources already exist: the “elder speakers” module of the Nec Sine corpus (seven hours of spoken data, to be transcribed and tagged), part of the ParlaTO corpus, and the Parva corpus (Guerini 2016, ed.). 2.3. Analysing data with quantitative variationist analysis tools Finally, the gathered data will be analyzed through statistical survey tools, such as Rbrul (www.danielezrajohnson.com/rbrul.html) and PCA (www.factominer.free.fr/index.html) in order to give an empirical demonstration of the existence of italiano popolare (as it has been done, for example, for neo-standard Italian by Cerruti & Vietti 2022). The former will be useful to describe the patterns of variation of single phenomena of italiano popolare, the latter to investigate their co-occurrence relationships. Other tools, such as logistic regression, mixed effect logistic regression, and correlation calculator will come at hand to detect co-occurrences between linguistic and social features. I’m expecting to master all of these tools at the end of my academic year at KU Leuven. As for the methodology, we will not work top-down, but bottom-up. We will try to 'make the features speak', analyzing them without any aprioristic bias. In this way, using for example correspondence analysis, it will be possible to single out within a two-dimensional space clusters of typical traits and speakers, eventually identifying not only different varieties of Italian, but also different focal points of the sub-standard area. 3. Expected results Although it cannot be denied that today’s elder speakers may represent the last generation showing some sort of strongly recognizable italiano popolare (i.e. having an important number of exclusive and categorical traits), the panchronic nature of this variety (D’Achille 1994) invites us to study its aspect even in the second decade of the twenty-first century. As long as some social groups won’t have access to higher levels of education, low social varieties will presumably exist. In this sense, theoretically, italiano popolare is not only a well identifiable low variety on the diastratic axis, but «the low diastratic variety par excellence» (Berruto 2014: 280, my translation). It is necessary, thus, to understand how it articulates today especially in the younger semi cultivated generation, because their variety will plausibly be the only low diastratically marked variety of the future, even with a predictable contamination of traits from colloquial and neo-standard Italian. A study that gives an account of what italiano popolare is today can be useful to better understand those movements that, especially in the last half century, have concerned the repertory of Italian language. Even more importantly, it could give us a further tool to accomplish the demanding job of defining, with the support of empirical data, what a language variety is (for an admirable example, see Ghyselen, & De Vogelaer 2018). Bibliography Ballarè, Silvia & Cerruti, Massimo. 2020. ParlaTO: corpus del parlato di Torino. Bollettino dell’Atlante Linguistico Italiano 44. 171-196. Ballarè, Silvia, Cerruti, Massimo & Goria, Eugenio. 2019. 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Variation, identity and indexicality in southern Spanish. On the emergence of a new variety in urban Andalusia. In Cerruti, Massimo & Tsiplakou, Stavroula (eds.). Intermediate language varieties. Koinai and regional standards in Europe, 149-182. Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Date:23 Jun 2022 →  Today
Keywords:italiano popolare, quantitaive analysis, language variety, heritage italian, statistic analysis
Project type:PhD project