My Fieldwork in Southern Italy

Written by Dyami Millarson

This picture was taken during my last visit to Southern Italy, I played football outside like some of the locals. Whilst I was there, I had taken the opportunity to continue my Molesian fieldwork.

Profoundly inspired as a teenager by David Crystal’s Language Death, David K. Harrison’s When Languages Die, Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, Claude Hagège’s On the death and life of languages, Lenore A. Grenoble’s Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization, and to a lesser extent Suzanne Romaine’s Vanishing Voices, Nancy C. Dorian’s Investigating obsolescence: Studies in language contraction and death, R.M.W. Dixon’s The Rise and Fall of Languages and Mark Abley’s Spoken here: Travels among threatened languages, I started doing linguistic fieldwork in Southern Italy in the early 2010s. That is where and when I got acquainted with Molese and Griko. Most of my work at the time was focused on phonetics because I had developed the view that pronunciation is the pillarstone of spoken languages.

Giovanni Pinto assisted me during my investigations in Southern Italy during the early 2010s: he helped me with communication with the locals, translation and grammatical analysis. When I visited Giovanni Pinto in Mola di Bari, Southern Italy, during the summer holidays, my interest was piqued when I discovered there was a local language, which I called Molesian at the time. I observed that Giovanni Pinto’s grandparents and elderly relatives spoke Molesian; realising that mostly only the elderly could speak Molesian properly, I recognised it as an endangered language. It was my first impulse to start studying its phonetic structure.

I listened to the spoken speech of the elderly in Molesian (or Molese) and Griko: I listened to both folk stories and daily conversations, and I did interviews where Giovanni was my intermediary for communication. I concluded that Molesian is not mutually intelligible with Italian, and therefore cannot be considered the same language. I took a great deal of phonetic notes and I made recordings as well. I used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for making transcriptions. I still recall all the details of what I learned back then. I helped lay the foundation for a writing system, Giovanni Pinto was inspired by this and later revised and modified my writing system further for actual use. We had been aware of the writing systems others used, but we preferred developing a new one based on our own phonetic studies that we had been conducting.

At the dinner table of Giovanni Pinto’s grandparents. I was a bit drowsy that afternoon due to the hot weather. Local people usually take a nap during that time of the day, the weather makes you want to sleep.

Ever since I discovered Molese on my vacation in Italy, I have been encouraging Giovanni Pinto to study it. I deemed it fit that he as a local should learn to speak and write the local language of his native Southern Italian area and thereby help preserve the local heritage. Giovanni Pinto, encouraged by my work, continued the study of the Molesian language over the course of many years, he collected many old words and pronunciations with the help of his grandparents and relatives. Recently, Giovanni Pinto has published the first Molesian articles on our blog, see here and here. Giovanni Pinto is using the latest version of our spelling for the Molesian language, and he will continue publishing articles on our blog about the language. It is our goal to become the only blog on earth where you can find articles “regularly” published in Molesian.

In the early 2010s, we travelled to the Griko-speaking areas further in the South from where Giovanni Pinto was living. On our way to where Griko is spoken, we passed by Lecce where we inquired the locals about the Leccese local language. For instance, we asked them to tell us the word for horse. We wrote down some words in a notebook. I made a quick study of the phonology of Leccese and managed to get a decent impression of it in a short amount of time. When I was satisfied, we parted ways with the locals who had been so kind to answer our questions and we continued our journey to the Griko areas. Once we had arrived in a Griko-speaking village, we quizzed elderly locals for Griko words and we wrote them down in the same notebook as we had used to write our notes on Leccese. The locals, who had become convinced of our genuine interest in Griko, introduced us to the local priest Renato Delos, a native speaker of Griko, who took us into his church and shared a lot about the Griko language, its history, the current situation and his own family background. The meeting with Renato Delos felt truly like a miracle, he could help a lot with the language and shared our passion for Griko. He supported our desire to study. So much so that he allowed us to make use of his accommodation for free, he gifted us some books on Griko, some Griko music albums, he arranged for some elderly Griko speakers to meet up so we could listen to their conversations, and he let me make a recording of him translating a Bible passage to Griko. Renato Delos, with whom we had built a special connection through language, passed away in 2018. We will forever remember how we met him and how great it felt being able to gain insight into Griko through him.

66 comments

  1. I live in New Brunswick, Canada. We have a large Acadian population here. About 50 years ago a French language teacher friend of mine found a secluded area of the province where they spoke a variety of French dating back to Louis XIII. I don’t know where the place is or even if modern communications technologies have wiped out the language, but he was very excited about it. Fascinating when these pockets of the past can coexist with the present.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Do you know Saarland in Germany? Old Celtic stronghold. The Romans had to go around it to conquer further afield in Germania. I read in an old Webster’s dictionary that although the official view is that Saarlandische is just a very strong local accent in fact it’s a different language like Flemish. Old river folk basically. Perhaps there are still small enclaves where they speak the old language. Probably someone at the university in Saarbrucken would know.

    Also re: “Most of my work at the time was focused on phonetics because I had developed the view that pronunciation is the pillarstone of spoken languages.”
    Don’t understand what you mean by ‘pronunciation is the pillarstone of spoken languages.”

    All best.

    Liked by 3 people

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