Moving Against Language Oppression

Recently I returned from a trip to Italy where I attended a gathering of people from various parts of the country. I spoke to them about language oppression and liberation.

I talked about my grand-parents, who came to the United States from Italy in the early 1900s and settled in “Italian” neighborhoods in New York City. My mother speaks Italian fluently. My father understood it but refused to speak it. When I was born, in 1948, there was already an established neighborhood custom that my generation would not speak Italian. Whether this was conscious or not is hard to say. I know there were posters on buildings during World War II telling people not to speak “the languages of the enemy”—German, Italian, and Japanese. The storia segreta (secret story) about internment camps for Italians was not spoken of. I only became aware of the camps in the past ten years, when people began to write about them.

I told the group that when I studied Italian I could not speak much to my mother, because she speaks Napolitano, from Naples. Some historians consider this a way of speaking Italian and others consider it a dialect. All of my grandparents spoke “dialects.” So while I can speak a little “Italian,” it is a standardized version of the language. I cannot speak these beautiful variations.

One evening several groups of people organized themselves into the regions they came from and presented poems and songs from their areas in their unique languages. There was much laughter, because each presentation needed a translation into standard Italian so that the groups could understand each other. I found myself discharging and have had some good sessions since then. Each group’s pride and love of the language was such a contradiction to the sadness and loss I feel about having my true native tongues taken from me.

It is clear to me that a fundamental way of installing internalized oppression on a people is to take away their original way of speaking. I have great appreciation for people who speak more than one language and who fight to keep their original tongue.

Emmy Rainwalker

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Reprinted from the e-mail discussion list for RC Community members

(Present Time 171, April 2013)

Last modified: 2017-05-31 15:39:16-07