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South Tyrol, Italy – Where language shapes identity II Von Petra Zlatevska

03.11.2014

South Tyrol's unspeakable beauty belies its turbulent past—following the Second World War as part of the peace negotiations, a political autonomy blueprint for South Tyrol was negotiated between Austria and Italy, without a real outcome. In the decade that followed, there was a strong pro-independence movement seeking to break away from Italy. Blowing up of electricity pylons, monuments, railway lines and attacks on Italian public figures were commonplace so much so that Austria brought the South Tyrol question before the UN General Assembly in the early 1960s.

What ensued in 1972 after years of negotiations, was one of the world's most advanced models of political autonomy—South Tyrol has its own bi-lingual parliament with powers normally granted to federal governments including finance, tax, social affairs, transport amongst others, and a unique education system. Everything appears in both languages as a condition of the UN Resolution—from street signs to every single law passed in the Parliament. Pre-schools and high-schools (Liceo or Gymnasium) tend to be either exclusively German-speaking or Italian-speaking but depending on where your child goes, their first "foreign" language will of course be either German or Italian. The Bozen/Bolzano Free University, Europe's first tri-lingual university, was founded in 1988 and its 4000 or so students take courses in Italian, German and English. Business people slip in and out of German and Italian during meetings as swiftly and effortlessly as a dancer at the Moulin Rouge changes costume backstage. The region's model of political autonomy is often studied by experts as a positive model for other hotspots around the world—Israel and Palestine, Cyprus and the Basque Country in Spain.

In some of the smaller towns and villages, Ladinisch (Ladin—a local mountain dialect) is also spoken so that you could, for example, go to lodge a tax form at your local Behörde, speak Ladinisch to the local Beamter, be replied to in German and be asked to fill out a form in Italian. Italian and German are spoken in almost equal measure on the streets of Bozen. Yet up in the mountains, German reigns supreme: Around 70% of South Tyroleans are native German-speakers, 25% are Italian and 5% speak Ladin as their first language. Mostly because, as Florian explained, during the population swaps of the 1940s, many of the migrants form the South came to work in the cities, whereas the South Tyroleans have always been mountain people who traditionally have been involved in the agricultural and wine sectors.

Florian explained that most of the younger population, that is everyone born after 1970 or so, is fluent in both languages. Whereas the baby boomers and his grandparents' generation are still largely either German-speaking or Italian-speaking. "We younger people see this linguistic richness as a blessing, as a way to have a mixed group of friends and see things from their perspective. Our grandparents, however, are not as open as us, obviously due to history."

Like all regions in Europe with bi- or tri- cultural realities, the Flemish region in Belgium, for example, Catalonia or the Basque region in Spain, or Switzerland, identity, culture and politics are inextricably intertwined. I got the sense during my stay in South Tyrol that "who we are" is a subjective state of being, and determined by what we feel we are, not necessarily by objective standards imposed by a government or regional authority about what we are supposed to be.

I wonder how you would express all those sentiments in German, Italian and Ladin?

This article was written by guest author, Petra Zlatevska.

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