Italiano popolare: the distinctiveness of an obsolescing variety
2022-04-13, 10:00–10:30 (Europe/Vienna), Room 1

This paper deals with the so-called italiano popolare, i.e. the social variety of Italian used by poorly educated (elderly) speakers, and focuses on the characteristics that set it apart from the other sub-standard varieties of Italian as a test case for inter-varietal distinctiveness.
Italiano popolare has a unique status in the range of sub-standard varieties of Italian. It is mostly used by native speakers of Italo-Romance ‘primary’ dialects (the latter being, in most cases, Abstand languages; cfr. Maiden & Parry 1997) and it is drawn on by these speakers only in formal situations (while native dialects serve as the languages for everyday communication). It proves to be diffused (in the sense of Le Page & Tabouret-Keller 1985), as it shows extensive inter-individual variation; and displays strong idiolectal coherence, as most rules apply categorically or near-categorically within each speaker (Cerruti 2017: 323-332). It is characterized by the co-occurrence of ‘idiovarietary features’ (Ghyselen & De Vogelaer 2018: 5), i.e. variants being exclusive to italiano popolare, and features appearing in multiple varieties. Moreover, it is an obsolescing variety: Some of its features are being lost and/or replaced by both standard and sub-standard counterparts, especially across generations, while others are spreading all over the sub-standard, thus losing their own specificity (Berruto 2014).
My arguments will draw on both previous research and new empirical findings. A pilot study will be conducted on a corpus of spontaneous speech collected in Turin (i.e. ParlaTO,, consisting of ca. 50 hours of semi-structured interviews with speakers of different levels of education, ages and L1s (Italian vs. Italo-Romance dialects). The focus will fall on a dozen morphosyntactic features which have been associated with italiano popolare in earlier studies (cfr. Berruto 2012: 140). Firstly, a distributional analysis will be performed with the aim of determining to what extent bundles of these features still occur among poorly educated speakers; paying special attention to the categorical, or near-categorical use of features. Next, a comparison will be made between poorly educated and highly educated speakers to ascertain which ‘idiovarietary features’ still appear among the former. Emphasis will be put on the amount of inter-individual variation observed within the same social group.
I will elaborate on which features are essential to distinguish italiano popolare from the other sub-standard varieties of Italian. Each feature will be classified according to two binary parameters: (i) being more frequent than counterparts (if any) in italiano popolare, (ii) being more frequent in italiano popolare than in other varieties; yielding a total of three logically possible types of features. In particular, I will discuss the contribution that categorical rules and ‘idiovarietary features’ can bring to the distinction between varieties. Finally, I will consider how the distinctiveness of a social variety can be challenged by inter-individual variation.

Panel affiliation

Inter-varietal distinctiveness: How to distinguish and structure varieties


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