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Endangered minorities and linguistic pluralism in Italy

November 21, 2017

In 1999, the implementation of act no. 482 finally created the opportunity to link linguistic minorities in Italy directly with local self-government. After the demarcation of their territories by the provincial councils, the linguistic minorities recognized by act no. 482 were granted the right to use their languages in the field of education both as a medium-language and as a subject in nursery schools, in primary and secondary education, in public meetings, in place names, in the media, and with public administration and judicial authorities. Local populations and institutions were determined to make the most of the newly found recognition that went some way to address the suppression of minority languages rooted in Italy’s era of fascism.

The Grecanico village of Palizzi Superiore, Aspromonte, Reggio Calabria. Stavroula Pipyrou

When I first arrived in Reggio Calabria in 2006 to commence a project on minority governance among the Grecanici (Greek-speaking) linguistic minority, it was evident that infrastructure for promoting minority matters was firmly in place (Pipyrou 2016). The first Sportello Linguistico was an important initiative to protect and promote Grecanico language and was inaugurated by the provincia on July 13, 2004. Funding was secured for three such sportelli, operating as cultural and information centers and official mediators between Grecanici and the provincia. The centers organized conferences and seminars; published all manner of material relating to Grecanico language, history, and culture; and employed language teachers. Part of the remit was to pursue links with the Griki of Puglia and other linguistic minorities in Italy and to strengthen relations with Greece, especially Greek cities twinned with Grecanici communities. Finally, in collaboration with the Department of Philology and Linguistics at the University of Messina, the sportelli offered the services of numerous interpreters and translators. The initiative focused on taking a public responsibility for teaching the minority language, rather than it primarily being a family concern.

The governance of Grecanico language was a hot topic in 2006, involving a considerable amount of public time, energy, and resources. Alas, these prolific activities did not last. Among the first ‘victims’ of Italian state fiscal austerity and budget cuts was the infrastructure for minority governance. The Silvio Berlusconi government and the later transitional government of Mario Monti demonstrated incredible indifference to minority policies, culminating in the 2013 budget cuts that left the apparatuses of minority self-government bankrupt, with employees going months without pay.

Is it ever enough for nations to simply recognize the existence of minorities—linguistic or ethnic—without sustainably implementing policies that protect their rights?

In April 2010, in an emotive but affirmative tone, the province councilor of the Partito Rifondazione Comunista—Federazione della Sinistra, Omar Minniti, warned that the allotted budget was insufficient to sustain the salaries of fifteen people employed in the eleven sportelli linguistici that operated in the province of Reggio Calabria. Closing the sportelli, Minniti argued, would represent the final blow to a language that is still in use by a few thousand people. That would be the final chapter of a “cultural genocide” committed against the Greeks of Calabria, who constitute an important piece of national history. He went on to plead unsuccessfully with the deputies and senators to pressure the government into reconsidering the cuts so that the Grecanici communities and civic associations would not lose their financial resources vital to maintaining “in life the flame of the Hellenophone diversity.

Since the 1970s, Grecanici cultural associations in Reggio Calabria, alongside international bodies who protected endangered languages and cultures, fought to gain recognition in international minority politics. Classified by UNESCO as severely endangered, the fact that the Grecanico language is deemed distinctive, rich, and “in danger of extinction” has mobilized national and international organizations to approach Grecanici as people rather than a linguistic “anomaly.” Recognition that came after many decades of struggle, promising promotion and protection of linguistic minorities, was not enough to secure long-term privileges.

But when the apparatus supporting the minorities crumbles or abruptly gets ‘suspended,’ pluralism, however desirable, is silenced.

I am skeptical of a post-World War II governance that engages nations in protecting minority rights but seems incapable of implementing long-term sustainable policies. I have argued that the legal recognition of linguistic minorities, admittedly a very important step, does not necessarily secure protection and rights (Pipyrou 2016). Similar to many other European-sponsored projects, the Grecanici sportelli linguistici have been (in)conveniently suspended, leaving the future of the program and its employees in a chronic state of uncertainty. Most importantly, the future of the minority is suspended in a way that transcends individual anxieties. We need to pose some fundamental questions. Is it ever enough for nations to simply recognize the existence of minorities—linguistic or ethnic—without sustainably implementing policies that protect their rights? Why should projects supporting minority governance be among the first to fall victim to austerity politics? We have to move beyond mere recognition and strive to defend programs that help secure the long-term futures of entire minority groups. As Jillian Cavanaugh (2009) has argued, there is a particular social aesthetics that is entwined with the cultural and emotional dimensions of language in a deeply felt and affective manner. Indeed, in the post-World War II period, the governance of linguistic affect in Europe signified an era of pluralism and celebrating difference. More specifically in Italy, recognition of linguistic pluralism was a positive political step away from classificatory systems intimately associated with the aesthetics of language celebrated under fascism.

The intention of act no. 482 of 1999 was to promote linguistic pluralism as a ‘correction’ of the fascist regime that so brutally suppressed alloglot populations in Italy and pursued nationalistic dreams of uniformity. But when the apparatus supporting the minorities crumbles or abruptly gets ‘suspended,’ pluralism, however desirable, is silenced. For more than 50 years Grecanici, and other linguistic minorities in Europe, fought hard to establish their presence on the national and international political scene as key players in shaping understandings of alterity. Suspending the means for minority representation frighteningly echoes dark times of totalitarianism and suppression of human rights that haunt European history.

Stavroula Pipyrou teaches anthropology at University of St Andrews, Scotland. She has conducted long-term research on minorities and child-displacement in Italy. She is the author of The Grecanici of Southern Italy and the Founding Director of the Centre for Minorities Research.

Cite as: Pipyrou, Stavroula. 2017. “Suspended Lives.” Anthropology News website, November 21, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.687