The Language

Friulian is the romance language that continues the Latin of the Aquileia region. It inserts in languages with pre-Roman substrate (Gallic and Venetian) are receives contributions from the languages of populations with which Friuli shared moments of its history (Germanic languages, such as Gothic, Lombard, German, and the Slavic dialects to the east of the region). We can talk about Friulian as a neo-Latin language with well-defined characteristics starting from about 1000 A.D.
There are extensive documentation records of Friulian, from as early as the 14th century, for practical and administrative uses, evidence that allow us to accurately reconstruct the linguistic history of Friuli. The fundamental linguistic character of the Friulian language is its marked archaic and traditional individuality, preserving important phenomenon of late Latin (the sigmatic plural for subjunctives, linking consonants with –l) and the development of peculiar innovations (long vowels, palatalization of velar consonants in front of –a).

The Friulian-speaking area includes the north-eastern part of the Italian peninsula. To the north the border of the Friulian-speaking area is the Alp watershed, to the east the border sometimes runs parallel to the state border of Slovenia, and then follows the lower course of the Isonzo River down to the sea; to the south the border is represented by the Adriatic Sea, whilst to the west the Friulian-speaking area borders the Veneto region, on the upper course of the Livenza River, and then runs down to the sea excluding the western part of the province of Pordenone and including the eastern part of the province of Venice. The Friulians that actively speak the language in the region are approximately half a million, according to the data of a recent sociolinguistic survey conducted by the University of Udine.


Interest in the Friulian language and literature gave rise, from the second half of the 19th century to date, a considerable number of studies and researches, for both the processing of lexicographical repertoires and linguistic studies, therefore vocabularies and grammars, to produce anthologies and literary criticism tools. In these pages we will try to present, more specifically, some key data regarding what could be defined as the “Friulian language issue”, data that on the one hand tries to frame the problem and assess it historically, on the other hand tries to outline the peculiar characters of the Friulian language.

The friulian linguistic area

We start with geography and some figures, to specify the area we are dealing with, i.e. by demarcating the area we can consider as Friulian from a linguistic point of view and by providing an estimate of the people that actually speak the Friulian language. Geography has its weight, obviously, because Friuli is and was a gateway and a meeting point for different cultures and peoples, a place where the three main ‘linguistic’ souls of Europe come into contact: the neo-Latin one, which we belong to, and then the Germanic and Slavic ones.
To the north, the border of the Friulian-speaking language is the Alp watershed, from the state border of Austria; to the east the border runs parallel with the state border of Slovenia, then follows the lower course of the Isonzo River, that separates the Friulian-speaking part of the province of Gorizia, on the right side of the Isonzo River, from the non-Friulian-speaking part, on the left side of the river; to the south the border is represented by the Adriatic Sea; to the west the Friulian-speaking area borders the Veneto region, on the upper course of the Livenza River, and then runs down to the sea excluding the western part of the province of Pordenone – with villages such as Caneva, Sacile, Prata and the main town of the province, Pordenone - and including part of the old municipality of Portogruaro, in the province of Venice – with villages such as Gruaro, Teglio, Fossalta, San Michele al Tagliamento – separated from the Patria del Friuli in the first half of the 19th century.
It is worth noting here that a long time ago Friulian was also spoken in Trieste and Muggia, and more specifically the local dialects, but was subsequently abandoned for Venetian dialects and the like. Especially in Trieste, the language change occurred around the mid-19th century, and in Muggia towards the turn of the same century. Much evidence remains of these lost varieties of the Friulian language, such as literary and religious texts. The Friulian-speaking area shows some sort of setback, though not significant, on the western border of the region, due to the pressure by neighbouring Venetian dialects, a setback that was partly offset by the expansion of the Friulian towards the north and the east, to the detriment of Slovene and German varieties found on the regional territory.

Multilingualism in friuli

Friuli can be considered as a multilingual region par excellence, also due to its geographical position. The ‘linguistic repertoire’ of Friulians, i.e. the ability to use one or more languages for verbal communication, is quite varied and includes, besides Friulian itself (in its varieties), also Italian, perhaps at different levels of expressive adequacy. The multilingualism of Friuli is also enriched by the Germanic and Slavic dialects, spoken in the northern and eastern borders of the region respectively. The Germanic dialects are typical of the so-called ‘linguistic islands’ of the Carnic Alps, therefore Sauris/Zahre, Timau/Tischelwang, in the municipality of Paluzza, and Sappada/Plodn, in the province of Belluno; besides these dialects there are also the Carinthian dialects of the Val Canale, with the main centres of Pontebba/Pontafel and Tarvisio/Tarvis. The Slavic dialects, and more precisely Slovene, are instead typical of all the valleys that border Slovenia.

In the province of Udine, apart from Val Canale, where a Slovene dialect is still spoken in a number of areas, the dialect of Val Resia, of upper Val Torre, from Tarcento towards north-east, and the dialects of the Natisone valleys, past the Ponte San Quirino area are important also due to the linguistic peculiarities that characterise them. Finally, in the province of Gorizia, the Slovene dialect is spoken in the Collio area and going further down in the Karst up to including almost all of the Trieste area. Earlier on we also mentioned that in Friuli we can find a number of Venetian varieties. These dialects have different origins that also quite different from one another. In particular, some of these dialects are considered to be indigenous i.e. present on the territory since time immemorial: here we refer to the Venetian dialect spoken in the Marano Lagoon and Grado area, but also the ‘bisiaco’ dialect of the municipality of Monfalcone. Whereas the dialect of Grado and Marano is still quite alive, the ‘bisiaco’, which in its authentic version has many features in common with Friulian, is experiencing a sharp decline, in recent years, being seriously threatened by the influence of the Trieste dialect.

Besides this type of ‘indigenous’ Venetian, we have already reported the presence of Venetian varieties, in particular the ‘liventino’ or dialects spoke in the Livenza area bordering Veneto, straddling the course of the Livenza River. Other Venetian dialects, defined ‘colonial’ or ‘imitation’ dialects, are also present in some of the main Friulian towns, such as Udine, with the udinese dialect, Pordenone with the pordenonese dialect, Palmanova with the palmarino dialect, etc. The existence of these Venetian dialects, in the middle of the Friulian-speaking area, is explained by the political and economic influence exercised by the Republic of Venice on Friuli for a number of centuries and which especially concerned the bourgeois classes of the cities, that were mostly interested in the relationships with Venetian merchants and administrators. Going back to Friulian, it should be stated that its dissemination within the region is not at all homogeneous. Friulian is stronger and more compact in mountainous, piedmont and hilly areas, isolated zones and areas that tend to be far from the main centres and principal communication routes. As regards occasions to use the language, it can be stated that Friulian fully meets the communication needs of day-to-day life, the rural and traditional environment, whilst its use in administrative or official areas is quite recent. Finally we can state that the data concerning the number of languages spoken in Friuli is not absolutely accurate. This depends on the fact that the censuses carried out every ten years do not include specific questions on the linguistic skills of the population, as opposed to Trentino-Alto Adige for example. Based on the findings of a recent sociolinguistic survey conducted by the University of Udine, the population that actively speaks Friulian, i.e. that has the ability to speak Friulian, should be around half a million people, whilst the passive knowledge of the language, i.e. the ability to understand is more or less general. In addition to this half million Friulians resident in the region there are some thousands emigrants. Or children of emigrants, that often continue to use their fathers’ mother tongue at home. As it is known, today the largest Friulian communities can be found are in northern Europe, Germany and Belgium, the Americas, especially Canada (Toronto) and Argentina (the town of Colonia Caroya is, for example, wholly Friulian-speaking) as well as Australia; these communities keep the relationships with Friuli alive through a network of immigrant associations, such as the Fogolârs furlans (Friulian hearth) and the Fameis furlanis (Friulian families). Accurate data is not available also on the size of alloglot communities. The German-speaking people living in the region probably do not exceed two or three thousand units, whilst, from the numerical point of view, the Slovene-speaking minority is larger and probably counts 50,000 units, obviously including the province of Trieste.

Linguistic history of friulian

Now that the geographical borders of the Friuli region have been outlined, we can move on to present some of the main elements concerning its linguistic history. A clarification is necessary at this point with regard to the origin of the language: it is a language that is the result of an evolution that stems directly from Latin. We state this because it is not unusual to hear that, even if to a lesser extent than in the past, Friulian would be «Latin matter with a German soul», as stated by the famous scholar Theodor Gartner. Such a definition leads us to erroneously think that the Friulian language is a sort of ‘mixed’ language, a combination or mixture of Latin and Germanic traits.

There is no doubt about the fact that the Friulian language, especially its lexicon, contains some Germanic elements (e.g. the Gothic bearç ‘grassy enclosed land next to the house’, Lombard terms such as bleòn ‘bed sheet’ or cjast ‘barn, as well as German terms like cràmar or cramâr ‘itinerant haberdasher’, bêçs ‘money, licôf ‘snack, banquet’, lùstic ‘happy, good-natured, russàc ‘rucksack’, etc.), however its structure is that of the Romance language. The substrate elements essentially depend on the presence of some Celtic populations or people conquered by the Celts, especially the Carnic Gauls, populations that left traces not only in the toponymy of our region, but also in the Friulian lexicon. Besides the Carnic Gauls, mostly present on the mountains, there were also settlements of ‘Venetian’ or ‘paleo-Venetian’ populations in Friuli, and these were completely absorbed following the Roman colonization. There is no doubt about the fact that our region was deeply Romanized and to such an extent that it was not classified as a ‘province’ (hence a sort of colony, such as Gaul, Dacia or other lands) but as a ‘region’, i.e. an integral part of the Roman empire. In ancient times the centre of the region was Aquileia, a town that, founded as municipium in 181 B.C. (the other municipia in Friuli were Forum Iulii ‘Cividale’, Iulium Carnicum ‘Zuglio’ and Iulia Concordia ‘Concordia Sagittaria’), later became the capital of the X Regio Augustea ‘Venetia et Histria’. The linguistic physiognomy of Friulian acquired its final features in the period from the 6th to the 10th century, like other Romance languages, but the first quotation of the existence of a particular idiom, in Friuli, however dates back to an earlier period. In one note written by Saint Jerome (from Liber de viris illustribus ‘On Illustrious/Famous Men’, Patrologia Latina, Book XXIII, chapter 97, columns 735-738) we learn that already in the mid-4th century and for the first time in Italy, the Bishop of Aquileia, Fortunaziano, had written a comment of the Gospels in the rusticus sermo, i.e. the language of the people or rustic language, hence in the regional Latin of the inhabitants of Aquileia.

According to glottologist Giuseppe Francescato (1922- 2001), the Friulian language is characterised by a number of fundamental phenomena: the continuity of the neo-Latin dialect also after the centuries-old Germanic occupation (in chronological order the Goths, the Lombards and the Francs); the belonging of the same dialect, though characterised by specific phonological and morphologic evolutions, to the linguistic scope of northern Italy; the character of the Friulian as language of the people, especially at the Farmers Age; the ever increasing gap between the vernacular (i.e. the Friulian) and Latin, the written language of worship and administration. We can talk about Friulian as a neo-Latin language with well-defined characteristics starting from about 1000 A.D. Evidence of the above is the total absorption, by the Friulian language, of the dialects spoken by the Slavic settlers called by the patriarchs around the 10th-11th centuries to repopulate the areas of the middle Friulian plain that had been raided by the Avars and the Hungarians. To further confirm this, one should consider the resistance of Friulian to the linguistic and cultural pressure exercised by the German world also in the period of the Patriarchy of Aquileia which ruled for more than three centuries (1077-1420), an institution that was closely linked to the Germanic empire and which was administered and controlled, at least until the middle of the 13th century, by nobles beyond the Alps. In patriarchal times, the linguistic physiognomy of Friuli was, in the end, well defined. In this respect it is interesting to read the testimony of an anonymous traveller that, between the 13th and the 14th century thus wrote about Friuli: Forum Iulii est provincia per se, distincta ab aliis provinciis prenominatis, quia nec Latinam linguam habet, nec Sclavicam, neque Theotonicam, sed ydioma proprium habet, nulli Italico ydiomati consimile. Plus tamen participat de lingua Latina quam de quacumque alia sibi propinqua (Codex Vaticanus Palatinus no. 965, 13th-14th centuries) [Friuli is a province in its own right, separate from the other provinces mentioned above, as it does not have either a Latin language, or a Slav or German language, but its own idiom which differs from all other Italic idioms. However, it participates to the Latin language more than any other language close to it]. Friuli’s function and role as a ‘hinge’ between the East and the West, as early as in the Late Middle Ages, is surely interesting as the region was an ideal bridge between the Latin, Germanic and Slavic world, but what amazes us the most is the sharpness and modernity of the observation made by this traveller. Between the 13th and 14th centuries, Friuli appeared as a region in its own right, clearly separated from the other Italian lands but not just for its different customs, State laws or other – a difference that nonetheless existed – but due to the use of a different language. Friulian is perceived as a language that is clearly different not only from Latin (and here we obviously refer to the late rather than the classic Latin), Slavic and German – that are neighbouring languages – but also from the group of Italian-Romance dialects, in general, which in any case were idioms linked to common Latin origins. This is undoubtedly a very ‘modern’ criterion for evaluating the single communities, i.e. by directly tying the identification of a population with the language spoken by that population. A clear autonomy of Friulian, also expressed through a rather negative opinion, is recognised by Dante Alighieri, who in De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the vernacular) wrote: Post hos Aquilegienses et Ystrianos cribremus, qui Ces fas tu? crudeliter accentuando eructuant. (Dante, De vulgari eloquentia, Book I, chapter XI, paragraph 5) [After these people we express a negative opinion on the people of Aquileia and Istria, who say Ces fas tu? stressing the related pronunciation]. As it is known, the De vulgari eloquentia is an essay offering an overview of the different Italian dialects examined by Dante in the search for what he considers to be the ‘illustrious vernacular’, a dialect which he considered to be superior to Latin for literary expression. The way he treats the people of Aquileia and Istria, i.e. the Friulians, is not very flattering. In particular, it is worth noting the sequence of three terms with negative connotation «crudeliter accentuando eructuant» ‘unpleasantly (to the ear) they stress the pronunciation’, an opinion that clearly communicates Dante’s idea i.e. that the language spoken by the people from Aquileia and Istria is quite far from his Tuscan and therefore unsuitable for literary expression.

The first documents in friulian

The knowledge of early Friulian, like that of any other language, starts from the study of the ancient documentary sources; in fact, it is only through these sources that we can follow and reconstruct the evolution of the language over the centuries. Traces of voices or Friulian names in Latin texts of 11th-13th centuries are quite sporadic, on the contrary, in that period in the rest of Italy people start writing in the vernacular (especially in Sicily and Tuscany), whereas a considerable number of Friulian words can be found at the end of the 13th century, especially names of people and places.
Regardless of the presence of precious poetic compositions like the sonnet E là four del nuestri chiamp and two ballads, namely Piruç myo doç inculurit and Biello dumnlo di valor, in the 14th and 15th centuries Friulian becomes the language used to draw up documents ‘for practical use’, that is administrative, accounting and notarial texts, documents that represent the main sources to acquire knowledge of ancient Friulian. 
Many are the scholars and researchers that have studied, starting from the second half of the 19th century, ancient documents in Friulian – suffice to think about Michele Leicht, Vincenzo Joppi, Giovan Battista Corgnali, Giuseppe Marchetti, Giovanni Frau just to mention the most important ones – and many are also the works and contributions published on the topic. However, most of this documentary wealth is still to be examined as, at present, a reliable census of late medieval (14th-15th centuries) written records in Friulian is not yet available, also as regards the main funds of the region – with the important exception of the Municipal Library of Udine. In any case, the creation of a wide corpus of reliable issues of ancient Friulian texts remains imperative and urgent for the entire region, in order to produce broad perspective lexicographic and historical investigation works that have long waited to be initiated or resumed – first of all an etymological dictionary and a historic grammar.

The common language and its varieties

A key feature of Friulian is its «marked archaic and traditional individuality», using the definition by Giovan Battista Pellegrini, illustrious glottologist and editor, inter alia, of the Grand Friulian Historical – Linguistic – Ethnographic Atlas, the first regional linguistic atlas of Italy. This feature, i.e. its «marked archaic individuality», is due to the historical conditions that led the Latin of our region to develop in a relatively autonomous manner compared to other Italian dialects or yet conditions that, however, caused its subsequent departure. Today, the original alleged unity of Friulian appears fragmented into a series of varieties that, although displaying linguistic traits that are sometimes quite remarkable, do not prevent people from understanding each other. In short, overall it can be easily distinguished from other languages and dialects spoken in the region (as seen earlier on, Italian, Slovene, German and Venetian). The main partition of the Friulian-speaking area is marked by the Tagliamento River, that divides, as it is said, the Friulian on one side of the river and the Friulian on the other side (il furlan di ca e di là da l’aghe), the river that in the past separated the dioceses of Aquileia to the east and Concordia to the west.
And still, from the point of view of dialects, it is customary to distinguish four main groups of Friulian dialects, divided in turn into a number of subvarieties: central Friulian (Udine), eastern Friulian or sonziaco (Gorizia), western Friulian or concordiese (Pordenone), Carnic Friulian (Tolmezzo). Common Friulian (also called koiné, from the Greek koiné glóssa ‘common language’) developed from the Friulian of the literary tradition of the 19th century (especially Pietro Zorutti and Caterina Percoto) and the 20th century (the group of poets from Risultive, writers Maria Forte, Dino Virgili, Carlo Sgorlon and others). Based on the linguistic work by Giuseppe Marchetti and the dissemination by the mestris di furlan (Friulian teachers) of the Friulian Philological Society, we currently note a trend in the standardization of the language, especially as regards aspects concerning its official spelling set by regional law no. 15/96.

Linguistic features of friulian

Many are the linguistic features of Friulian that are worthy of notice. As regards phonology, i.e. the systematic organization of sounds in languages, is interesting to note the deletion of Latin final vowels, except for –A as well as the presence of a double series of vowels, both long and short, that are phonologically distinctive. This means that the presence of a long vowel in the place of a short one can also change the meaning of the word.

For example:
1. mil ‘mille’ (thousand) vs. mîl ‘miele’ (honey)
pes ‘pesce’ (fish) vs. pês ‘peso’ (weight)
lat ‘latte’ (milk) vs. lât ‘andato’ (gone)
crot ‘nudo’ (naked) vs. crôt ‘(egli) crede’ (he believes)
brut ‘brutto’ (ugly) vs. brût ‘brodo (clear soup); nuora’ (sister-in-law) etc.

A second peculiarity is that of finding, in the Friulian language, the development of some particular diphthongs, either different or in conditions that differ from those which cause its development for example in Italian, near Latin central vowels (as it is knows, diphthongs are two vowel sounds joined in one syllable to form one speech sound):
2. lat. PERDERE (TO LOSE) > pierdi, piardi ‘perdere’
lat. TERRA (EARTH) > tiere, tiare ‘terra’ lat. SEPTEM (SEVEN) > siet ‘sette’
lat. FESTA (HOLIDAY) > fieste ‘festa’ lat. PORTA (DOOR) > puarte ‘porta’
lat. FORTE (STRONG) > fuart ‘forte’ lat. BOREAS (BORA WIND) > buere ‘bora’
lat. PONTE (BRIDGE)> puint ‘ponte’ etc.

Another phenomenon that is typical of the Friulian language, still taking Latin as the starting point, is the palatalization of velar consonants, C and G followed by A:
3. lat. CANTARE (TO SING) > cjantâ ‘cantare’
lat. CASA (HOUSE) > cjase ‘casa’
lat. CANE (DOG) > cjan ‘cane’
lat. *GATTU (CAT) > gjat ‘gatto’
lat. *GAVARE (REMOVE) > gjavâ ‘togliere, cavare’ etc.

Still as regards consonants, the Friulian language preserves some consonant links that are typical of Latin which are deleted in Italian, especially the links with –L:
4. lat. FLORE (FLOWER) > flôr ‘fiore’
lat. PLUS (PLUS) > plui ‘più’
lat. PLANTA (PLANT) > plante ‘pianta’
lat. CLAVE (KEY) > clâf ‘chiave’
lat. GLUTTIRE (TO SWALLOW) > gloti ‘inghiottire’ etc.

Talking about morphology, i.e. the structure of words, it is interesting how to make the plural of words and adjectives in Friulian by adding –s to the singular, as in western Romance languages:
5. femine – feminis ‘donna (woman) /-e’
cjase – cjasis ‘casa (house) /-e’
man – mans ‘mano (hand) /-i’
paron – parons ‘padrone /-i’ (landlord) etc.
Many are the linguistic features of Friulian that are worthy of notice. As regards phonology, i.e. the systematic organization of sounds in languages, is interesting to note the deletion of Latin final vowels, except for –A as well as the presence of a double series of vowels, both long and short, that are phonologically distinctive. This means that the presence of a long vowel in the place of a short one can also change the meaning of the word.

The "ladin issue”

To close this essential overview of the history and linguistic traits of Friulian, a hint is worth making to what scholars refer to as the ‘Ladin issue’. In today’s times, in the strict sense of the word, the term ‘Ladin’ means a group of Alpine dialects spoken in the area around the Sella Massif in the Dolomites (Badia, Fassa, Gardena, Marebbe, Livinallongo valleys) Graziadio Isaia Ascoli, a famous glottologist from Gorizia, father of linguistic studies in Italy, in its fundamental Saggi Ladini published in 1873 on the first volume of the «Archivio Glottologico Italiano», offers an extraordinary quantity of material to describe not only these isolated varieties, but also many other Alpine and Subalpine dialects – among these especially the Lombard and Venetian dialects, as well as Friulian and the Romansh of the Swiss canton of Grisons. Graziadio Isaia Ascoli carries out his descriptive work by paying particular attention to some of the peculiar traits of Alpine dialects, that the author identifies as ‘Ladin’ (for example the sigmatic plural, maintaining the I in the pl and cl links, the palatalization of c before a, traits that have been referred to earlier on. 
The long debate that will follow the publishing of the work by Ascoli, and which is titled ‘the Ladin issue’ involved and engaged the greatest scholars of the 20th century, dividing an ‘Austrian’ school of thought from and ‘Italian’ one. This debate – which is still alive – specifically deals with the possibility that the substantial division of some phonetic traits is sufficient to assume, or that it implies, also a deeper common substrate of historical, ethnic or other nature.

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