Proverbs, Poetry and Digital Preservation: The Future of Italy's Serravallese Dialect

Recording the proverbs, popular sayings and vernacular of an endangered Italian dialect through poetry and digital preservation

SerravalleIstituto Friedrich Schurr

Serravallese is spoken in the town of Serravalle and its surrounding area of roughly 10 km squared in the northeastern tip of the Republic of San Marino, a 61 km squared microstate surrounded entirely by the Republic of Italy.

River Landscape (1607) by Jan Brueghel the ElderNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The very name Serravalle reflects the fact that the area’s low-lying hills, which reach an altitude of 148 m, close off one of the valleys that lead to the plain running along the Adriatic coast.

Battle Scene Battle Scene (1450–1475) by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi (Lo Scheggia)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Throughout history the territory of modern-day San Marino has been located near a cultural, political and, thus, linguistic fault line. It has been near the frontier between the ancient Romans and the Gauls, between the Lombard Empire and the Byzantine Exarchate, between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as between the houses of Montefeltro and Malatesta. 

Sigismondo Malatesta, as Captain General of the Roman Church Sigismondo Malatesta, as Captain General of the Roman Church (1445) by Pisanello (Antonio Pisano)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In fact, during the Middle Ages Serravalle belonged to the dominion of the House of Malatesta based in Rimini, while the commune of San Marino was allied to the rival House of Montefeltro based in Urbino. It was in 1463, after the total defeat of the House of Malatesta in a  decisive war, that Serravalle was annexed to San Marino, which began to call itself a Republic.

The Dalmatian shore (1578) by Stefano BonsignoriPalazzo Vecchio Museum

Serravalle’s historic location near cultural and political borders has been fundamental to the vernacular’s identity as a transitional dialect. In fact, Serravallese belongs to the Romagnol linguistic group, which represents the southernmost extent of the northern Italian linguistic area. 

Foggy Landscape in the Apennine; verso: Sketch of Landscape Foggy Landscape in the Apennine; verso: Sketch of Landscape (1800–1867) by Carl WagnerThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Given that Serravalle lies in the south of the Romagnol linguistic area in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains, the dialect shares additional characteristics with central Italian varieties.

SerravalleIstituto Friedrich Schurr

Although all of today’s inhabitants of San Marino speak Italian, this is a relatively recent historical development. As long as San Marino’s economy remained rural, with tenant farming being practiced well into the 20th century, the vast majority of people spoke dialect.

The public palace of San MarinoTouring Club Italiano

 Italian, on the other hand, was used exclusively by a privileged minority. In fact, historical illiteracy rates tell us what proportion of the population spoke dialect exclusively. The rates for the Republic of San Marino were 88% in the 1860s and 79% in 1881.

A San Marino s'inaugura la nuova ferrovia elettrificata Rimini -San MarinoIstituto Luce Cinecittà

In 1909 Serravalle had an illiteracy rate of 73%. Moreover, the primary language of most literate people continued to be dialect. However, by the early 20th century the institution of elementary schooling meant that the children of the underprivileged were being taught the Italian language for the first time.

Repubblica di San Marino: cerimonia di insediamento dei nuovi Capitani Reggenti.Istituto Luce Cinecittà

The economic boom of the post WWII era and the spread of television led to dramatic social and cultural changes, which entailed the accelerated proliferation of the Italian language at the expense of dialect. 

Rosina RossiIstituto Friedrich Schurr

Today dialect tends to be spoken only by senior citizens.

The younger generations are unable even to understand it.

S. Stefano, Piazza Santo Stefano, SerravalleTouring Club Italiano

The dialect of Serravalle was not documented in writing until the Estonian folklorist Walter Anderson visited the schools of San Marino between 1927 and 1933. During his visits Anderson compiled a collection of fables provided by 7–13-year-old schoolchildren and their teachers.

Viale Francesco Coselschi, SerravalleTouring Club Italiano

The resultant publication, Novelline popolari sammarinesi, extensively and rather accurately documents how the dialect was spoken by one of the last generations of mother-tongue speakers. It is ironic that the school system, one of the institutions that most threatened the survival of dialect, in this case played a crucial role in documenting the local vernacular.

San Marino, Government Palace San Marino, Government PalaceTouring Club Italiano

Indeed, dialect speakers invariably report that the stigmatization of their domestic language was school policy. Since 1986 local poet Checco Guidi has contributed to the further documentation of Serravallese both in writing and audio media through his collections of poems as well as proverbs and popular sayings.

Republic of San Marino Republic of San MarinoTouring Club Italiano

His poems generally convey nostalgia, which is linked to perplexity in the face of a fast-changing and ever less recognizable world, in a kind of dirge sung in a moribund language.

Tree in SerravalleIstituto Friedrich Schurr

Digital Preservation Efforts of Today

Today, digital tools and technology have a part to play in preserving Serravallese language for the future. The dialect's inclusion in Woolaroo, the app that promotes and presents endangered languages to users through the world around them, marks one step towards digital preservation for the maintenance of this unique dialect in the future.

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