Did you know that there’s an Italian dialect that took root in a country about 5,500 miles away from Italy? It’s true! A dialect of Venetian called Talian “emigrated” to Brazil. Enduring attempts at suppression and its struggles to survive, Talian boasts a rich and fascinating history.
Emigration has played a fundamental role in Italian history. From the late 19th century to the late 20th century, millions of Italians left their homeland for new cities and countries to call home. The result of a severe farming crisis, the first wave of emigration took place between 1876 and 1900. Over five million people, mostly Northern Italians, emigrated to other European countries and Latin America.
Emigration gave rise to significant societal changes in the emigrants’ places of origin and contributed to reducing illiteracy rates. Italian immigrants abroad sent money back to Italy in order to pay back the loans that they used to finance their trips. This money was a significant windfall for the Italian economy. This influx of foreign currency increased consumption and stimulated Italy’s industrial development, while other windfalls were invested into Treasury Bills in order to finance the country’s modernization efforts.
In addition to societal and monetary shifts, emigration brought linguistic changes, and Talian is an interesting example. By listening to the Talian dialect, we discovered that it sounded almost entirely divorced from how it would be written in standard Italian.
What Is Talian, And Where Is It Spoken?
According to linguists, a dialect is a variation of a language or a local idiom that lost autonomy in relation to another that became sociopolitically dominant and recognized as official. Dialects often have a certain affinity with and similar origins to the official language. Because of this, all Romance languages are derived from dialects of Latin.
This raises an interesting question: is Talian a dialect of Venetian or Italian? Or did it become a language unto itself with its own alphabet, spelling and grammar? Spoken mainly in Serra Gaúcha, Rio Grande do Sul (the southernmost Brazilian state) and western Santa Catarina in the south of Brazil, Talian is considered a variant of the Venetian dialect.
Talian originated in the ports of Genova in 1875. The first immigrants to Brazil weren’t Venetian or Italian but from Treviso, Bergamo, Verona, Trento, Belluno, Friuli, Padua, Milan, Cremona, Vicenza, Lombardy and Bassano del Grappa. Each group had their own way of speaking. At the time, nobody even spoke “Italian” as we know it, nor were they considered “Italian” since, like Massimo D’Azeglio wrote, “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.”
The resulting tongue was a Venetian dialect that led to different variations. Little by little it became what is now known as Talian, a recognized language still spoken today with its own alphabet, grammar and literature. It’s a real neo-Venetian language.
A Language Of Italian Immigrants
Although these “new Brazilians” came from Italy, a new and uniquely Southern Brazilian form of Italian emerged with the passage of time and the Venetian dialect became the basis of this Italo-Brazilian regionalism. The language was significantly influenced not only by other variations of Italian but also by Portuguese, the national language of Brazil. Although Talian remained quite close to the Venetian dialect in its spoken and grammatical forms, it’s not considered a Talian creole of Italian but a Brazilian variant. It’s similar to a language spoken by German-Brazilians (people from Rio Grande do Sul): Hunsrückisch, which is a German dialect spoken in Southern Brazil. Talian isn’t considered a foreign language in Brazil. Instead, it’s considered a part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.
The use of Talian in Brazil has been in decline since the 1940s when Getúlio Vargas’ nationalist regime banned the oral and written use of the language. Speaking Italian was considered offensive and harmful to creating a uniquely Brazilian national identity. As a result, Italian immigrants and their descendants were forced to learn Portuguese.
As a result of Vargas’ oppressive policies, there’s still a stigma associated with speaking these languages even today. In fact, the Italian immigrants in Serra Gaúcha were one of the few groups that managed to preserve the Italian language in Brazil.
The Improbable Survival Of Talian
Originally, Talian was only used as a spoken language, but now there are plenty of Talian-language newspapers and magazines, and the language is even taught in some schools. In the small town of Serra Gaúcha and in western Santa Catarina, local radio stations still play a few programs in Talian!
Spoken by approximately 500,000 people who also speak Portuguese, Talian is part of Brazil’s intangible cultural heritage. Now, the Brazilian government is currently launching efforts that aim to save Talian by teaching the language and Talianità, the identity of Italian immigrants and their descendants in different school programs. These efforts have contributed to to preserving Italian culture abroad today.
A version of this article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.