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.

48 comments

  1. What an awe inducing story of your time as a linguistics student in Italy! It makes me regret not continuing my education. 😞 That catalog of books on the life and decline of languages sound fascinating, I’m going to have to get my hands on one or two of them!!!

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you so much for this heart-warning comment 😊 You are very kind.
      Indeed, it is very important to continue our education, we can educate ourselves. 😁

      I have never been a student of linguistics in the context of formal education, but I always studied linguistics on my own. I prefer it that way. 😄
      It’s okay to call me a “linguistics student,” though, because I have always studied the subject of linguistics very seriously, I didn’t study it just casually as I wanted to really acquaint myself thoroughly with the theory and practice of linguistics. After all, a student doesn’t need to only be someone in formal education, you can be a student of something even outside of that context.
      The same goes for being a teacher. I taught linguistics to Ken Ho and Giovanni Pinto, for instance.

      I definitely recommend those books that I listed in the article, they are very inspiring. 🤓

      Liked by 6 people

  2. This is such a fascinating and heartwarming read.
    (Fun thoughts for me as I read is that my first car was a Ford Pinto and I just happened to buy a bottle of Lecce olive oil yesterday!).

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you for this wonderful feedback! 😇
      I liked reading your fun thoughts, it is interesting how some highlights of my article relate to your own life coincidentally! 😃

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this really interesting and very fascinating account of your research and the lovely people you met along the way

    Liked by 6 people

  4. You’re such a fine and articulate writer, Dyami, and I’m impressed by your intellectual curiosity and knowledge about so many languages. I find it curious that a language like Molesian is spoken by a relatively small group of people located within the country of Italy, where Italian has been widely spoken for a very long time.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Is part of what drives you to study and preserve endangered languages the avenue it gives you to connect to a variety of different people and cultures?

    Liked by 4 people

    • I have often been bullied in my life. 😶 So I know what it feels like when your existence isn’t appreciated and your basic desire to connect with others remains unfulfilled. 😣 Endangered languages and cultures experience something I can relate to. 😬 So it makes me want to contribute something meaningful with my own efforts. 🌷 I like showing existential appreciation to people, building friendships and helping people retain their ancestral language and culture. ☺️ After I have learned to speak an endangered language, it feels like having found a long lost family, the emotional reward is invaluable. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for opening up about your story! It adds a lot of depth to what you do. You are not just a curious intellectual, but person who seeks to connect heart to heart. 🙂

        Like

  6. I am happy to see your intriguing linguistic interests and it takes courage to do research on the wisdom. It is provoking me to involve myself in one of the oldest languages of India – Sanskrit.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you for letting me know about your fantastic linguistic quest! Wish you the best. It is fascination to follow the trail of morfem and fonem in the different languages – how they twist and turn and yet how some are kept over the centuries and spread.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Che bello to see the dedication to preserve endangered languages and great to see you can still travel, an impossibility for myself since this “New Normal” was imposed on us.

    A few years ago I helped documenting the local indigenous language from here, the Bogotá savanna high up in the Andes; Muysccubun, the language of the Muisca, the 4th advanced pre-Columbian civilization *nobody has heard of (everybody knows about the Aztec – Nahuatl, the Maya – Mayan languages and the Inca – Quechua and Aimará predominantly).

    I hope it serves a purpose:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chibcha_language

    All the best in this important defense of that what needs defending!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is a fantastic endeavour. All the very best to you. We lose more than words when we lose local/marginally surviving languages. Subtlety of thought and a capacity for rich modes of expression are also eroded. We see it all the time too in, for example, the dominant mainstream/social media form of English wherein people’s ability to express themselves seems more and more confined to a limited range of stock expressions/symbols. Very sad. It reduces yet another capacity – the power of storytelling rich in metaphor and poetry and multi-layered meaning.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Wonderfully written post. When we lived in Italy, we learned the language, but my sister, a language sponge, also absorbed and spoke the local dialect like a native. She did the same in Germany, and even now, many years later, Germans compliment her (an American) for her grasp of English! They think she’s German. All that to say, what you’re doing is key to preserving culture. Kudos to you and others pursuing this with you.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. This reminds me of a film I saw at the Florida Film Festival a few years ago: I Dream in Another Language. I wouldn’t have understood much about the process of preserving a dying language without having seen the film, and now, reading this wonderful post, I am witness to it in real time. This is a fascinating article. I love the detail. Please keep up this work and thank you so much for this content.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. This is so fascinating . It must take so much patience to get to know the locals and from scratch try to learn the Molesian language. Thank you for your work in preserving languages. 🙏

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Very interesting – I’ve worked in Italy for years and I’m always fascinated by the difference in language and intonation from region to region. I didn’t know there was a Molese language – presumable from Molise region ?!
    I’m in Sicily in a few weeks I’ll listen out for their unique words and constructions.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Really interesting to read this. There are various dialects spoken in the Salento region where I have lived for 4 years now, and in particular there is a dialect known as “Grecia-Salentino” identified as spoken in eleven towns here. I would have loved to be a linguistics researcher working here but alas I am simply an English language teacher. Always glad to hear of committed people like you doing work to keep dialects, or even complete languages, preserved and active.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What an intriguing article! This reminds me of my days in Sacrofano, a small peaceful village on the outskirts of Rome. Languages have many benefits, learning how to speak and write Italian, quickly helped me to integrate and worked in Italy for three years. Thanks, for sharing this interesting article.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Fascinating and beautiful to read about your efforts to record and save a language! At the beginning, I was wondering, Why bother? But by the end of this post, I was cheering for your team 😊 Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Interesting post with so many tentacles worth closer examination. I was enthused by your mention of phonetics which fascinates me. I use humor in my blog to expose hi-lite how intellectually lazy we can be. Example: explain the “b” on the end of my limb.

    Like

    • I had a high school English teacher, Mr, Rankin, who made it very clear to us students — “If you turn in a written assignment with the word, “thing” in it, your grade will automatically be an F. He was very simply and clearly insisting that we think about what we’re saying before we write.

      My second writing commandment comes from the Bard —Brevity is the soul of wit —- i.e. “Take my wife, Please!” .Henny Youngman

      Like

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