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  • Writer's pictureRoberta D'Alessandro

ERC on Italian dialects: MicroContact!

It is now official: I have been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant to work on heritage Italo-Romance languages in the Americas.

Between the end of the 19th c. and the 1920s, many Italians migrated to the Americas. [...] After World War II, a third wave of migration took place: around 400.000 people left Italy between 1950-1960. Most of these Italians did not speak Italian as their native language: they all spoke some “dialect”. With this term we traditionally refer to those Romance languages spoken in Italy that evolved from Latin, and are sister languages to standard Italian. When these emigrants moved across the Atlantic, their languages entered in contact with other Romance varieties, like Argentinian Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, or Québécois French, as well as with English.

The languages spoken by these 1st generation emigrants, who are now very old, are extremely important, as they potentially give a unique window into the mechanisms of language change in general, and of syntactic change in particular.

In this project, we aim to develop a theory of syntactic change in contact, by observing how specific syntactic structures react to both EC and CIC. Italian heritage languages offer a unique combination of wide diachronic written documentation and multiple contact with other, minimally different, languages, which will allow us to investigate EC and CIC and integrate syntactic theory with the tools that are necessary for their analysis.

The study of EC and CIC usually examines two stages of a language: Stage1- before the change -, and Stage 2- after the change-. This project introduces a third observation point: the “in between” stage, which will be provided by microcontact. With microcontact here we mean contact between two minimally different syntactic systems (grammars). While microvariation will make parts of grammars comparable and will make it possible to have “snapshots” of languages while change is happening, genetic and typological similarity between the languages in contact will allow us to control for one element at a time: the languages in contact do not differ very much since they are genetically related.

[...] The Italo-Romance heritage varieties thus constitute an exceptional lab for this study. We will examine first-generation speakers, i.e. those that moved to the Americas between the 1940s and the 1960 (as well as their peers who stayed behind at the time and came into extensive contact with Italian). All in the same period, each language came in contact with all the others.

[...] The documentation of these heritage languages is scarce, and quite fragmented. We know very little of what happened to the language of the first-generation emigrants. We therefore need to conduct a large-scale documentation effort before we can start our analysis. For this task, we will make use of a crowdsourcing software, addressed to speakers of heritage languages, who will be involved for the first time in active scientific research about their own language. Specifically, we will look at 4 Italian dialect groups (2 languages per group) in diachrony and in contact, as illustrated in the figure below.

This project aims to give an answer to the following major research questions:

1. How does contact-induced syntactic change (CIC) happen?

2. What are the main differences between EC and CIC?

3. Are there elements in the grammar that are more prone to contact-induced change, and are there elements that are more prone to spontaneous change?

A call for 2 postdocs, 3 PhD students and 1 IT assistant will be out soon. Stay tuned!

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Upcoming talks - fall 2021

In the Fall of 2021, I will be giving the following talks: 7-8 September Invited talk Dialettologia ed etimologia. Metodologia e cantieri aperti, University of Lausanne 8-10 September Invited talk II


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