The Bocce Dialect of Cornale.

Marco Ferrarese writes for BBC Travel about visiting Cornale, a village in Lombardy near his hometown of Voghera, and his struggle to understand the local dialect in a particular context:

Now 69 years old, my father has played bocce all his life; he learned to love the game from my grandfather, and when I was a child, he tried to pass the love down to me. When I was about 12, I would follow my father to the bocciodromo ‒ the bar with playing fields found in every Italian town ‒ to meet his friends, middle-aged men with whom I felt I had nothing in common. I would watch the games for a while and then I would make my way to the video game corner. Needless to say, I didn’t inherit my father’s love of bocce, and because this was the only place where I ever came in contact with the Voghera dialect, I never learned to speak it.

He talks with Battista Valenti, a friend of his father’s:

To Valenti, local dialects are a crucial aspect of life in Italy’s small towns. “The dialect, like the game of bocce, was a way to establish our identity,” he said.

For the past five years, the retired English teacher has been helping to create a dictionary of local vocabulary as part of the Alimentiamo la Memoria (Let’s Feed the Memory) research project, funded by the village’s Tre Fiumi (Three Rivers) Library. Yet Valenti also knows very well that because of globalisation and the influence of mass media, local dialects have been curtailed to places like the bocciodromo, where the generations that grew up without television have gathered for decades.

And he tries to understand the players:

“A gh’era no d’andà su! A gh’era da bucià o mat na bucia in fond. Paragia su ciapa al balai u po fa partìa!” one man yelled angrily at his partner, gesticulating wildly with his hands. I got the gist ‒ they were about to lose the game ‒ but I couldn’t understand the details.

“What are they saying?” Desperate, I asked the man next to me for help.

“You don’t understand the dialect?” His expression let on that he knew he was asking a rhetorical question. He went on to explain, in Italian: “That man there complained that his companion didn’t hit the boccino. If he had, they could have won the game.”

In the margin, there’s an “Essential bocce dictionary” with terms like balâi, “the small ball (‘pallino’) in the game of bocce.” An enjoyable look at a small corner of the linguistic world; thanks, Trevor!


  1. -His Italian was harsher than what I’m used to; he stretched his syllables, which rolled off his tongue with a twang.
    The energetic, silver-haired 70-year-old was speaking the dialect of Cornale, his native village in southern Lombardy, a region of northern Italy.

    Very questionable statement, I would say.

    It looks like a dialect of Lombard (which belongs to completely different branch of Romance languages), not a dialect of Italian.

  2. Yes, well, you’re not going to get that level of linguistic sophistication at BBC Travel, I’m afraid. Anything Italians speak is either “Italian” or “a dialect of Italian.”

  3. January First-of-May says

    Actually, aside from the opening sentence, they never do say it’s a dialect of Italian. Just “a dialect”.

  4. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    I don’t know if any Italian linguist is fighting to reverse this, but in Italian it’s long been standard to call dialetti (italiani) the languages without an army and a navy spoken in the Italian peninsula, and italiani regionali the regional varieties of the Italian language.

    I suppose this terminology tends to be mirrored in English because people who write about these things in English also read (and probably write) about them in Italian, and find it easier to adopt the convention that dialect translates dialetto and regional (variety of) Italian translates italiano regionale.

    Insisting instead that dialetto must be translated as regional language and italiano regionale as Italian dialect would seem likely to generate a lot of cross-language confusion.

  5. Good point.

  6. I’m not really sure why it is worth enforcing a narrow definition of “dialect”, when the broad definition was well-established before the development of linguistics as a science, and (my understanding is that) most linguists seem to feel that the distinction between divisions into languages and divisions into dialects is relatively arbitrary. Perhaps the most meaningful idea that is conveyed by the distinction is the suggestion that monolingual speakers of different dialects are presumed to have mutual intelligibility between them, while monolingual speakers of different languages are presumed to not; but I think even this is somewhat ambiguous (as far as I know, nobody complains about Norwegian and Swedish being popularly referred to as languages, rather than something like “North Germanic dialects”; and I doubt it’s hard to find examples of people writing things like “She could not understand him, because he spoke a different dialect”). It seems like it would be clearer to just use the technical term “mutual intelligibility” to convey the idea of mututal intelligibility directly, or to use colloquial definitions of it like “Speakers of X and Y can usually understand each other” or “Speakers of X and Y cannot usually understand each other” or “Speakers of X can usually understand speakers of Y, but not vice versa”, rather than relying on or expecting the use of the words “dialect” or “language” to convey all of that kind of information.

  7. Identifying dialects of a single underlying language using mutual intelligibility has all the problems of the biological “species concept,” plus some more. Still, as in biology, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the best gross approximation we have available.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Um. In biology, nobody actually uses the Biological Species Concept anymore. (Also, it’s actually two: can they have fertile offspring under lab conditions, or do they in the wild?) Most popular these days are various Phylogenetic Species Concepts.

  9. @David Marjanović: The marine biologists around here still “use” (if that’s the right word) the biological species concept a fair amount. I suspect the same is going to be the case of many scientists who are studying particular genera. But you are right, of course, that there are really two versions of the basic question; I myself have gotten worked up a couple times over researchers sloppily conflating the two.

  10. January First-of-May says

    I’m reminded of a conversation I had on Twitter recently where I asked somebody which dialect of Yugoslavian the text they just posted was supposed to be written in.
    (It turned out to be Google-translated Bosnian, which, as it happened, was pretty much exactly what I expected.)

    I’m paraphrasing the specific question somewhat (don’t recall it exactly at the moment), but I did use the terms “Yugoslavian” and “dialect”.


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