Language and Identities: The Exceptional Normality of Italy

John J. Kinder


Language issues loom large in current debates on Italian identity/identities, indigenous minorities in Italy and, of course, immigration. While the context of language debates in early 21st century Italy presents new realities and challenges, the fundamental issues are the same as those originally defined by the first European language planner, Dante, and reworked by successive theorists. The debates turn on exclusions and inclusions, on levels of multiple identities, on understandings of otherness. It is no accident that language is at once as a provocation for debates on identity and a metaphor of those debates, for the tensions that run through the debates lie at the heart of language itself. All cultures have a narrative that explains diversity among languages and cultures, either as the result of a mistake or as divine punishment. The Biblical accounts of Creation, Babel and Pentecost provide the framework for European understandings of language diversity. These accounts capture the paradoxical nature of human language, which characterizes us a species and is a tool for building unity between persons and groups, but is, by its nature, always and inevitably an expression of diversity, in time and space. These contradictions are being played out in current language debates as emigration, return migration, internal migration and immigration elicit new constructions of ‘Italianness’, the literary canon and the social weight of the different varieties of language present on Italian soil and in Italian communities abroad.

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