The Languages of Campania

COVID-19 lockdown for those of us in the United States meant that pre-planned trips to Italy had to be postponed, collectively breaking the hearts of many Italian Americans who live for their summer trips back to their ancestral lands. While the lockdown, now slowly lifting, was difficult for many, for others it provided a time to make discoveries that they never would have otherwise. For me, that discovery was Neapolitan.

As an American of Campanian origin, I had always wanted to learn Neapolitan but never had the time for a wide variety of reasons. Thanks to my day job at the Italian American Podcast, I discovered Italki, an amazing web-based platform where students are connected with language teachers from all over the world. Before we even finished recording Episode 144: 10 Easy Steps to Becoming an Even Better Italian American While You’re Stuck at Home, I had signed up for my first Neapolitan lesson and haven’t looked back.

Neapolitan is the basis for all Southern Italian regional languages– contrary to popular belief, it is not named after the city of Naples, but after the Kingdom of Naples, which covered most of the area and of which the city was the capital. On October 14, 2008, the Region of Campania passed a law stating that the Neapolitan language was to be protected. Today, Neapolitan is spoken across most of Southern Italy, except for Southern Calabria (where the other half of my Italian origins is from), Southern Puglia, and Sicily. It is also spoken in a small part of Central Italy– the Province of Ascoli Piceno in the Marche.

The Neapolitan dialects are distributed throughout most of continental Southern Italy, historically united during the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, specifically southern Lazio (Gaeta and Sora districts), southern Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Basilicata, Campania (Naples), northern and central Puglia, and northernmost Calabria. The dialects are part of a varied dialect continuum, so the varieties in southern Lazio, Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Lucania and Calabria can typically be recognizable as regional groups of dialects. In western Abruzzo and Lazio the dialects give way to Central Italian dialects such as Romanesco. In central Calabria and southern Apulia, the dialects give way to the Sicilian language.

Largely due to massive southern Italian migration in the late 19th century and early 20th century, there are also numbers of Neapolitan speakers in Italian diaspora communities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. However, in the United States traditional Neapolitan has had considerable contact with English, and is significantly different from contemporary Neapolitan spoken in Naples. English words are often used in place of Neapolitan words, especially among second-generation speakers. On the other hand, the effect on Neapolitan in Italy has been similar due to displacement by Standard Italian.

The Irpinian dialect, or Irpino, is the dialect spoken in almost all of the comuni in the Province of Avellino. It is a variant of the Neapolitan language, but it does differ from pure Neapolitan in certain phrases, pronunciation and the use of definite articles. The dialect is also heavily influenced by its geographical neighbors. For example, in the northern area of Avellino, there are some undertones of the accent from Benevento. The dialects spoken in Ariano Irpino or the other towns close to the border with Puglia also have a distinct Pugliese tone.

Part of my decision to learn Neapolitan revolved around my desire to learn the Guardiese dialect. I have old audio recordings of my great-grandmother, Nicoletta Castellano Luongo (1882-1975) singing in Guardiese that I cannot truly decipher. As I am learning Neapolitan, I am beginning to understand Guardiese, as well as the other Irpinian dialects. Once I am able to understand these audio recordings, I will post them with a full translation!

Guardia dei Lombardi (AV), Italy

The Dizionario Dilettale della Lingua di Guardia dei Lombardi by the late Salvatore Boniello, my friend and mentor, provides a full grammatical lesson of the Guardiese dialect, as well as a complete dictionary of Guardiese words. For comparison’s sake, here is the verb “essere” (“to be”) in standard Italian:

io sono (I am)
tu sei (You are)
lui/lei è (he/ she/it is)
noi siamo (we are)
voi siete (you are)
loro sono (they are)

And here is “essere” in Neapolitan:

ije songo (also ije so’) (I am)
tu sì (You are)
isso/essa è (he/she/it is)
nuje simmo (we are)
vuje site (you are)
lloro songo (also lloro so’) (they are)

Finally, here is “essere” in Guardiese, where it becomes ess’ :

Old style:

iu eggiu (I am)
tu ei (you are)
iddru/iddra è (he/she/it is)
nui emmu (also nui immu) (we are)
vui iti (also vui eti)(you are)
lor’ (also quiddri) enn’ (they are)

New style:

iu so (I am)
tu si (you are)
iddru/iddra è (he/she/it is)
nui simmu (we are)
vui siti (you are)
lor’ (also quiddri) sonn’ (they are)

As you can see, especially with the new style, there is a pronounced influence of Neapolitan in the Guardiese dialect. The old version’s difference from Neapolitan can be attributed to the fact that Guardia sits 3,280 feet above sea level and was rather isolated from other Irpinian towns until the 20th century when other means of transportation began to grow in popularity. Guardia is also roughly an hour and a half from Naples by car, therefore the Neapolitan influence could gain a stronger foothold in modern times due to easier movement between the two municipalities.

Gesualdo (AV), Italy

Another example of the Irpinian dialects is that of Gesualdo, which is about 20 minutes away from Guardia. In the book, Vocaboli, Poesie, Canzoni, Strofette e Detti Popolari in Dialetto Gesualdino by Mario De Prisco, the Neapolitan influence on Gesualdino can also be seen. While the book does not contain a conjugation of the verb “essere” in Gesualdino, this rhyme shows the dialect’s ties to Neapolitan:

A Mezzogiorno
Sta sonanno miezzo iuorno;
la tavola attuorno, attuorno,
lo pano a felle a felle
lo vino a caffafelle.

In Italian:
A mezzogiorno
Sta suonando mezzo giorno;
La tavola attorno, attorno,
Il pane a fette a fette
Il vino in brocche.

In English:
At Noon
It is noon time
Everyone goes around the table
The bread is cut into pieces
The wine is in the decanters.

Hopefully this post will inspire someone to learn Neapolitan and then dive into their family’s own ancestral dialect or regional language! If you’re interested in lessons on Italki, click here for my referral link so you get $10 in free credits!

Second Place, Pennsylvania Press Club Contest, 2021

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi there, love the site, great to see the languages of my youth online (Ho abitato a Piedimonte Matese, ma oggi vivo alla Scozia) just one thing in the translation of ‘Sta suonando mezzo giorno;’ to english, it has a similar structure ‘It tolls noon’. La lingua inglese ha anche l’idea dell’ore siano significate da campanelli. 🙂
    Pardon my italian, have not written much for about 33 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ciao Giovanni! It’s a pleasure to meet you! 🙂 I actually translated it in American-style English as that’s the main language of my readers. No American would ever write “It tolls noon,” but I do understand where you’re coming from. 🙂 A presto!

      Liked by 1 person

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