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Endangered LanguagesBeliefs and Ideologies in Language Documentation and Revitalization$

Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265765

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265765.001.0001

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Reflections on the Promotion of an Endangered Language:

Reflections on the Promotion of an Endangered Language:

The Case of Ladin Women in the Dolomites (Italy)

(p.75) 4 Reflections on the Promotion of an Endangered Language
Endangered Languages

Olimpia Rasom

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter investigates the linguistic beliefs and ideologies of Ladin women in the Dolomites in Italy. The reasons that lead women to speak their heritage language in a progressively globalized Europe were investigated, to identify the role of ideologies about language and culture in shaping personal views. Focus groups of no more than seven women per group allowed the creation of a constructive setting where each woman could express her own ideas, which progressively evolved as other women’s opinions were heard. Life history interviews were used to investigate the ideologies of women aged 70 and over. Results suggest that reflection may lead to greater awareness of what it means to speak the ‘mother tongue’ and the consequent implications for an endangered minority language. Reflecting together makes women aware of their own skills and fosters willingness to promote their language and culture.

Keywords:   Ladin people, Ladin minority language, women, mother tongue, language policy, language transmission

4.1 Introduction

THIS CHAPTER AIMS to identify the beliefs and ideologies of Ladin women living in the Dolomites in Italy, an area where Ladin is spoken on a daily basis. The reasons that lead women to speak their heritage language in a progressively globalized European world were investigated, with the underlying aim of identifying the role that ideologies about language and culture play in shaping personal views. This study is based upon an ethnographic approach. Focus groups and life-history interviews were used to collect the data. In particular, focus groups—composed of small groups of women (no more than seven per group)—allowed the creation of a constructive setting where each woman could express her own ideas that progressively evolved as other women’s opinions were heard. Life-history interviews were used to investigate the ideologies of women aged 70 and over. A total of 76 women between the ages of 17 and 84 were involved in the study (Ladin language professionals, mothers, students, and women over 70). Results support the view that women’s ideologies contribute to shaping the cultural and linguistic female Ladin society. In particular, reflection among Ladin women may lead to a greater awareness of what it means to speak the ‘mother tongue’ and what the implications are for an endangered minority language. At the same time, reflecting together on certain issues makes women aware of their own skills and fosters a willingness to promote their own language and culture.

4.2 The Ladin Area in the Dolomites

The Dolomite valleys of Gherdëina, Badia, Fascia, Fodom, the town of Col, and the area of Anpezo form the Ladin area, which is located in the north-east of (p.76) Italy.1 The administration of these areas is shared between two regions (Trentino/South Tyrol and Veneto), and three provinces (Bolzano/Bozen, Trento, and Belluno). The Ladin population of the Dolomites is approximately 30,000 people, who speak a total of five different varieties of the Ladin language. In Gherdëina and Badia, between 80 per cent and 100 per cent of the population are native Ladin speakers (there are some native Italian and German speakers in the villages where tourism is more prevalent). According to the 2001 census, around 80 per cent of the population in Fascia uses Ladin as their native language. In the province of Belluno, where Ladin is also traditionally spoken, data on the percentage of Ladin speakers is unavailable.

The Cultural Institutes of Badia (Bolzano/Bozen) and Fascia (Trento), and, more recently, the Institute of Col (Belluno), aim to safeguard and promote the Ladin language and culture. These institutions publish scientific reviews containing key essays about the history, language, and traditions of the Ladin people. They are also actively involved in research as well as in the dissemination of information about the Ladin language and culture through linguistic planning proposals, publications of various kinds, and cultural entertainment. They have also produced some important language material, such as Ladin dictionaries and a spellchecker. The Ladin Museum in San Martin de Tor is culturally very active, and attempts to stimulate the public’s interest through exhibitions and publications. The institute in Fascia opened its Ladin Museum at the end of the 1990s. The museum offers workshops for schools and is an important means for the promotion of local history, knowledge, and culture. Over the past ten years, the cultural institutes have organized Ladin language courses for adults, open to both Ladins and non-Ladins alike. The courses aim to help students refine their accuracy in the spoken language and acquire a deeper knowledge of the written language. This assists students taking Ladin language examinations, which are compulsory for those seeking jobs in public administration or education.2

(p.77) Schools in the Ladin valleys of Gherdëina and Badia have always used more than one language, due to their proximity to German-and Italian-speaking areas. Ladin is taught as a subject, and students use Ladin in the classroom whenever necessary for comprehension. In Fascia, parents can choose for their children a bilingual class in Ladin and Italian (at the moment this possibility is only available for primary schools). In secondary schools Ladin is taught for two hours a week. In Fodom, Col, and Anpezo, Ladin is taught sporadically. In cultural terms, there are various associations that promote the Ladin culture, the first and foremost being the Union Generèla di Ladins dla Dolomites. This deals with the preservation and revitalization of the Ladin culture and publishes the weekly newspaper La Usc di Ladins and the women’s magazine Gana-La Usc dles Ladines.3 Ladin-speaking media is limited, despite an increase since the early 2000s. Some programmes are broadcast in Bolzano by RAI, an Italian radio and television network, and some by a private television channel in Trento.4

As indicated above, Ladins live in three different provinces. They lack both administrative and political unity, as each province has its own policies towards Ladin minorities. In the province of Bolzano, the German-speaking majority holds the political power, although they themselves are a minority within Italy. Therefore, Ladins are in the peculiar situation of being a minority within a minority group, a situation that may have some advantages but which may also seriously hinder opportunities for free and autonomous development as a cultural and ethnic group.

The Ladin language is used consistently in the valleys, whereas in towns and villages, where tourism is more prevalent (bringing a greater percentage of immigrants as a consequence), it has less of a firm hold. There is a very clear difference between lifestyles in the globalized tourist areas and those in the more traditional countryside. In the more international resorts one may often observe cases of code-switching within a family away from the traditional Ladin language and in favour of Italian, or both Italian and German in South Tyrol (Verra 2000).5 In this area, German seems to hold higher social prestige, as it is the language of business and politics. But language shifts are just one cause associated with the weakening of Ladin. Italian and German are regularly spoken (p.78) in South Tyrol, and Ladin borrows numerous words from these languages, even when words for those concepts already exist in the Ladin vocabulary. Ladin also borrows syntactic and grammatical forms. According to Hagège (2002) and Crystal (2000), a language spoken by a limited number of speakers and surrounded by stronger languages risks disappearing due to repeated borrowings. In a bilingual (or trilingual) situation, the transformation of the original language at the phonological, grammatical, and lexical level is an almost invisible process, and code-switching becomes evident and more clearly observable.

4.3 The Research Study

This study explored women’s attitudes towards language policy in the Dolomites. To identify the reasons that may lie behind women’s views about passing on their native language, a total of 76 women were asked to join focus groups and participate in individual interviews. This chapter illustrates the introspective work carried out with these women and reports on some of the results. These concern the women’s ideas about their heritage culture, language, territory, and history. The discussion also explores what it means to be a Ladin woman and the ties the participants share with other women, as well as their social and political status within the community in which they live.

4.3.1 Research Perspectives

The Ladin language (with the exception of the province of Belluno) enjoys a good level of protection. Ladin can be taught at school, and there is a Ladin weekly newspaper, radio and television programmes, various cultural associations, political parties, theatre companies, three publicly funded cultural institutes, and the opportunity to speak the language in administrative offices. In the Ladin area, a huge amount of work and human resources are devoted to translating laws and administrative acts. The same holds true for school activities and projects. However, it is mothers who most often speak the language with children, making them a significant part of Ladin society. Their role in transmitting the Ladin language and culture is undeniable. Some questions do arise therefore. Where do Ladin women position themselves in this world? What do they think? What is their policy towards their native language, if there is one? Ladin language policies were made almost exclusively by men. They are policies of laws, regulations, and rules. It is the law that defines the strategies within the social system. Is there anything else? What are women’s views?

(p.79) 4.3.2 Methodology

Since the 1990s feminist literature has been very critical of the paradigms used for research, and several approaches have been developed that enrich research epistemology. A great deal of discussion has taken place concerning the methods that can be used to explore the world of women. Women in research institutes still need to devote substantial time to defining academic studies about women,on women,with women (Althoff et al. 2001; Behnke 1999; Jaggar 2008; Naples 2003; Roman 1992). Luigina Mortari states that a feminine epistemological voice ‘is not one of the possible research philosophies, but a way of seeing the world, a different point of view, it is a glance that cuts transversely the way of conceiving research’ (Mortari 2007: 131). This chapter follows this epistemological approach, which allows movement within a range of possible research methodologies, taking into account the transversal cut provided by being a woman, by studying women, and by being with and among women.

This ethnographic study was designed to uncover and explore the world of Ladin women, and the relationships they have not only with their own language and culture, but also with each other and with themselves, in different life contexts and in a particular historical moment. The data were collected from a total of 76 women in the valleys of Fascia, Gherdëina, and Badia. Four groups were created: (1) students, (2) mothers, (3) women active in language promotion, and (4) women over 70 years old. With groups 1, 2, and 3, focus group interviews were conducted (three times per group). The women in group 4 were interviewed individually. The data collected in the focus groups examined different issues. Discussions were encouraged, and pictures and ideas for short role plays were put forward. All answers became the basis for developing further reflections within the group. Women tried to imagine themselves in the future or attempted to find links with their past. The women who were interviewed individually were encouraged to talk about their lives, in particular in relation to their language and culture.

4.4 The Results

Throughout the study two dimensions began to take shape. On the one hand, the objectives originally set out were being met: the collection of data about women’s worlds, their lives, their language, and their experiences in everyday life. On the other hand, a network of relationships between the women emerged and became more and more important, including for the author. The two dimensions intertwined and I became aware that the collection of important and interesting data occurred when the relationships with and among the women were particularly strong. Furthermore, the study developed beyond the mere (p.80) collection of data. Another significant result of the study was that it gave the women the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of being Ladin, of speaking the Ladin language, and of transmitting and preserving the language and the culture. This joint reflection made it possible to open a window, making the language and cultural reality visible, and, in particular, allowing the women to become aware of their role in preserving the language.

If a mother decides not to speak Ladin to her child, and therefore not to pass on the language, intergenerational transmission is interrupted and a cultural void is created. The point of no return is reached, and the death of the language is not far off. Supporting reflection on these themes has to be considered one of the main goals of a researcher who studies minority languages. The researcher can help to bring to the surface needs, wishes, opinions, and points of view. Therefore, further decisions regarding whether to transmit the language and the culture are the result of reflection. They are not made by chance or—as often happens in these areas—as a consequence of an unconscious process of approval. Women who live with a minority language in a multilingual context have to be made aware of this. If they are, as they were during this research, then they gain an awareness that can transform them into main actors promoting the language, because they then consciously assign a value to their mother tongue, and also because the language of the mother has a very strong influence on the children.6

4.4.1 Experiencing Awareness

How does the awareness process start? For a large number of Ladin women the awareness process is born and developed at home, within the family, and with old friends. For others, it is a discovery through professional experiences, hobbies, or contact with a particular person. Chiara and Nicole, who were in the same focus group, told us how they tried to promote the Ladin language at (p.81) school throughout the 1970s, when interest in the Ladin language and culture was limited to an inner circle of activists.7 Similarly, Nadia related how she was already involved with a cultural association that promotes Ladin culture in secondary school. When she had to decide the focus of her university thesis, she chose a topic in comparative linguistics, with the Ladin language as its main focus.

Maia developed her own awareness as a teenager outside of her family, in which Ladin was not spoken. Her father used to take her to the meetings of a cultural association where she played the role of ‘the little secretary’. She had to write down addresses, put letters into envelopes, and send mail. After this, her voice was used on the radio, which at that time had begun to broadcast the first political shows in Ladin. When she was 20 she won a competition to secure a job at the local cultural institute. In the first few years she read many books about Ladin people, and her awareness became increasingly heightened.

Antonia told us how she was uninterested in the Ladin situation until she wrote her doctoral thesis. During this time she met other colleagues who were dealing with minority languages. In her own words, she became more aware of having ‘something more than the colleagues who were studying other Italian dialects and I felt proud to give my culture and my language something by myself’, something that other colleagues did not have. She was the only one who could work on a language that was also her mother tongue, and with which she had developed both an emotional tie and an academic interest.

The women involved in the study shared their pride in knowing the Ladin language. Some women—in particular, the younger ones—connected with Ladin culture and language because they were born in this area and because the language was part of their family history. Thus we find comments like: ‘I like it very much when my grandfather tells me …’ (Cleopatra). Many students said that they enjoy it when grandparents tell stories, convey local history, or relate community events. Some women expressed their desire to have a culture that connects one generation with another in order to avoid losing cultural and community experiences, and that only in this way can Ladin people understand the meaning of ‘Ladin culture’.

The women noted a gap in cultural transmission. According to the participants, during the twentieth century, when the Ladin valleys transformed their economic system from agriculture to an economy based on tourism, most people tried to forget their origins and did not pass on the traditional ways of life or the Ladin language. The women observed that they needed to reconnect to their heritage and find reasons to maintain their Ladin culture. Sometimes, new traditions seemed to arise, as in the case of a young woman who was disappointed because, during the traditional celebration of her 18th birthday, (p.82) the girls in attendance did not wear the traditional flowered hat. However, it was traditionally only the men who used to wear it.

For the second meeting, participants were invited to bring an object that symbolically connected them with Ladin heritage, with the goal of investigating their connection with this culture. Without doubt, this was one of the best and most interesting parts of the research. The students primarily brought objects that connected them with the territory (one young woman brought her climbing shoe, another brought part of a bush, and another brought a picture of her valley). The mature women brought photos of their forefathers and told their histories to the group; others brought books written by people who worked to promote the Ladin language in the past. One woman brought her doctoral thesis, and another a dramatic work translated from English into Ladin in which she had played the main role. Other items shown were books of poetry, the Ladin flag, and the Ladin calendar.

All of the women enjoyed telling the group why they had decided to bring that particular object and how difficult or easy the decision had been, often saying: ‘I also really thought a lot during this week.’ The desire to share this experience with the other women was clearly visible. It was also gratifying to see how the women curiously awaited the turns of the others. During the meeting with a group in which the discussion had strayed away from the point, one participant (Federica), who needed to leave the session early, asked, ‘Please, can we get back to the point, because I want to listen to all your voices!’

The awareness of being Ladin is expressed in terms of being able to understand Italian-speaking neighbours and German-speaking communities. In particular, in the Gherdëina and Badia valleys, Ladin women are aware of the added value of multilingualism. Language competence allows one to move across several worlds. Tania stated, ‘I can stay here yet embrace both here and there.’ Chiara reported that this does not mean that Ladin women are particularly tolerant, but that it allows them to enter into different intercultural dynamics. Sonia mentioned the multilingual dimension of the Ladin culture, and claimed that Ladin was the ‘springboard’ for knowledge of other languages and that it must be viewed as possessing a special and meaningful value. It is to be noted that women who were active in professional Ladin fields were more aware than mothers and students because they dealt with Ladin in a professional context on a daily basis. A better knowledge of the history, habits, customs, and traditions, and a good linguistic competence, brought with them a stronger commitment to and a more sophisticated awareness of Ladin.

4.4.2 Women and Territory

There was a strong relationship to the Ladin territory—the mountains, the natural environment, the forests, the lakes, and the rivers—for all of the women (p.83) involved. This may indeed be the chief point that characterizes being Ladin. It seems to be the door that opens up the Ladin world: We couldn’t be Ladin without our environment,’ said Iris. This opinion was shared by all of the women in that particular group. ‘The environment moulds our culture and our language,’ added another, and Sofia stated that, When people arrived here from all over they were surely delighted by the marvellous mountains, and perhaps because of this they invented the stories of our origin that we know. ‘8

The Ladin territory influences the ideologies of the people who live in it. One woman in a focus group summarized the situation in the following words: ‘The eyes don’t stop on the rocks that tell us about the development of our society. The mountains are a fundamental good, to know the area and to keep alive the language, that has to be done.’ She was able to express in just a few words what many women were trying to say in statements such as ‘we are Ladin because we have these mountains’ and ‘without these mountains we lose our points of reference’.

The rocks are also particularly important points of reference in everyday life. In fact, a lot of the women had a favourite rock, often those they could they see from their home window. They admired the colours and the nuances; some women spoke with them, and others dreamt about them. One woman said, ‘If I had to imagine paradise then I imagine it as this valley.’ 9 There is an enthusiastic love for the rocks and even more for the forests. Walking in them, and taking time to think and reflect, is a cherished activity for many women.

Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, Ladin women had a good knowledge of local forests and pastures, and they took care of animals, were responsible for haymaking in the mountains, and knew all paths and tracks. Visiting the mountains as a source of delight is a recent innovation, and Ladin women joined this trend, transforming it into a cultural practice. It is not about a (p.84) simple walk in the forest and mountains; it is also a walk into a world that Ladin women feel is their own property, a symbolic transposition of their own home, of their own origins, and perhaps a sort of ‘re-appropriation’ of the Ladin territory. Some of the women in the study were more aware of this phenomenon than others, but several women saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with something that had been lost over time. With the shift from a farming culture to a tourist culture, Ladin women lost a direct link with nature and consequently the knowledge that came from that world, such as a familiarity with edible plants, medicinal herbs, place names connected with folktales, and so forth. Some women sometimes manifested this loss by criticizing those who were not aware of it, and sometimes through nostalgic behaviour.

It is easy to forget bad childhood experiences. In some focus groups women remembered how pleasant life was in the viles.10 In another group they expressed how they missed the simple lifestyle of the past, giving their perception that it was a time when people were satisfied with very little, helped each other, and surrounded themselves with simple but pleasant things. These images, which are nearly idyllic, may have overridden memories of harsh living conditions, hunger, and low life-expectancy rates (Richebuono 1992: 111). Perhaps behind these desires there is a general discomfort with the hectic pace of living, which is common in modern Ladin society. In the Ladin valleys, time is measured by the tourist seasons, which entail a great commitment, in particular for women who are involved directly with hotels, restaurants, and apartment rentals. It is very difficult to escape this mechanism, as Gabriella claimed: ‘It is a wheel; if you are on it you cannot get off,’ but ‘without the money coming from tourism we could not afford to be Ladin.’ It is interesting that the women are aware that it is the well-established economic situation of the Ladin people that makes it possible for them to be a minority with great prestige.

4.4.3 Language Transmission


  • ‘How to get into the heart of the mother?’
  • Tania:

  • ‘How to transmit desire and joy?’
  • Angela:

  • ‘Everything begins from a personal passion that you live in your world.’
  • Carla:

  • ‘For the love of your world, for the love of myself.’
  • The topic of language transmission emerged every time we met. How should one pass on the Ladin language and one’s passion for it? Without passion, no language policy can be successful. This was the core argument when the women (p.85) spoke about the past, the present, and the future. A teacher (Deborah) said, ‘I’m aware that now I transmit the Ladin world to my pupils with love and I see that they love it; they want to work harder and have more hours in Ladin.’ A woman who is very active in a cultural association (Sofia) added, ‘What else was it that distinguished women in the past if not passion and love for culture and language? They were successful in transmitting their heritage to us only because of this.’

    When I asked the women to think of an era in the past in which they could imagine themselves living, answers were heterogeneous. Sometimes the respondents went back to prehistoric times, sometimes to the early twentieth century, and sometimes to the medieval period. But all of them saw themselves as having a unique mythological origin as Ladin people, even if many of the women were not especially versed in history. Considering the Ladin people to be unique was a common finding.

    When thinking about the topic, the women seemed to be aware that if consciousness-raising activities did not involve all Ladins, within a short time this ‘thread’ of feeling would disappear. It should be noted that public cultural institutions work for their own local area, while public administrations vary throughout the Ladin area. Cultural associations, in particular the Union Generèla di Ladins dla Dolomites, try to promote activities together (such as festivals or meetings) but, due to the voluntary nature of this association, the task is incredibly challenging. There are also difficulties arising from other reasons. As one woman (Alice) said, ‘Ladin people aren’t used to collaborating, they have built walls because of difficulties experienced in the past [during Fascism]; if they don’t work out the history and purge old resentments, they cannot imagine a common future.’ Her view was shared by other participants in the group.

    Other focus groups did not demonstrate such depth of analysis. Perhaps this was due to the fact that women’s knowledge of other valleys is quite superficial in all groups (including students and mothers). A student in Gherdëina (Ottavia) asked me, ‘There aren’t people in Fascia who speak Ladin, are there?’ Gherdëina and Fascia are physically very close to one another but the residents do not know each other well, with the exception of those with a particular interest in Ladin issues. The administrative division and in particular some of the political parties do not help in fostering the unity of Ladin people. Alice said, ‘If we are able to construct a Ladin society we have a future, if not, we do not have other possibilities.’ Language Transmission at Home

    Language transmission is a sensitive question and many of the women involved in the study argued that sensitivity is a female feature, in particular Maia. While it is true that many women decide to speak Ladin because they have no other (p.86) option, it is also true that many other women change the language they speak for the same reasons. Chiara expressed the opinion that a better knowledge of the Ladin people is a good way to save the language. This mother decided to speak Ladin with her children while the father speaks a German dialect with them, a decision taken to promote both minority languages. When her first daughter began to attend primary school, the mother became aware that she herself did not know a lot about Ladin people: ‘Often … you know nothing about yourself.’ Because of this she let her daughter get involved in a project to become a museum guide, promoted by the local museum.

    Transmitting a language means transmitting everything that the language may bring with it. Angela, for instance, gave us this example: ‘Rather than telling the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” to my children, I tell them “La mort e la meseria”.’11 Both Angela and Nicole discussed how they try to pass on original tales to their children. Pia taught her child the games she herself knew when she was a little girl. Maia said she tried to teach language accuracy, finding the right word for the right thing every time it was needed.

    For mothers who already had a good level of awareness it was a question of finding support; for other mothers it was a question of raising awareness with their partner. In fact, some women only needed a certain degree of practical support, as Anna said: ‘Well, I reflected a lot during this week and I have to say that there is very little that can help us in this task.’ How best to transmit the values associated with speaking the mother tongue was not an easy question for the women involved in the focus groups. Before discussing any kind of language policy it has to be understood why mothers change the language they speak. Is it because of an inevitable homogenization process, or because mothers are convinced by old stereotypes about minority language speakers? Language Transmission in Society

    Answering the question of how to awaken passion in other people, Angela said, ‘We have to find new ways to let the inner self speak, such as music, theatre, poetry. We have to read the soul.’ She added that activities that involve the individual had to be introduced, that every person was different, and a whole range of possibilities had to be considered. Maia told us about her experience as a teacher in adult Ladin courses: ‘A lot of people come to the course for economic reasons. If they pass the examination they stand more of a chance of finding a job, but after a few weeks they tell me that I opened a window to the (p.87) Ladin world for them. I’m very happy when that happens because I feel that I have passed on something nice.’ Iris added, ‘The person who does the transmitting is very important’, and Alice said, ‘Just warming the heart is not enough.’ Some of the women active in Ladin promotional activities developed other sorts of political awareness. Activist women know the language policy strategies used in minority language settings, and they considered it to be very important that language promotion activities were connected with personal and intimate factors. Alice said that she had been thinking about the social, linguistic, and political problems of the Ladin people for a long time. In her own words: ‘I was thinking about this book, this is a path we have to follow, it is a book for the school, but we don’t need a book in Badiot, one in Gherdëina, or in Fascia … We need the same book for all pupils … We have to work hard, we have to think rationally, we have to create an armour, we must have an armour and we have to create it for all Ladins.’ Alice thought that division within the Ladin people was a problem, and that survival was possible only if Ladins actively worked together. Sofia focused on individuals with strategic roles in society who can make a difference in a promotional process: ‘The right person in the right position.’ Alice, Tania, and Nicole opened a discussion on the policies adopted in different valleys: ‘We have to collaborate with other valleys.’

    One fundamental issue for Alice, also shared by Nicole, was the fact that the Ladin people ‘are poor when it comes to self-consciousness and they are disrespectful to themselves’. Without being respectful and assertive the creation of a common identity will not be possible, they said. This issue is also linked to language planning. A common (Standard Ladin) language has been in existence for several years but it remains relatively unused. This is an important issue from which a discussion about Ladin unity may start. It nevertheless seemed to be an unmentionable issue for a number of women. Many of them were not familiar with this political question—students and mothers in particular—while others were familiar with it but did not wish to share their views.

    Ladin women also discussed the importance of finding ‘smart’ ideas for promoting the Ladin language and culture. Gabriella and Marcella said they did not want anything compulsory and excessively serious, but rather a language that spoke to their everyday world. Art was considered the primary tool for promotional activities: shows, plays, cabaret, music, and writing, in a mix of original and existing productions. Carla proposed an open singing session where she could transmit her ‘enthusiasm’. Angela and Stella thought that better attention to Ladin theatre could convey a great deal of importance; other women, mostly students, said that dubbing movies, cartoons, and translating books for adults and children could make the Ladin language more modern. Maia proposed exploiting old Ladin anecdotes and stories that are usually appreciated by students learning the Ladin language in their courses. Sofia thought that it was necessary to start from the little things: greetings, the names of houses or objects (p.88) close to them, and the use of the Ladin language in personal relationships (such as in greeting cards). She said it would also be important to speak about one’s love for the language, rather than the economic interests associated with it.

    4.4.4 Speaking Several Languages

    The Ladin valleys form a unique language community, but each valley differs from the next with respect to the languages used. Every context is characterized by a particular multilingual setting and by individual plurilingualism. During the focus group conducted with women from Gherdëina, Caterina told us, ‘Do you know why? When we went to school it happened that with one schoolmate you only spoke Italian; with another, only German; and with the third, only Gherdëina, while when we were all together such a mixture came out that those listening to us asked, “What kind of language is that?”’ In fact, in Gherdëina the use of the three social languages (Ladin, German dialect, and Italian) is not a problem for the women involved in the study ‘because that’s how we grew up’ (according to Amanda). This is also due to the educational system, where both German and Italian are used as the medium of instruction. A bilingual school programme is surely one of the factors (but not the only one) that allows people to achieve competence in more than one language. In Badia, even within the same school system, the use of the German dialect and Italian is associated with accuracy. Gherdëina women are able to speak to one another in different languages without loss of fluency, while in Badia (and also in Fascia), Ladin is the only language for communication. Pia said, ‘It makes me laugh to speak Italian with a Ladin woman.’

    Since the seventeenth century, the ability to speak languages such as German and Italian has allowed Ladin people to increase their trade, and to enjoy better job opportunities.12 This multilingualism is as valuable today as it was in the earlier times. In the past, Ladin was not in danger until the valleys lost their seclusion, and other languages began to be spoken. The social prestige of Ladin began to diminish while that of other languages became stronger. Ladin remains the language of the heart but no longer the language of power, with some exceptions. In Fascia, Ladin is gaining new prestige. Nella said, ‘Ladin is now in fashion … The people of Moena make an effort to speak Ladin and I find it ridiculous … In Moena we do not speak this way, you hear that it is not the same dialect.’ In Fascia, Ladin has become something that is useful for gaining personal political prestige (administrative and/or political) and it has taken on a (p.89) new role in the social context. As Laura clearly stated, ‘The Ladin language denotes power’, at least in Fascia. This is not a unique reading of the reversal of language shift. People who are involved with the promotion of Ladin speak the standardized Ladin-Fascian in order to promote it. Furthermore, a young student said that she attended standardized Ladin courses in order to be able to speak the dialect spoken in the rest of the valley. She wished to be part of a larger community.

    For Ladin women, multilingualism is an added value. Some women discussed intercultural reasons, such as Tina, who said, ‘We are able to move across several worlds without losing anything, rather gaining some advantages.’ Their opinion was that speaking a language allowed one to become familiar with other realities, giving one the skills needed to ‘mix’ with other people, and the opportunity to understand them. Other women saw multilingualism only as a useful skill for gaining interesting jobs.

    In some focus groups we thought about adaptability. As is well known, minority language speakers adapt themselves to using other languages. Erica said, ‘We change, we can do it, but it becomes increasingly more difficult for the Gherdëina language.’ Nicole said, ‘We don’t feel our roots and one speaks the other languages without problems, but anything is better than our language, Ladin.’ Sofia said, ‘But is it right that we have to open ourselves to others in any situation and in all contexts?’ For the women interviewed, Ladin was considered the most important language, a view shared by all speakers. If this does not happen, Maia said, ‘One day the Ladin language will have disappeared.’

    4.4.5 The Relationship of Women with Themselves

    It seems to be quite difficult for Ladin women to communicate with each other. Perhaps they are not encouraged to do so because they do not need to interact with many other people; the economic situation in the Ladin area is very good, so there is no difficulty in finding a job with or without a university degree, and there is economic independence. Centuries of male dominance, along with attitudes that looked unfavourably upon social contact among women, is also likely to have contributed to this situation (Runggaldier Moroder 2006). After the focus group meetings I handed out a short evaluation questionnaire. It turned out that all of the women had enjoyed the meetings, where they could share their opinions, ideas, and beliefs, and where they ‘could be together with other women’ (an opinion expressed by Tania, Angela, Maia, Gabriella, and Carla). During the last meeting, Maia said, ‘I would like to thank you for the idea of meeting without men. It was very interesting and unique. It is the first time I experienced that.’13 (p.90) Relationships among Ladin women continue to be developed. When I asked women in Badia about relationships between women, Gabriella answered that because of her job she has no time to spend with other women. When she does have some time she prefers to spend it with her best friends. She also pointed out that when women have too much time, ‘there is time only for gossip’, something she does not like.

    Another question that should be asked is whether there are personal relationships between women that are not characterized by friendship or professional links. This question was posed to the women participating in the study. Those from Badia talked about feminist associations that work within the territory, but they did not fully understand what the question meant. The question was reformulated as: ‘Does it happen that women spend time together simply because it is pleasurable to do so? Could it be because you can talk about interesting things, or because you can exchange your opinions with a person who is not your friend?’ Laura said that Ladin women were not taught to spend time with other women, and that they were not clear as to what they had to do. She did admit, though, that she would like to do so: ‘It could be done … nice ideas could come out of it … but we have a lot of inhibitions, starting this kind of topic … no, we are not ready to do it.’ Other women indicated that the idea was intriguing. Carla brought up her idea of open singing events, discussed during the focus groups. During a meeting, one woman (Maia) stated that it was time to do something new for the promotion of Ladin.

    Amanda said in an amusing way that in Gherdëina there is a ‘female class division’: ‘On Monday the shopkeepers go skiing, two days after the hotelkeepers go skiing and on Sunday it is the teachers who go skiing.’ Furthermore, women participate in meetings of political or religious associations (this also occurs in Badia).14

    One student told us how she enjoyed Sundays, when she and her mother and sisters cooked les tutres, a typical Ladin dish. She said that she views this activity as a particularly female practice, where women can devote time to themselves. It seems to be a highly symbolic moment of sharing among women. As part of the value of cultural transmission, one can see a micro-setting where feminine ideologies are created. A similar experience was discussed by Antonia, who told us the history of her family and how it had been shaped by strong women.

    Asia looked to share her points of view and customs with other women, not necessarily from within her family, so she turned to another woman for help. (p.91) Asia’s mother comes from an Italian region, does not speak Ladin, and is not interested in the Ladin tradition. When Asia was in her teens she wanted to wear traditional dress, so the woman helped her to find the dress and the jewels.

    During this study, several female figures turned out to be very important to the process of creating a Ladin identity. In Gherdëina one imparted values over several years in order to promote the minority language that emerged over the course of the time. Nicole said, ‘She passed on to me the love for Ladin.’ Cristina, from Fascia, said, ‘When you listen to her you get the desire to know [Ladin issues] better.’ Maria said, ‘Her life, how she speaks Ladin, how she educates the children, I feel she is the real Ladin woman.’ According to Anna Maria Piussi, relationships among women are important because they allow for female mediation. This mediation is a bridge between one woman and another, ‘a transactional space between the mother-origin and a feminine “I” that emerged which permits at the same time to take the necessary distance and develop the identity without risk’ (Piussi 1989: 89).

    Women often identified with the female characters of Ladin tales and tried to find an image of themselves in the relationships with the characters. They enjoyed thinking that they were part of a life in which women had more power (in particular, freedom of speech and thought). They were convinced of their strength of character and will, because they inherited them from their grandmothers. This could also be read as a strategic promotion: conferring power to oneself and to other women means legitimizing all women, situating them in a symbolic order that forms a feminine world.

    4.4.6 Women and Politics

    There is not a strong tradition of Ladin women being involved in government politics. Only a few have political positions in local administration, and the number of women involved in political parties is small (in the municipal elections in 2010, Ladin women won 22.5 per cent of the total number of posts). The situation is quite similar in neighbouring areas and in Italy as a whole, where there is a significant lack of female involvement in politics.

    Women in Ladin areas have always played the strongest role in managing the family, because men would emigrate for several months a year. They usually left the valley in spring and came back in autumn. During those months in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the women in a family had to look after the farm, tend the animals, and bring up the children.15 After the Second World War, life in the Dolomites changed completely. A huge number of hotels, apartments, and restaurants opened, and this process engulfed the entire (p.92) population who lived in the valleys (in particular those in Anpezo, Fascia, and Gherdëina). People who did not own a business could nevertheless work for the tourist industry, and women understood that they had an opportunity to gain economic independence. A large number of tourist businesses are now run by Ladin women. With all of these interests and responsibilities, it is understandable that politics was not a priority. ‘The only thing that belonged and still belongs to men is politics, all the rest is held by women in one hand,’ said Sofia ironically.

    The women who took part in the focus groups who did not take an active interest in politics thought that it was a field that was traditionally the province of men, and that entering it would mean adapting to a world that they do not like. Perhaps it would be best to say that they had an interest in politics, as was apparent when they spoke about their futures and pasts, of the different opportunities for Ladin people or villages. They did not like the politics of the various local and national parties, as they did not recognize themselves as playing a part in the way political issues are managed.16

    But what do women think politics is? Politics is tout court the politics of parties, and the policies that administrate the public good (at the local, provincial, regional, and national levels). All of the activities that take place outside of political parties are not called ‘politics’ but rather ‘volunteer activities’, ‘taking care of something’, or ‘devoting time to fulfilling a particular interest’. The women in this study worked for several associations and found it ‘natural’ and ‘honest’, while for most of them, being involved with a political party was viewed as an experience to be avoided. When they were invited to speak about politics most of them replied, ‘No, please, politics no’, ‘I don’t like politics’, ‘I don’t understand politics’, and so on. Since the 1980s, women and feminist movements have considered politics to be an arena for ‘women’s politics’, in order to attempt to give additional meaning to policymaking in the world, including drawing attention to new points of view and promoting new roles for women (Cigarini 1995). Ladin women are generally not aware of these efforts.

    Those women interviewed who were involved in politics considered their commitment to be problematic, and often felt alone. The only woman in the group who had experience as a local municipal representative admitted that ‘politics is difficult and is connected with a lot of clichés’. She recognized the (p.93) difficulty in managing relationships in the political world, but she also admitted that women often do not support each other. She expressed the view that women were envious when other women wanted to leave the group, as a teacher (Deborah) said when speaking about relationships between teachers: ‘That’s alright if you remain in your role but if you try to fly high … stop! You can’t.’ It seems that Ladin women do not like it when other women attempt to do something different. They expect additional competence, skills, and knowledge. Isabella said, ‘Because you don’t trust a woman’, and Gabriella said, ‘If you are not well prepared, don’t do it.’

    Involvement with cultural associations is not considered to be ‘real’ politics, and is perceived as having less value. From the above discussions it emerged that it may be time to initiate a new way of getting Ladin women involved in society and politics, especially concerning language policies. All of the women in the study stated that they have extensive knowledge, abilities, and skills that could be used in a more targeted fashion. They were asked: where are all these strong women nowadays? Nicole replied, ‘We are those women, we have great potential but we need to come out and take our place. We have to do it in cultural and educational fields.’

    4.5 Conclusion

    How can Nicole’s proud stance above be interpreted? From the focus groups the following view has emerged with regard to safeguarding and promoting the Ladin language: the role of women is not yet visible, clear, or considered; their capabilities are yet to be revealed and expressed. Language policy does, however, have to consider women’s needs and wishes. On the other hand, women have to reflect on and should give voice to their needs and wishes. During the research, one need emerged clearly: the need to reflect on senses and meanings. Many women wish to analyse and deepen the meanings that are assigned to important parts of their lives. If women do not find a link between the meaning assigned by themselves and the meaning assigned by language policy, then they become detached from the debate.

    According to the results of this study, women do not like to actively take part in language policy. One of the reasons is the difference in meaning of various terms. Let us take as an example the meaning of ‘mother tongue’. If language policy considers Ladin a ‘minority language’ or a ‘lesser-used language’, then the language consequently assumes these labels that are assigned to it. This is generally not how the women interviewed would describe the language themselves. The mother tongue is not tout court the minority language that has to be safeguarded. The minority language is politicized and sometimes also exploited for political reasons. In addition, the minority language is studied in its (p.94) syntactical, grammatical, and lexical parts. For women, however, the mother tongue is indeed the language of their own mother, the language that permits them to interact with and experience the world. It is a living language that puts one at ease, and it is the language of confidence and trust.17 Before designing a possible language policy—which should also include the feminine universe—it is necessary to reflect on the meanings that ‘mother tongue’ has for women. Reflecting on these issues, if possible among women, is the cornerstone upon which a language planning strategy that takes women into consideration should be constructed.

    According to the results of this study, the participants were conscious of the richness of their heritage, and their awareness increased during our meetings, during which they tried to imagine themselves as the director of an advertising campaign promoting the language, or having to organize a ‘Ladin Women’s Day’. Being a part of a women’s group that shares the same ideology (love for their history, love for their territory, and love for their traditions) gave strength to each of them, and set into motion ideas and the will to improve their language and culture. According to the results of the study, women do not need particularly expensive promotional activities; they are often satisfied with ‘little things’. These should ideally have a personal meaning for everyone.

    This important goal is actually not so easy to achieve. It means that language planners have to consider the individuality of each person living in a minority language context. In a few words, language planners have to face ‘subjectivity’, although it is seemingly easier to maintain a distance and work on ‘objective’ issues such as laws and scientific activities, rather than focusing on research that involves people, and which brings about a real change in the individual.

    During the research the women interviewed demonstrated that they could create settings where the promotion of the language can embody both their own personality and the needs of women’s communities. Even though they were having fun when proposing ideas for organizing an event, they genuinely showed the possibility of creating something effective that can encompass the whole person, body and soul, private and public, subjective and objective. These kinds of activities were usually closely connected with the arts. In fact, the women interviewed strongly believed in the power of the arts: theatre, music, poetry, cabaret, literature, fashion, and creativity in general. All of these could be used for promoting the value of the Ladin language and culture among women.

    Those involved in the research consider Ladin culture as having passed its best. They are not used to thinking of Ladin as a culture created by each woman and man, day by day. Obviously, to be able to look to the past is important as a source for every culture; it is a place where women can find their roots, an oral (p.95) history with a long tradition, and—in the case of the Ladin culture—an original mythology. But merely looking to the past in order to legitimize Ladin culture is a trap that risks transforming that culture into something without life. Keeping a culture alive means using the past to stimulate everyday life, thus allowing it to thrive in the future.

    Language is the essential means for giving a voice to Ladin culture; at the same time the culture is in the content of the language. The results of this study demonstrate that Ladin women need to become more aware of their voice if they want to have opportunities in the future to be ‘Ladin’. Women in minority language areas are often compelled to find meaning in speaking their language and living their culture, as opposed to women who speak national or widespread languages, who can take their culture and language for granted. For minority language speakers this is their strength and weakness at the same time. If Ladin women are able to construct meaning and to become aware of their reality, this could be a turning point that could enable the survival of the Ladin language and culture. Because what could be better and more satisfying than rescuing something that seems to be destined to disappear? What could be better than providing a future for a language that belongs to personal history? What could be better than creating a little bit of culture every day? Creating and recreating life is a question of sensitivity, and sensitivity is, according to the women who participated in this study, a female feature.


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    Proceedings of The British Academy, 199, 75–96. © The British Academy 2014.

    (1) Names in Italian: val Gardena, val Badia, val di Fassa, Livinallongo, Colle Santa Lucia, and Cortina d’Ampezzo; names in German: Gröden, Gadertal, Fassatal, Buchenstein, Colle Santa Lucia, and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

    (2) The Second Statute of Autonomy, signed in 1972 between the Italian Government and the province of Bolzano/Bozen, consisted of a series of regulations, which, over the course of 20 years, brought about the recognition of the cultural and linguistic diversity of the two minorities, German and Ladin, in all social contexts. In the province of Trento different regulations have been implemented, with special reference to language policy and school management. Following this recognition, a new Ladin section was formed at RAI (the Italian state radio and television network, which broadcasts in Ladin), the diffusion of the Ladin newspaper La Usc di Ladins was increased in its weekly form, Ladin became compulsory in all schools, an office for language planning at the local administration of Fascia was built (Comun General de Fascia), and Ladin was introduced into public administration. All of these promotional activities permitted the creation of new jobs for teachers, translators, linguists, journalists, and others.

    (3) The women’s magazine appears every four months with an eye-catching layout. It is edited by a group of women who have a passion for promoting the Ladin language and who enjoy building relationships with other women. The articles in the magazine deal with the Ladin language as well as current affairs; topics are not limited to Ladin events (online edition: www.ganamagazine.com).

    (4) The state network (RAI) transmits 15-minute daily television broadcasts and a 30-minute weekly cultural programme. The private network (TCA-TML) broadcasts programmes throughout the day in the minority languages spoken in the province of Trento. The broadcast in Ladin is about one hour a day.

    (5) A recent survey by Dell’Aquila and Iannàccaro (2006: 77) observed different realities in the Ladin valleys. In some contexts, such as that of Fascia, the co-presence of Italian and Ladin does not diminish the importance of the Ladin language, even if a reverse in Ladin language shift cannot be expected.

    (6) The philosophers of the feminist philosophical community Diotima have written a great deal on the mother tongue (AA.VV. 1998); of particular interest and originality is the thinking of Luisa Muraro (1995, 2006), Chiara Zamboni (2006), and Jankowski (1998). Zamboni (2006: 10) describes the mother tongue in this way: ‘The mother tongue is affective speaking, carnal speaking, learned in infancy, which accompanies us in the truest moments of our existence. Its truth is not immediately available. It is for that reason that we are searching: it is precisely in these times of ours that the truth is not manifest, and that the mother tongue is close to us and yet hidden. But this leads us to play a bigger, richer game, in which more bets are possible.’ With regard to the experience of the mother tongue, Jankowski (1998: 31) writes: ‘The experience of the mother tongue possesses a religious quality in that the first word—that absolute first word which the mother induces and receives like one word that contains everything, her entire self, her own name—will always remain beyond any dimension that is merely linguistic, it will never allow itself to be reduced purely to a word: it is promise, incantation, song and amazement, trust and nourishment, closeness and origin, it is tactile and sonorous, concrete and abstract, a symbol and yet not a symbol, it is where positive and negative are still kept together. Because of all of this, it opens up experience to the divine dimension.’

    (7) All names are pseudonyms.

    (8) Ladin myths are very interesting and special, and are rich in female figures, particularly the ganes, mythical women with a great knowledge of the forces of nature who lived within female communities outside villages. The women could have relationships with human beings, but in the event of any cheating they would disappear. The ganes are known throughout the Alps under a variety of names. The ganes belong to the tales about roots, and are the common feature that connects all of the Ladin people of this area. The contìes (tales) tell us that the first men and women were made from stones or were animals, or else they came from the moon. All people look for their roots in the ‘before time’ (illo tempore) and usually make it conform to the world in which they live. The croderes, or stone people, were creatures without emotions, led by a woman named Tanna who had a human heart and who reigned over all the mountains, wearing a blue crown. Samblana was the queen of an ice realm. The queen reflected away the rays of sunshine with a blue mirror, thus maintaining her rule and keeping the soul of her twin in an ice-cold world. Similar to other female characters, women are, according to Ulrike Kindl, mistresses of time and space, of life and death, and as numinous figures are the equals of the mythical protagonists of other great cultures (Kindl 2007: 113).

    (9) In an interview carried out for another study, a woman in her 80s described how, when she felt distressed, she prayed to the mountains and thanked them because they made her life less hard (interview with T. B.).

    (10) The viles were the typical homes of Ladin people. They were small groups of houses that included living quarters, a stable, and a barn. No more than eight to ten families could live in each vila.

    (11) ‘La mort e la meseria’ [‘Death and Misery’] is a tale in Ladin with Death and Misery as the main characters. It is a story that deals with some important existential questions. The tale is set in different environments and is known in other areas, such as Turkey and southern Italy, in a different form. Rather than focusing on the originality, it seems that the women interviewed tried to reconnect their culture with the cultural context of past generations.

    (12) At the end of the seventeenth century the people of Gherdëina began to take their wooden goods outside the valley. The people of Fascia were known primarily as painters, but also as mediators at the markets in big towns outside of the valleys. The people of Anpezo did a great deal of business with Austria and Venice (in the timber and furniture trades)

    (13) The experience of being among women remains one of the core points of Italian feminism. Being with women permits the experience of feminine freedom, because freedom is not a set of constitutional, civil, and political rights but rather a space that makes it possible to feel the sense of being a woman (Cigarini 2004: 1). During the research women felt several moments of ‘freedom’.

    (14) The Ladin area has a long and strong tradition of Catholicism. The valleys are close to Trento, city of the Council of Trent during the years 1545 to 1563. The Ladin area is also close to the German area where the Protestant Reformation began. Several of the women interviewed considered faith to be an important feature of being Ladin in modern times.

    (15) A very peculiar situation distinguished the women of the Gherdëina valley. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many women used to carve and paint wooden objects, and houses became cottage industries, leading to both advantages and disadvantages. The women gained powerful status, as a report from 1864 (Runggaldier Moroder 2006: 67) indicated: ‘Recently women have begun to carve just like the men; some of them are better, and because of this they earn more. For this reason men of Gherdëina have to marry someone who is good at carving rather than someone who is rich but does not earn on her own.’

    (16) The students do not like the manner used by local politicians to gather votes. One student said, ‘He came, asked me, “How old are you?” and when I answered, “Seventeen”, he turned back without a glance.’ Another student said, ‘they come and buy you a pizza, they ask for your vote and then you’ll never see them again.’ Many of the mothers said, ‘Politics is merely a compromise.’

    (17) With regard to the sense and value of a mother tongue that is simultaneously a minority language, see Rasom (2010).