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Unit information: Italy's Questione della lingua in 2018/19

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Unit name Italy's Questione della lingua
Unit code ITAL30061
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Rhiannon Daniels
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Italian
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit will be taught by Dr Paul Howard

Italy’s rich linguistic diversity is one of its many strengths and continuing sources of appeal, but historically it has also posed a headache over which of its many spoken varieties to adopt as the standard, initially as the vehicle of literature and later as the national language following Unification. Dante was one of the first to consider the conundrum, but canonical authors such as Boccaccio, Machiavelli and Manzoni all continued to grapple with the problem throughout the ages. It was still a sensitive issue under Fascism, and would only really resolve itself with relatively recent developments in Italian history including conscription, migration and the advent of mass media. Students returning from the Year Abroad in Italy, however, will recognize that linguistic diversity remains a constant daily reality in the peninsula.

Why does this continue to be the case? Is there still a gap between the oral idiom and the written language? What do we mean by Italian anyway? What is a dialect in the Italian context? And why is the language of literature so important in Italian history? This unit aims to answer these and other questions by analysing how the debate has been framed by key thinkers over the centuries in light of the pressing social, political and historical developments of the day. It will consider successive proposed solutions to the problem, particularly in response to technological innovations (e.g. the printing press in the fifteenth century; radio and television in the twentieth century). For each of the three main divisions of the course, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Modern period, the central tenets of the discussion will be anchored in vivid textual examples, namely though not confined to the following: Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1305), Machiavelli’s La Mandragola (1518), and Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (definitive edition 1840).

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an in-depth understanding of a central theme in Italian culture, and of the linguistic diversity of the Italian peninsula in historical terms
  2. Synthesise complex responses to the core problem of linguistic diversity from a range of culturally, theoretically, and politically contingent standpoints
  3. Analyse written primary texts from a variety of historical periods making appropriate use of critical concepts as appropriate to level H
  4. Situate texts within their socio-historical and intellectual contexts
  5. Carry out independent research appropriate to level H
  6. Communicate findings effectively, both orally and in writing, in an appropriate style and level of complexity

Teaching details

1 weekly lecture

1 weekly seminar

Assessment Details

One 15-minute oral presentation (25%)

One written assignment of 1500 words (25%)

One written assignment of 3000 words (50%)

The oral presentation will be an exercise in synthesizing and communicating effectively a body of primary and/or secondary material on an allocated topic (ILOs 1, 2, 6). The shorter written assignment will be an exercise in detailed close analysis of a literary or linguistic text (ILOs 3, 4, 6). The final essay will be a wider enquiry into a chosen topic, engaging a number of critical texts as well as primary sources (ILOs 1-6).

Reading and References

Directly on the Questione della lingua:

Anna Laura Lepschy and Giulio Lepschy, The Italian Language Today (London: Routledge, 2002), especially section entitled ‘A Historical View’, pp. 19-40.

Bruno Migliorini and T Gwynfor Griffith, The Italian Language (London: Faber and Faber, 1984).

Claudio Marazzini, Breve storia della questione della lingua (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004).

Main exemplary texts:

Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia. The best edition and English translation is by Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). English translation also available at

Niccolò Machiavelli, La Mandragola. The recommended edition is by Guido Davico Bonino (Turin: Einaudi, 1980).

Alessandro Manzoni, I promessi sposi. Any edition.