This Prospero column from the Economist is about the dialect of Milan, milanes, about which I knew very little. It starts with a passage about old folk songs in dialect and “la mala, the now defunct Milanese underworld,” then continues:
If these songs are a fascinating historical record of a changing city, they are also important linguistically. Svampa and his colleagues sang in Milan’s nasal dialect. Its mixed-up vocabulary is a reminder of how recently Italy was a jumble of independent states with connections to different neighbours. French terms like coeur (heart) and oeuf (egg) are just two examples. Indeed, the prevalence of the French oeu and ch sounds can make Milanese seem more Parisian than Italian. Its peculiar negation, using minga instead of non, also distinguishes Milanese from regular Italian.
Indeed, Milanese can often be a struggle just to understand for someone from Naples or Rome. A typical song, “El ridicol matrimoni”, lists the huge quantities of food eaten by a bride before her wedding night:
Trii padéj de risòtt giald
quatter mastèj de lasàgn cald
ses cavagn fra uga e pêr
e quatter navasc de caffè ner.
Compared to this, almost every word is spelt and pronounced differently in Italian:
Tre padelle di risotto g[i]allo
quattro mastelli di lasagna calda
sei cesti di uva e pere
e quattro fiaschi di caffè nero.
In English, the feast included
Three pans of saffron risotto
four trays of hot lasagna
six baskets of grapes and pears
and four large jugs of black coffee.
Nowadays, terms like navasc are dying out. Only about 2% of Milanese still speak the dialect fluently. Ironically, the upheavals of the “economic miracle”—which provided so much inspiration for Svampa and Jannacci—ultimately doomed their dialect. Now that Milan is a thoroughly multicultural city, with immigrants from all over Italy and beyond, it makes sense to just speak Italian. “There are people born in Milan, but who perhaps don’t feel Milanese because they have parents from Puglia or Campania,” says Edoardo Bossi, a Milanese dialect teacher. This is in contrast to parts of Italy that have attracted fewer outsiders, where dialect is still dominant: Sicilian, for example, is spoken by 4.7m people throughout southern Italy. Moreover, young people are shy to speak milanes. The dialect’s gruff reputation hardly helps. According to Mr Bossi, “when you speak Milanese in public, people look at you as if you’re being rude.”
Fascinating stuff, and I love the sample quatrain. Thanks, Trevor!