Milan dialect dying

The Economist mourns loss of milanès.

“Only about two per cent of Milanese still speak the dialect fluently,” laments the prestigious weekly, chronicling how the almost incomprehensible Milan dialect – milanès for its speakers – used to conjure up “a grubby, electrifying place, [where] industry choked the streets, and petty crime was rife.”

While a Milan accent is still immediately recognisable, the more esoteric vocabulary will still stump a visitor from Rome or Naples. The Economist's article recounts the way folk singers of the 1960s and 1970s sang the praises (and the faults) of what was not yet the “sleek, self-confident city” we know today, in a dialect few now can decipher.

The economic miracle of the 1960s tolled a death-knell for the dialect. As southerners swarmed into Milan and other cities of the meridione to take advantage of the ample opportunities for work, local variants in the language were soon diluted. (And although the writer does not mention it, the popularity of national television, launched by RAI in 1954, played an important role in boosting literacy and homogenising dialects across the country.)

“Now that Milan is a thoroughly multicultural city, with immigrants from all over Italy and beyond, it makes sense to just speak Italian,” the article states.

The article provides an entertaining review of the “dry cynicism” with which singers such as Nanni Svampa and the late Enzo Janacci recounted the mala (underworld) and the pretensions of the new middle class, providing “a fascinating historical record of a changing city”, together with a typical example – translated first into Italian and then into English.

And it concludes on an optimistic note: The Economist interviewed a teacher of the dialect, and reported initiatives like the city’s “Dialect Day”, as well as a popular theatre troupe and bands like Ul Mik Longobardeath which are keeping the dialect alive.

The article was translated into Italian by the staff of the website Italia dall’Estero.