Lasàgn Cald.

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!


  1. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    There’s a typo in the Italian from the original article. It should be ‘giallo’ (yellow), not ‘gallo’ (rooster).

  2. Milanese is a “dialect,” if of anything, of Lombard, not of “regular” – i.e. Tuscan – Italian. You often see this naive view that minor languages that are being displaced by the national languages of business, government and journalism are somehow mixtures – here, of Italian and French – rather than true separate languages in their own right.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    Presumably not actually “French” terms, but rather Milanese words that happen to sound like the French words. Similarly with the talk of the “French oeu and ch sounds” (which I seem to hear a lot in German…) Unlike the generally careful Prospero to get confused on such points.

  4. There’s a typo in the Italian from the original article. It should be ‘giallo’ (yellow), not ‘gallo’ (rooster).

    Good catch, thanks!

  5. Minga is a nice example of a Jespersen negator — it seems to be from mica “crumb”, which has become a negator in several Italian dialects. (What’s up with the nasalization, though?) But Wiki says there’s also another minga “(from the Italian verb mingere which means “to urinate”), an impolite Sicilian slang term used to denote frustration or as a derogatory descriptive term for a person”, which may cause occasional interdialectal contretemps.

  6. David Eddyshaw: you are quite right, the Milanese words for “egg” and “nine” are not French loanwords, they’re native Milanese words whose form is similar to that of their French cognates. And the article quite understates the distinctiveness of Milanese, which differs from Standard Italian to such a degree that it (and Western Lombard more generally) could be called a separate language.

    TR: My guess (it’s no more than that!) is that the nasalization is due to the initial /m/, with this nasalized vowel then becoming a sequence of vowel + nasal consonant, so: /miga/ (the intervocalic /k/ of Latin MICA was voiced throughout Northern Italy), then /mĩga/, then /miŋga/. And you’re quite right, MICA has become a negator in many Italian dialects, especially Northern ones: there’s nothing specifically Milanese here.

    Finally, language shift to Italian is not confined to Milan: my impression is that it is the rule in Northwestern Italy: I recently read an article on an Occitan dialect spoken in a very remote village in the Italian alps, bordering France, and according to the author only inhabitants aged sixty or more were native speakers of Occitan: the middle-aged inhabitants (thirty-forty years old and older ) had acquired Piemontese as their L1, with everyone belonging to the younger generations having or acquiring Italian as their L1.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    the now defunct Milanese underworld

    Well, defunct… it’s been replaced by an overworld consisting of various banks and Berlusconi. As they say elsewhere: #BuildTheSwamp

  8. Thanks, Etienne — perseveratory nasalization was my thought too, but I was wondering if there was some regular sound change involved;

  9. I had absolutely no problem understanding the whole of that Milanese dialect sample right after I woke up and pre-coffee (navasc is an unfamiliar word, but clear enough in context). Would a person from Rome really have problems hearing that passage spoken?

  10. Alon Lischinsky says:

    Minga should be familiar to our gracious host, as it’s been borrowed in Rioplatense as an emphatic negator ‘none; nothing; no way’:

    “¡Qué tarro que tenés de que tus viejos estén separados! Los míos dicen que hay que cuidar la guita, que cuesta mucho ganarla, y me hacen regalos para mi cumpleaños y para Reyes y nada más, el resto del año minga.” (Andrade, M. 1993. Un solo dios verdadero. Madrid: Anaya, p. 260)

  11. Now that you mention it, it rings a faint bell, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t part of my idiolect, so after 45 years it’s sunk pretty far beneath the surface.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    MICA > miga > minga

    I guess this word is cognate with French la mie referring to the soft inside of a crusty loaf of bread, with the diminutive form la miette referring to a tiny piece or crumb. In older French, mie was one of the several negative reinforcers along with (le) pas ‘step’, (la) goutte ‘drop (of liquid)’, (le) point ‘dot, spot’, among others.

  13. gwenllian says:

    I had absolutely no problem understanding the whole of that Milanese dialect sample right after I woke up and pre-coffee (navasc is an unfamiliar word, but clear enough in context). Would a person from Rome really have problems hearing that passage spoken?

    Same. People from Rome should get it, but many of them might have to stop, concentrate and think about it a bit. And few would bother. Or at least that’s my experience with people pronouncing pretty basic stuff in a non-standard variety closely related to a standard one they’re fluent in unintelligible.

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