The origin and evolution of the Venetian dialect

23 August 2021

Venice, 24th June 2021 – It is a dialect, although for centuries it has been defined as a language, able to influence the modern Italian language with several words which are still used today. This is what Lorenzo Tomasin, philologist of Venetian origins and professor of “History of the Italian language and Romance Philology” at the University of Lausanne, published in several books and articles on the linguistic history of the Veneto and its creators. Tomasin also taught at Cà Foscari University of Venice, at Bocconi University in Milan and at the University of Ferrara. He was a research fellow at the Scuola Normale in Pisa and visiting scholar at the University of California. For the 1600 years of Venice celebration, Tomasin explains the origin and evolution of the venetian dialect, from the Serenissima trade exchanges, essential for its diffusion, to its enrichment with the introduction of Turkish, Arab and Greek words.

Professor, is the Venetian a dialect or a language?

Linguists believe that every dialect is a language. The distinction between a dialect and a language is not related to any scientific method and it is mainly based on social and historical criteria, which can indeed be defined as rather controversial. We can say that today the Venetian is a dialect – as any other languages spoken in a specific urban area- , although for centuries it was considered as a proper language, used both for spoken and written communications, fully recognizable and with a flourishing literature.

How does the Venetian differ from all the other dialects spoken within the venetian territories?

Differences do exist at any level, from phonetics and morphology to the vocabulary, so basically when it comes to choosing whether to use this word or that word. Through centuries the Venetian – a variety defined as prestigious within the area that today we call Veneto – strongly influenced the languages spoken in the mainland, which gradually became more and more similar to the one defined as Dominant. For centuries, speaking Venetian was almost considered as a social obligation, especially in culturally rich environments of the mainland. In the last century, the dynamic of influence of the language and its power balance, slightly changed. This change was particularly influenced by the sharp demographic decline in the city centre of Venice and by the thriving variety of several mainland dialects. Differences still exist and are often relevant: anyone in Venice can recognize a mainland speaker just from his speaking tone. The fact that differences still exist, is a sign of the great richness and vitality that venetian dialects still possess. Not everywhere things work this way.

How much did the Venetian influenced other dialects?

The Venetian influenced mainland dialects to the core. Let’s make an example: the way in which the letter “l” is pronounced – which varies from the modern Italian pronunciation- in words such as “gondola” or “bala”, is different from the way in which the same letter is pronounced in words such as “beo” (bello, which means nice) and “cae” (calle, which is the typical road or street of Venice). This can be considered as an influence of the variety of Venetian spoken within the city centre over the one previously spoken in the mainland. Nevertheless, mainland dialects made some changes with respect to the original language used within the lagoon. An ancient version of the use of “è” (which means is), whose origin was very likely to be venetian, is “xè”. Later, Venice influenced other dialects in the nearby as well as a great part of italian dialects – basically the Italian language – with a great number of words, such as: “arsenale” (armoury), “broglio” (fraud), “facchino” (porter) “fifa” (fear), “gazzetta” (gazette), “lazzaretto”, “pantalone” (trousers), “pantegana” (usually a rather big mouse living by the canals), “pistacchio” (pistachio), “pettegolezzo” (gossip), “zenzero” (ginger) and “giocattolo” (toy)…

Are there people in foreign countries that, due to the conquests of the Serenissima, still speak some words of Venetian or at least understand part of it?

On the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea the Venetian, which used to be spoken for centuries, is still understood. Uncertain, and definitely rare, are the chances of survival of this language on the islands of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Sea, areas with which the Serenissima had, for centuries, a long lasting bond. Nevertheless, cultural memory is the one that maintains such a precious bond and is, as in this case, much more relevant than the linguistic one.

How much trade expansion influenced the diffusion of the Venetian?

Venice, as the great historian Frederic Lane wrote, can be compared to a great holding, a multinational, whose board of directors was the senate (called as “Consiglio dei Pregadi” at the time) and which branches were located through the whole Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and the North Seas. Trade was the raison d'être of the Repubblica, which characterized its political, economic, and social structure. Therefore, trade exchanges were essential for the diffusion of the Venetian beyond its original borders. Words related to trade and financial activities could also be added to the list provided in the previous paragraph: “bancogiro” or “ditta” which literal meaning is named or titled (company), underlines the great diffusion and undisputed prestige that Venice and its citizens had always enjoyed, especially in relation to the knowledge they had on goods and money and, not to mention, their expertise in management. Not surprisingly, it was in the 1800s – the Repubblica Serenissima had already fallen - that the establishment of Cà Foscari University of Venice began. At the beginning, a Scuola Superiore di Commercio was established and later, in the 1900s, a Languages Department was also added. This choice could be translated into the will to underline the unbreakable bond between trade and international languages, which is one of the main features of Venetian culture.

How was the evolutionary process of the language from the ages of the Serenissima to the present days?

From the structural standpoint – which included the general grammar rules – the Venetian is one of the most settled dialects in the whole country: its history was not influenced by the great changes that, due to the demographic shock and other sudden historical events, deeply influenced other Italian dialects through the Medieval and Modern times. With some caution and uncertainty, we could dare to claim that, by travelling back in time to the Venice of Marco Polo, we could possibly understand the Medieval dialect and consequently be understood whilst speaking our dialect. The Venetian history is very rich since in every new era, its role was enlarged by including new words. Not only literature, but also social life and economy shaped this language, not to mention the great influence that other languages – with which the Serenissima got in touch - had on it. Through centuries the Venetian progressively enriched with Greek words (such as “squero” meaning the shipyard), Turkish words (such as “caicio” a specific kind of lifeboat), French words (among the most recent: “sortù” a specific kind of old-fashioned coat), German words (such as “bezi” meaning money) and Arab words (“bagigi” meaning peanut, a word which has been adapted to the modern Italian). These are words that we are trying to list within a Venetian historical-etymological Vocabulary. As a matter of fact, in December a preview containing a little journal (issued by the Venetian publishing house Lineadacqua) was published. Indeed, a new little volume entirely dedicated to swearing words and insults – which are the words that readers go find whenever they open a dictionary - is about to be published.