Neapolitan is a Romance language spoken by about 7.5 million people, principally in Southern Italy, but also in immigrant communities in the United States, Germany, Northern Italy, Argentina, and Australia. The term “Neapolitan” is used broadly to refer to the differing somewhat mutually intelligible varieties, descending from Latin and spoken in the former Kingdom of Naples. Neapolitan is related to, but generally not mutually intelligible with Italian. From a linguistic point of view, it is a not a dialect of Standard Italian, from which it developed quite independently, but a Romance language in Italy, descended from Latin.
Moreover, Southern Italy has been dominated by many different peoples over the centuries, with each group leaving its mark on the local language. Already in the 9th century B.C.E., coastal Southern Italy was in the process of becoming Magna Graecia, a Greek settler colony where a unique variety of Greek continued to be used well into the 9th century C.E. There were encounters with Samnite tribes who spoke the now extinct Oscan language, and in the 3rd century B.C.E., Southern Italy became a region of the Roman Empire, leading to bilingualism in varieties of Latin and Greek.
Roman (Latin) and Greek influences were formative, but significant influences came from the Lombards (originally Germanic-speaking), the Spanish (who ruled the region), the Catalan, the French, the Arabs, the Americans (English), and other Italian groups. After serving as capital of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies between 1815 and 1860, Naples and the South were absorbed into the new Italian state.
Neapolitan is considered vulnerable to extinction due to declining intergenerational transmission and the overpowering influence and prestige of Standard Italian. Although there is a written form of the language, the majority of speakers do not write the language, and there is disagreement on how it should be written. While Italian has been a literary language across Italy for centuries, the unification of Italy made it a language of governance, the economy, and society, crucial for advancement.
Everyday communication and the arts have been strongholds for Neapolitan, but today use of the language is often taken as a sign of being provincial and working class. By official estimates, less than a third of young people will speak Neapolitan by the end of the century, and that will probably be in an increasingly Italianized form (Colluzzi, 2008).
One particular notable feature of Neapolitan, rare in the languages of the world, is Rafforzamento Sintattico, the doubling of initial consonants in certain syntactic positions. In addition, initial doubling can be found at the beginning of words, even without a preceding vowel. This is apparently only found in Central-Southern Italian dialects and Pattani Malay (Romano, 2002). The phenomenon is so widespread that it is present even among people in much of southern Italy who would say they do not speak “dialect.”
Ancient Greek varieties has influenced the Neapolitan lexicon:
The way of expressing family ferms may follow a pattern that ultimately derives from Greek, with the possessor coming after the family term:
|Mio padre||Pateme||My father|
|Mia mamma||Mammmame||My mom|
|Mio fratello||Frateme||My brother|
Spanish and French words entered Neapolitan centuries ago:
|Garçon||Garson||Bachelor [in Neapolitan]|
|Don||Don||[Respectful form of address]|
Above all, Standard Italian has influenced all aspects of Neapolitan, but most noticeably the lexicon as Italian proceeds to replace Neapolitan all across Southern Italy. Although Neapolitan is relatively robust and widely spoken compared to other Italian varieties, an “Italianization” process began in earnest during the World Wars and with the coming of mass media. Since the mid-1990s there has been a resurgence of interest and activism, especially among younger people, but even so a significant amount of Italian is now often mixed with Neapolitan.
Neapolitan, in some of its many varieties, has been the subject of numerous studies, including one of the very first detailed descriptions of gesture ever made, by Andrea De Jorio in 1832. More recently, Adam Ledgeway’s grammatical description is notable for examining changes in the language over time. Wordlists tracing Neapolitan etymologies to French (by Alessia Mignone) and Spanish (by Giovanna Riccio) have illuminated the layers of influence in the language.
Neapolitan, and especially the variety spoken in Naples, has had a huge impact on the variety of Italian that developed in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Italy was unified in 1861, but there was subsequently an economic crisis in the former, once prosperous Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This, combined with new possibilities for immigration, resulted in some 80 percent of Italian immigrants coming to America being from Southern Italy (Molnar, 2010). Additionally, since the majority of people spoke their home “dialect” and did not know Standard Italian, there formed in some contexts and communities a mixed language that combined elements of different dialects.
The Southern Italian variety that had the most prestige and was perhaps most widely known was the Neapolitan spoken in the city of Naples, the region’s largest and the former capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, where it was a lingua franca. In the United States, Neapolitan speakers influenced and interacted with speakers of Sicilian, Calabrese, Pugliese, and other varieties, especially in the multidialectal immigrant neighborhoods of cities like New York.
Today speakers are more dispersed and tend to be more elderly, but there remain scattered speakers in neighborhoods like Ridgewood, Queens; Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; Arthur Avenue and Morris Park in the Bronx, and in the suburbs of New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island. In New York, there are still many clubs and organizations promoting Southern Italian culture, language, and identity, including Veraci and the Two Sicilies Committee. The Endangered Language Alliance has worked with Neapolitan poet Charles Sant’Elia who speaks the variety spoken in Naples and has partnered with Professor Massimiliano Verde, President of the Accademia Napoletana in Naples, who has generously helped with his linguistic expertise.
Neapolitan, a lingua franca spoken across much of southern Italy for centuries, remained to some degree a lingua franca for the mostly southern Italian immigrants who entered New York in large numbers beginning in the late 19th century. In the following decades, Neapolitan music, particularly songs sung in Neapolitan, became big business both in Italy and New York. To some extent, local related varieties such as Irpino, with speaker communities in different parts of the New York area, are also grouped under Neapolitan, though they remain distinct.