Rare dialects alive in T.O.
Dozens of languages not in city census stats: Expert
Paolo Frascà’s rare Italian dialect “fossilized” in Toronto and found its own community here.
“That is why I speak the dialect probably better than the people in my generation back home in Italy,” said Frascà, 24. “It’s because I moved here when I was 13 years old.”
He speaks a language particular to a small town of about 3,000 people in the region of Calabria in southern Italy. This tongue is closer to Latin than typical Italian because of the region’s late Romanization. Back home, younger generations like his don’t speak Santonofrese — named after the town of Sant’Onofrio — because it is seen as “lowbrow.”
He says that thanks to Toronto’s large Italian community, there may be several endangered languages and dialects like his preserved in the city as people continue to speak them with their family.
That’s not always the case, though. Anastasia Riehl, who started the Endangered Languages Alliance Toronto, has been documenting which of the world’s dying languages are spoken in Toronto, including Frascà’s. Some are spoken by just one or two people in the city or even in the world. Without a community to share it, those people stop speaking their language and absorb the regional language instead.
She’s interviewed more than a dozen speakers of eight endangered languages from around the world. She’s working on a short documentary detailing the stories of three speakers. Riehl has taken time off from her role running the Strathy Language Unit at Queen’s University to devote more time to the project.
Toronto’s position as one of the most diverse cities in the world — more than 30 per cent of its residents speak a language other than English or French — makes it an “as good if not better”
Anastasia Riehl place to document endangered languages.
The city’s website pegs the number of languages and dialects spoken in the city at more than 140, but Riehl estimates there are “dozens” that don’t appear in census figures. Any language becomes endangered, according to the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), when its speakers cease to use it and when it is no longer passed on to the next generation.
She says the best way to preserve a language is for children to speak it and use it.
The global context
we’re in has definitely impacted because people
have all these pressures to speak a more dominant
Paolo Frascà speaks the Italian dialect Santonofrese. He says he speaks the language better than most young people in Italy now because it “fossilized” in Canada.