Introduction to the language of Vasto
Ray La Verghetta
The name of the language
The language spoken in Vasto is called Uâʃtaréule. The name of the language derives from the name of the area in which it is spoken – lu Uâʃte (Vasto, in the province of Chieti) – so called in the language spoken there. The use of the name goes back to about the sixth century AD.
Lu Uâʃtaréule as a language
Lu Uâʃtaréule does not appear in the official lists of the languages of the world. However, it is not a mere dialect of Italian; it is a language in its own right. It does not appear in these lists because the documentation necessary to have it included has not yet been completed. The key criterion by which linguists differentiate dialects from languages is that of mutual intelligibility. On the basis of this criterion, the variety in question is a language in its own right because monolingual speakers of standard Italian are unable to understand it. This is also the case for dozens of other linguistic varieties that co-exist with standard Italian on the Italian peninsula. Although Italians popularly refer to these linguistic varieties as dialects, they are actually bona fide languages. The use of the term “dialect” in these cases is a linguistic imprecision that is also found in much scholarly work and in many other parts of the world. For example, the inhabitants of the Chinese mainland refer to Mandarin and Cantonese as “dialects” of Chinese, although linguists understand that they are separate languages, because they are not mutually intelligibile. Regarding the case of the Italian peninsula, the linguists Laura e Giulio Lepschy write, in their book The Italian language today: “When people talk of Italian dialects they are not usually referring to different varieties of Italian. Italian dialects differ from literary Italian and among themselves so much that one dialect may be unintelligible to the speaker of another dialect. They may differ among themselves as much as French differs from Spanish, or Portuguese from Romanian, or for that matter English from Italian.” (1)
Today Uastareule is spoken monolingually by diminishing numbers of octogenarians and nonagenarians. It is spoken bilingually by a small number of residents in their seventies. Many middle-aged residents have a passive competence in the language – they can understand it but are unable to actively use it. Young people have virtually no competence of any kind in the language.
Uastaréule is a member of the Romance sub-branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It evolved from Latin independently though in parallel with other Latin-derived languages spoken in Europe (Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.) and on the Italian peninsula, such as Neapolitan, Venetian, Calabrian, Piedmontese, etc.
Lu uâʃtaréule among the “dialects” of Italy
On the Italian peninsula, lu uâʃtaréule belongs to the group of intermediate central-south “dialects”, that is, those including the “dialects” of Abruzzo, northern Puglia, Molise, Campania, and Basilicata. Although these “dialects” are rather different among themselves, there are some common traits that they share, including the neutralization of final vowels followed by metaphony.
Sociolinguistic Situation: Multilingualism and Contexts of Use
Uastaréule is one of the many Latin-derived languages on the Italian peninsula that is on the way to extinction,having been overtaken by Italian. As is the case in most such varieties, age stratification delineates usage and knowledge: elderly residents (in their eighties and nineties) are the only age-group that understands and actively uses Uastaréule. This group can be divided into two sub-groups: a small number of monolingual Uastaréule speakers, who are usually the oldest surviving speakers, and a larger number of bilingual (Uastaréule/Italian) speakers, most commonly in their eighties. Middle-aged residents have a passive understanding of the variety – they can mostly understand it when they hear it, but their active proficiency is minimal or non-existent. Young people typically have little to no competence of any kind in the language. The use of the language by the bilingual elderly can be broadly characterized as diglossic. They use it primarily when speaking in informal settings with family members, relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances of the same age group. However, in their interactions with the larger community, such as for shopping, paying bills, talking to younger people in town, etc. they speak Italian.
Sociolinguistic Situation: Dialects
There was never a standard version of uâʃtaréule, so there was never one official variety. Instead, there were multiple varieties or dialects, whose differences correlated mainly with geography. Broadly speaking, one variety could be distinguished in the “coastal” area, where fishing was the principal way of earning a living. There was also a variety used in the city center, located uphill from the “marine” area, where tradesmen, including bricklayers, blacksmiths, bakers, shoemakers and others resided. Finally, there was a version that characterized the speech of more rural areas, where farmers and truck farmers lived and worked. These varieties were marked primarily by phonological, morphological, and orthographic differences.
It is very likely that the substrate languages influenced the Vastese language, largely through their influence on Latin. However, it is also likely that Vastese itself reflects substrate influences, apart from any influence on Latin. The substrate languages involved, that is, those that were spoken in the area of Abruzzo before the arrival and development of Latin, are the Oscan languages. (2)
How do we know that these languages, which did not survive, really existed and were used on the territory of Vasto? Words, as they are no more than puffs of air, do not linger either in time or in space. Therefore, they leave no lasting evidence. Fortunately, however, there is writing that was inscribed on durable materials and so the words written on them are likewise durable.
An example of this writing can be found in the Museo Civico of Palazzo d’Avalos, in Vasto: it is writing in an Oscan language on a bronze tablet: (3)
The ancient peoples who spoke Oscan languages included the Oscans, the Samnites, the Lucani, the Frentani, the Marrucini, and other groups: (4)
And it is likely that, precisely through the influence of their Oscan languages, Latin had an intervocalic /f/ in words such as rufus and bufo and that central-southern dialects in Italy, including Vastese, show a tendency toward the progressive assimilation of nd clusters into nn: mundus (latin for world) becomes mondo in Italian but manne in vastese. (5) And it is also likely that some of the words in Vastese that do not have cognates in Italian or in Latin were borrowed from an Oscan language or influenced by such a language. Finally, it should not be surprising that there are place names that go back to the pre-latin period and that have their origin in the Oscan languages. For example, the medieval name for Punta Penna in Vasto era Penna di Luco, which recalls the Oscan word luvko, whose meaning is “sacred woods.” (6)
Language contact situations
Lu uâʃtaréule was also influenced in later periods by languages with which it came into contact due to invasions and conquests on the part of, first, the Bourbons (Spanish) in the 1700s and then the French (Napoleonic period) in the 1800s. A probable outcome of contact with the Spaniards is the lack of avere (have) as a main verb (that is, not an auxiliary) in Vastese, which uses tiná’ or tené’ (the cognate of Spanish tener) for the main verb have. Regarding a possible influence from French, some cite as an example the word puàsce (fish) and its similar pronunciation to the French poisson. These influences would be typical of language contact situations.
The sound system of Vastese utilizes more vowel distinctions than Italian. For example, it uses a front, low, unrounded vowel that is not used in Italian (/æ/). There is also a back, low, rounded vowel, as in the initial sound of uâʃtə, which is not found in Italian. Then there is a central, mid, unrounded vowel that does not have a place in Italian’s sound inventory (/ə/). Finally, Vastese uses a series of dipthongs that have no functional importance in Italian: /aʊ/, /eʊ/, e /aɪ/.
The grammar of Vastese differs in many ways from that of standard Italian, which is to be expected as it is a different language. In other words, the significant differences between Vastese and Italian are not just found in their lexicons. Rather, they are to be found throughout the rules that determine how words are formed and how they combine into sentences. The interested reader may consult the works of Luigi Anelli, Ernesto Giammarco, and others to see in more detail how these rules work. (7)
The Italian Language Today, Laura Gepschy and Giulio Lepschy. Routledge, 1994.
Frammenti di Vasto. Gianni Quagliarella, Michele Benedetti. Editrice Il Nuovo, 1997.
Enclicopedia Zanichelli, Edigeo, 2003. P. 1348
Vasto: un profilo storico; economia, società, politica, cultura; Costantino Felice; La Ginestra Editrice, 2001, p. 12
Vocabolario vastese, Luigi Anelli; Cannarsa, 1980; Fujj’ammëʃche: poesie in dialetto istoniese, Luigi Anelli, Cannarsa, 2001; Grammatica dei dialetti abruzzesi, Ernesto Giammarco, Pescara, 1958; Lessico del dialetto vastese, Tito Spinelli, Cannarsa, 2008; Manuale di conversazione vastese, Pino Jubatti, Rivista Abruzzese, 2009