Daily Life / Summer

Venessián, the Ancient Language of Venice

07.23.16

Scientists are able to do a lot when it comes to recovering the past. For example, archeologists often succeed in unearthing traces of ancient towns. Botanists explore the plant world of the past. But what about the scientists of language, the linguists? If there’s a language mankind lost, like ancient Greek or Latin, you can never be 100% sure about how words were REALLY pronounced in their time. The same is true for the Language coded 639-3 which is Venessian, the official language of the Republic of Venice !! So what has become of Venessian ?

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Venessian is an independent Romance language not deriving from Italian but from vulgar Latin, Greek and has inherited quite a few words of Arabic as well !!

There’s an incredible amount of documents we inherited, stored away at the State Archive (Archivio di Stato, and in public and private libraries in town). Yes, we do have many written traces, from ancient recipe books to the works of Goldoni which are invaluable to reconstruct terminology.

The difference between Venessian and other languages like French or German is that these languages lived on as official state languages, sometimes spoken in several countries. That wasn’t the fate of Venessian, though. By the year 1866, when Venice became part of the newly founded state Italy, Venessian was superseded by Italian, the language of Tuscany and Florence.

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With the economic clout of the Republic of Venice receding in the Mediterranean sea by the 18th century, Venessian which acted as lingua franca, the language of business in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant for 700 years, was losing importance.

Not many people know  that Venessián was spoken until about 1950 in some parts of the former Stato da Mar (Republic of Venice “Overseas Departments”) on the Greek islands of Corfù, Cephalonia and a few islands off Athens and also on the Dalmatian coast.

Venessian was the language of the city of Venice, the Doge and the Venetian noble families and merchants. Simultaneously, vernaculars (dialects deriving from the official language Venessian) developed in town and it’s those that you can hear to this day in Venice !! Thus a variant of Venessian has survived, that’s the good news.

IMG_0921 Did you know that Venetians born in town can recognize how a person living in the sestièr di San Marco and adjacent parrocchie (parishes) of Castello pronounces words differently from a person living on Via Garibaldi (they would stress the final vowels).

We can still hear in Venice four vernacular forms of Venessian. There are also several regional variants spoken in the Veneto by approx. 4 million people.  This is called the “Venetian dialect”. True, a dialect but not an Italian one but of Venessian.

You too speak some Venessian by the way. For example, the Venetian word for “Hello” has survived to this day. When we say “CIAO” we use a word deriving from Venessian “scia(v)o” meaning “I’m your servant”.

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You see, linguists have a lot of work ahead to try and recover Venessian which survives to this day on the street signs in Venice. Street signs are called nizioléti in Venessian.

By the way, in the pictures of this post I take you for a short walk from Ponte della Canonica beyond Campo San Filipo e Giacomo at 8:50 am on Saturday morning.

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Author: Iris

Iris Loredana: Culinary historian, food and lifestyle blogger. Author of the Blogs "La Venessiana" (Venice) and "From My Italian Home" (coming soon). My family is from Venice and Amalfi and I'm currently based in Venice and Vienna. I love traveling, cooking and gardening - all the things I'm writing about in my blogs !!

9 comments on “Venessián, the Ancient Language of Venice”

    1. No, that was about 10 minutes, no crowds yet in around 9 am. Starting at the Bridge of Sighs, walking east to the next Campo (SS Filipo e Giacomo), then turning left and then right to Rio di San Provolo

    1. Most people think that Venessiàn is a dialect, but it’s the language of a State that ceased to exist in 1797. It’s currently considered an endangered language, but one could reconstruct it, vocabulary and grammar are available.
      It’s rather humid in Venice but the heat isn’t yet unbearable.

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