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Welcome to Switzerland – Italian spoken here

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By Joe Cannavo

If  This month’s front page is not an Italian topic, per se; it is Swiss. Why would the Italian-American Herald include a Swiss feature in a publication for Italian Americans and on page one, no less? There answer is quite simple. Most Italian Americans, especially those of us whose origins are from Southern Italy, may not be aware that Italian is one of three official languages of Switzerland, so that is one good reason to enlighten readers unfamiliar with this connection that Italian has to Switzerland.

Italian language in Switzerland or Swiss Italian, svizzero italiano, is the name used for the variety of the Italian language spoken in the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland’s canton of Ticino. In fact, Italian is spoken natively by about 350,000 people in the canton of Ticino and in the southern part of predominantly German-speaking canton of Graubünden. Add to this that native Italian citizens remain the largest non-naturalized group in Switzerland numbering around 290,000 and you have an estimated ¾ million speakers of Italian in this Alpine country.

The presence of calques, words or phrases borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation from French and German, means that there are some differences in vocabulary between the standard registers of the Italian language used in Italy and Switzerland. An example would be the words for driver’s license: in Italy, it is called a patente di guidabut in Swiss Italian, it becomes licenza di condurre, from the French permis de conduire. Another example is the interurban bus: in Italy it would be autobus or corriera but in Switzerland, it is the Autopostale or posta since nearly all interurban lines are run by a subsidiary of the Swiss Post Office.

Another notable difference is the use of the word germanico to refer to German people, instead of tedesco. However, as in Italy, the word tedesco is used to refer to the German language. In Italy, the word germanico is used in the same sense as the word “Germanic” in English, referring, for example, to Germanic languages in general.

Serving the Italian speakers both native and foreign is Radiotelevisione Svizzera di lingua Italiana, the main Swiss public broadcasting network in the Italian speaking regions of Switzerland.

Getting back to the 350,000 Swiss speakers of Italian who primarily reside in the canton of Ticino, the next question that probably comes to the readers mind is “Do these people consider themselves Italian or have any loyalty to Italy at all?” The answer is a resounding no! In fact, when Italy played France in the 2006 World Cup, many Ticinese were waving French flags and cheering for the French team. I was there and saw it with my own eyes. I wasn’t shocked because I knew the history and culture of this Swiss region, which has historic ties to France and that for over 500 years the canton of Ticino has been part of Switzerland.

Ticino and its inhabitants’ detachment from Italy dates back to 1440. Ticino, then part of the duchy of Milan, fell to Swiss conquests. In 1803 the canton of Ticino became a full member of the Swiss Confederation. The three largest cities — Bellinzona, Locarno and Lugano — alternated as capital until 1878, when Bellinzona became the permanent political capital. The constitution dates from 1830, but later political disturbances have caused considerable modifi cations.

While Bellinzona is the capital, it is Lugano on Lake Lugano that is best noted for its beauty and tourism. To get to Lugano from Italy the St. Gottard tunnel on Southern side of the Swiss Alps is the principal route into the city. As you emerge from the third-longest road tunnel in the world and eventually reach the small city of Lugano, everything you think you might have known about Switzerland suddenly no longer applies. You’ll think you’re in Italy, surrounded by palm trees and flowers that bloom year-round. Yet the steep Alps surrounding enormous Lake Lugano are snowcapped! You notice the Italian Medieval architecture with Mediterranean fl air mixed with Renaissance period buildings and of course, the Italian villas. The signs at the Lugano train station are all in Italian and only Italian. The taxi driver who comes up next at the taxi line may only speak Italian. Lugano is also the home of The University of Lugano, the major university of the Italian speaking part of Switzerland.

Culturally Italian, Ticino is truly a dynamic region at the crossroads of main transport routes and has an airport located in Agno. Many businesses seek to relocate here due to the area’s strategic geographical location, but politically and ethnically it will always be Swiss.

Greg Mathias
Author: Greg Mathias

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