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


"We have the best of both worlds, even though maybe our grandparents don't think so. We can express ourselves in Italian or German, depending on what we want to say and who we want to say it to."— Florian Castlunger, 30-something resident of Bozen

It took a summer hiking trip to Bozen/Bolzano in South Tyrol to make me realise the important role language plays as a cultural bridge to unite people, but also how through history, this bridge has (and can), divided people.

South Tyrol, a gorgeous pocket of long, winding green Wiese (green fields) flanked by the ancient UNESCO-heritage Dolomites with their light dusting of snow on the Eppan peak, is tucked into modern-day northern Italy. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region was annexed to Italia after the end of the First World War, as a kind of thank you present for Italy being on the side of the Allies.

Then when Mussolini enacted his totalitarian fascist regime, he instituted a series of laws designed to "purge" the region of the German-speaking peoples which had inhabited the region for thousands of years: he forbade German being spoken at home and Italian was made mandatory; families had to change their surnames; all business was to be done in Italian; all German street signs were removed and replaced with Italian ones. Italians from the south were re-settled up north, mostly to work as public functionaries or for il Duce. For those South Tyroleans who did not comply, they were offered forced exile and their homes and properties appropriated.

South Tyroleans, a German-speaking mountain people, are the original inhabitants of the region. "Our identity has always been our pride", Florian, a local inhabitant and senior staffer at the South Tyrol Culture and Marketing Office tells me during our summer walking tour through Bozen's delightful old streets and character-filled squares. "We were never German, although we speak German. We were never ethnically Austrian, but were a part of the Empire. Now we are Italian, yet on paper only. What never waivers is our sense of who we are".

It is challenging for someone from Australia, one of the world's most multicultural societies, to put South Tyrol's history and unique culture into some kind of context. Yet perhaps when thinking about the impact of language in South Tyrol, 'context' is not the right approach, as it suggests some kind of finality or sealed off, dead end as though their rich culture has come to an end. Maybe it is more about the new 'chapters' that are yet to be written in the region's book.

This article was written by guest author, Petra Zlatevska.

Part 2 to follow next week!



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