Milan is the commercial and industrial heart of Italy¬ and as the most modern and cosmopolitan city, it is sometimes difficult to locate the folkloristic heritage of the city. But a key to understanding the identity of Milan is in the Milanese dialect.
Transformed by modernity more than any other city in Italy, Milan is where the rest of Italy come to work. The city is inhabited by Italians of all regions, often coming to the city to study and staying because they find work, as well as a huge immigrant community, from South America and Africa, as well as Western expatriates who flock to the city for it’s design and fashion industries. The true born and bred Milanese are becoming an increasingly endangered species on the streets of the great city, many choosing to abandon it for the relative peace of the suburbs of Brianza.
It’s a difficult city to really get a ‘feeling’ for. Tourists often complain of a lack of architectural splendour in comparison to the other Italian cities Rome, Venice or Florence, the fact is that the city’s architectural heritage was almost obliterated in World War II.
As the centre of manufacturing, it was singled out for bombardment by the Allied Forces, destroying much of the once beautiful city. The result was a shortage of housing in the aftermath of the War and modern housing ‘solutions’ were hastily erected during the subsequent boom years. Walking the city today, there is a curious mix of the neoclassical, Baraoque, the Brutalist and modern styles with apparently no rhyme or reason. This is one of the main reasons the city of Milan has a weaker identity in respect to the other cities.
Although not as immediately accessible to tourists, scratch below the surface and the cultural tradition is there. Pockets of the original Milan survive, like the Navigli, a remnant of the extensive network of canals that webbed the city and were built over for roads after the war. The canals are still there, out of sight, underground, just as Milanese culture exists, hidden, but running beneath our feet.
The Milanese dialect enshrines the cultural heritage of the Milanese, but unfortunately it is one that is greatly imperilled. Milanese, is called a dialect but linguistically it is not classified as a form of Italian. It is a separate language, a dialect of the Western Lombard, a Western Romance language related to French, Romansch and other Italo-Gallic languages. It’s as different to Italian as Spanish or French.
Originally a Celtic settlement, Milan was conquered by the Romans in 222 BC and since the 16th century, because of its strategic position, it changed hands between the French, Spanish and Austrians, all these ruling powers had a direct effect on the language. Milanese is characterised by the vowel sounds that are the same as the French, has words derived from Spanish and grammar influenced by Austro-German. Far from being a bastardised version of other Romance languages, it is beautiful to listen to in its own right, seemingly made for the poetic and the musical.
The “Tredesin de Mars” (pronounced as it’s written) is a traditional local Milanese celebration that marks when Christianity was introduced to the city by San Barnaba (March 13th 51AD), and it’s still celebrated today. San Barnaba placed a cross on a Celtic stone now to be found in the Church of Santa Maria al Paradiso in Milan, in the Porta Vigentina area, on the floor, in the central aisle.
One of the interesting characters found on the streets of Milan during the 1930s was the “piscinina”, which means small young one, usually a young girl who would run errands for the most important tailor shops in Milan. They would get pocket money and learn how to get around alone in the city, during a time in which every penny was needed.
Since the Milanese are very industrious there is even a saying that mocks the unemployed (the Milanese term is “fanigutun”): they were addressed as “caneta de veder”, literally glass tube, as a spine that’s made of glass and can’t move or it will break. Another proverb linked to the work field was “Ofelè fà el tò mestè” which literally means “Pastry man do your job” and advises you to mind your own business.
The most famous song that relates to Milan and Milanese dialect is “O mia bela Madunina”, referring to the gold (made of gold) Madonna on the top of the highest steeple of the Duomo that has been watching over the busy city since 1769 and is now its symbol (she was made by the sculptor Giuseppe Perego and by the goldsmith Giuseppe Bini. More contemporary singers that have composed songs in Milanese have been Giorgio Gaber, Enzo Jannacci, Adriano Celentano and Enrico Ruggeri.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Milanese dialect in its importance to the cultural identity of the city’s people. I have heard older people describe dialectic variations on Milanese within local communities, to the extreme that even one street over, the people would converse in what was almost a different language. The city was a microcosm of small and tightly-knit communities, an almost cellular social structure. This is a prevailing attitude amongst Italians today, responsibility to state and nation often take a backseat to that of family and friends.
The 19th century Risorgimento and the ultimate unification of Italy, deigned to have happened in 1861 were accompanied by cultural and social movements to unite and homogenise the very disparate cultures of the Italian peninsula. The language of Tuscany and Dante was chosen as the base for the new standardised Italian and the language was then imposed on the people of Italy as the official language. The standard Italian has now irreversibly taken root and all but strangled the local dialects (especially in the North, dialects are stronger in the South). The current generation of Italians all speak Italian and it is rare that you find a young Italian with even a passing interest in his original dialect. But the older generations, say their grandparents, are fluent in ‘dialect’ and often choose to speak it at home.
While other cultures cherish their native language such as the Catalans, the Basque and the Welsh, keeping it alive as the first language, the experiences of other European cultures, such as the Irish demonstrate that once a language is lost it is a serious challenge to try and reinstall it.
While there are pockets of enthusiasm for the language, they mostly exist in academic circles and specialist groups. As we move towards cultural hegemony in a globalised world it becomes imperative that we retain what makes us different, distinct and unique. For the Milanese it is their language and it would be a crying shame if it were not preserved as a functioning, living part of the city’s heritage.
Chi lassa la via vèggia per la noeuva, ingannaa se troeuva. "He who leaves the old road for the new one finds himself swindled."
Chi tròpp el studia matt el diventa, chi minga studia pòrta la brenta. "The one who studies too much goes mad, the one who doesn't study carries the bucket (symbol of lower class job)."
La cativa lavandera la tro mai la bona prea. "A poor clothes-washer never finds a good washing-rock" meaning "Someone who's bad at his job blames his instruments, not himself."
Guardéll ben, guardéll tutt, l'omm senza danee come l'e` brutt. "Look at him well, look him all over, the man without money is so ugly."
A palanch a palanch se fann cent franch. "Cent by cent, you make a dollar."
Brutt in fasa, bel in piasa. "Ugly in swaddling clothes, handsome in the square" meaning "Ugly babies make handsome adults."
I murun fan minga l'uga. "The blackberry bush doesn't make grapes" meaning "the real measure of a man is in the fruit of his work." A blackberry bush may be large and impressive but it doesn't produce grapes, considered the best fruit because they make wine.