William & Mary

Francesca Fornasini's: Exploration of Two Northern Italian Dialects

Map of ItalyDespite its relatively small land area, Italy houses a plethora of dialects, many of which are different enough from each other and from the official Italian language to be considered separate languages.  This linguistic diversity is due to a combination of Italy's long and tumultuous history of occupation by other peoples and its late unification and imposition of an official language.  However, many of these dialects are now in danger of dying out because younger generations have not been learning these dialects due to the imposition of official Italian in schools and mass media.  Thus, in recent years, interest in studying and preserving these dialects has increased tremendously.  Some schools have begun teaching local dialects alongside Italian in order to prevent their utter extinction. 

 My Murray project allowed me to explore the two Italian dialects spoken by my family.  My mother's side of the family is from Milan, a major industrial city in the region of Lombardy, and they speak Milanese.  A few of the relatives on my father's side of the family are also from Milan, but many of them are from Biadene, a small town in the countryside of Veneto, and they speak the local dialect of the town, which I will refer to as Biadenese. 

Although Biadene is only 275 km east of Milan (approximately the same distance between Williamsburg and Washington, DC), these dialects are only as mutually intelligible as Italian and Spanish.  My Milanese relatives can usually understand the gist of what my Biadenese relatives are saying and vice versa; being fluent in Italian, I can often understand the gist of what my relatives are saying when they speak their dialect slowly.  However, there are enormous lexical, phonetic, and syntactic differences between the two dialects, so much so that they could be considered different languages.

Location of Milan and Biadene I traveled to Italy during summer 2008 and winter 2009 to interview my relatives and other speakers of these dialects.  I asked the speakers to tell me stories and memories in their local dialects as well as to translate specific sentences from questionnaires developed by Prof. Paola Benincá and Prof. Cecilia Poletto at the University of Padova.  After transcribing these interviews, I decided to focus my study on syntactic negation because I noticed that, in terms of syntax, it was one of the more markedly different constructions in the two dialects.  Milanese possesses two postverbal negative particles, while Biadenese possesses one preverbal negative particle which sometimes co-occurs with a presuppositional postverbal negative particle.  This fundamental difference in the position of their negative particles results in other important differences in negative constructions which are consistent with similar trends in other languages.  Read my full formal analysis of negation in Milanese and Biadenese (pdf).

However, here I will provide some general information about the dialects and the regions in which they are spoken.

Like most Romance languages, both Milanese and Biadenese have Subject-Verb-Object word order.  Word order and subject-verb agreement are the primary ways in which these dialects track arguments.  Both dialects have agglutinating morphologies and, like Italian, make frequent use of different types of clitics.  Furthermore, they have a similar phonetic repertoire to Italian.  However, Biadenese additionally possesses some Spanish consonants and Milanese vowels are more similar to French than Italian vowels.  From the 16th century to the unification of Italy in 1860, Lombardy and Veneto were at different times under the control of Spain, Austria, and France.  Milanese, Biadenese, and the other dialects spoken in these regions were affected in different ways by contact with Spanish, Austrian, and French languages.  Dialects in Veneto were further influenced by Venice's trading with Arab countries.  The sound clips below are translations of the same sentences in Milanese and Biadenese; they can give you a sense of how the two dialects differ phonetically.


With my grandma Evelina in her apartment in Milan


With my grandma Ninetta in Veneto

(1) "The little boy I saw yesterday has left." 

El fiulin che u vist ier l'è partì. 

    El tosatèl che ho viste ieri l'è andà via.

(2) "Carlo is coming not today, but tomorrow."

Incoeu el Carlo el ven no ma dumàn sì.

 Carlo unquò no ‘l viegn, el viegn dumàn.

(3) "What is it that you were not able to do?"

Cusè che te se minga riuscì a fà?

Quae cose no te se riuscì a far?

Milan has been an important city since about the year 1000, while Biadene still remains a small country town.  These two different settings have fostered two different popular cultures, which are reflected in the common proverbs of the two dialects.  Nonetheless, these two cultures share some of the same preoccupations, fears, and wisdom.  Below I have listed some of the proverbs my participants told me, along with their translations; many of them are quite funny, so enjoy!

Milanese proverbsThe Duomo of Milan

L'è mèj scampà dèbol che morì fòrt.  "It's better to survive weak than to die strong."

Chi fa a sò moeud el scampa des ann de pù. "He who does things his own way lives two more years."

Chi lassa la via vèggia per la noeuva, ingannaa se troeuva. "He who leaves the old road for the new one finds himself swindled."

La razon la ghe se dà ai matt. "Reason is given to the crazy" meaning "Don't just tell me that I'm right in order to appease me, as if I were a crazy person you can't reason with."

The Madonna on top of the DuomoEDUCATION

Chi tròpp el studia matt el diventa, chi minga studia pòrta la brenta. "The one who studies too much goes mad, the one who doesn't study carries the bucket (symbol of lower class job)."

L'ignoranza l'è la mader de tutt i error. "Ignorance is the mother of all mistakes."


Fà e desfà l'è tutt laurà. "Doing and undoing, it's all work."

Tant cuu, tant crap. "Many heads, many ideas."

Ogn' ufelè fà el so mestè.s "Every shopkeeper does his own job" meaning "It's good to specialize."

La cativa lavandera la tro mai la bona prea. "A poor clothes-washer never finds a good washing-rock" meaning "Someone who's bad at his job blames his instruments, not himself."


Guardéll ben, guardéll tutt, l'omm senza danee come l'e` brutt. "Look at him well, look him all over, the man without money is so ugly."

A palanch a palanch se fann cent franch. "Cent by cent, you make a dollar."

APPEARANCESAerial view of the center of Milan

Brutt in fasa, bel in piasa. "Ugly in swaddling clothes, handsome in the square" meaning "Ugly babies make handsome adults."

I murun fan minga l'uga. "The blackberry bush doesn't make grapes" meaning "Someone may have a good appearance but his real value can be determined by the fruit of his work."  A blackberry bush may be large and impressive but it doesn't produce grapes, a very good fruit since they can be made into wine.

Castello Sforzesco, MilanRELIGION

La mèssa l'è longa quand la devozion l'è curta. "The mass is long when devotion is short."

L'Epifania tutt i fest ie porta via. "Epiphany carries all the holidays away" because the celebration of the Epiphany is the last major winter holiday.


Se pioeuv al dì de la Sciensa per quaranta dì sem minga sensa. "If it rains on the day of the Ascension it won't leave us for forty days."

Spusa bagnada, spusa fortunada. "A wet bride is a lucky bride."


Zucca e melon, ogni frutta a la soa stagion. "Pumpkin and melon, every fruit has its season" meaning "Everything has its time."

L'è mej vin cald che acqua fresca. "Warm wine is better than cool water."

Quell che imbriaga l'è semper l'ultim biccér. "The last glass is the one that makes you drunk" meaning "Blame your misfortunes on your last mistake, not on the sum of your previous mistakes."

Giò vin e su ciaccèr. "As wine goes down, chattering goes up."

A tavola besogna minga fass pregà. "At table, you shouldn't make others beg you to eat."

Biadenese proverbs
LIFEAn abbey near Biadene, Veneto

El canù no l'è credù, l'è l'ingrespà che dìs la verità. "White hairs are not to be believed, but wrinkles tell the truth" meaning "Wrinkles, but not white hair, are a sign of wisdom."

Chi tropo se sbasa e mostra a cuata. "The one who bows too low shows everyone his buttocks."

La razòn l'è dei mussat. "Reason is for donkeys " meaning "Don't just tell me that I'm right in order to appease me, as if I were a stubborn donkey you can't reason with."

Scarpa grosa e goto pien, cior la vita come a vien. "With large shoes and a full glass, you can take on life as it comes."

A church near Biadene, VenetoEDUCATION

Pì coltura, pì testa dura. "More cultured, more stubborn-headed."

MONEY/POSSESSIONSIn Treviso, one of the major cities close to Biadene

Carta canta, vilan dorme. "Paper sings, farmer sleeps" meaning "A contract on paper is valid even when a  farmer forgets about it."

È meio un ovo unquò che na gaina domàn. "An egg today is better than a hen tomorrow."

With my aunt Lucia and my cousin Elisa on the walls of the Asolo Castle, VenetoAPPEARANCES

A dir busie ocore bona memoria. "To tell lies, you need good memory."

Paroea in recia no val na tecia. "Words in the ear (rather than on paper) aren't worth anything." 

Chi bòn vol parer, i piè a da doler. "If you want to look good, your feet will hurt."

 RELIGIONMy grandma Ninetta and my aunt Lucia outside a church near Biadene, Veneto

Quando el corpo se frustra, l'anima se giusta. "When the body is beaten, the soul is healed."

Lasa che ‘l mondo disa, basta che Dio no scriva. "Let the world say what it will, what matters is that God doesn't take note of it (in the Judgement Book)"