Alto Adige – Südtirol, the triumph of multilinguism

One things I always wanted to do is to go and visit the Alto Adige and Südtirol region of Italy. Various reasons for this. It had the Dolomites, which of course are unique. But also because I was always fascinated of this piece of Tyrol, which ostensibly is ‘Italian’ but it’s spirit is German.

The fact that there are ethnic/linguistic minorities in European countries is not exceptional. I think – as a generalisation – that many people from English Speaking countries maybe don’t see the substantial differences in some European Nations. These states really developed when the the concept of an unified Nation State developed in the 1800.  Germany and Italy, did not exist as nations before the mid 1800’s with Italy being created in 1870 and Germany in 1871.  Interestigly these two nations took the idea of national identity to violent extremes 60 years later with fascism and nazism, but I’ll leave that to historians.

The United Kingdom was created after plenty of wars and conquests etc. but with the exception of Ireland (and some Scottish separatism) it was fairly sorted out by the start of the 20th century.  Italy is still now a country with fairly weak sense of national identity.  The mediaeval imprint of family, then close friends, neighbourhood, region etc. seems still be imprinted in the Italian DNA. When I see medieval towers in Italian cities which were owned by different feuding families I wonder how much of that is still imbued in the Italian character. Even Mussolini said that governing Italians is not difficult, it’s futile.

But back to the Süd Tyrol.  The way Italy got this region is somewhat disputed, was it annexed? Or was it part of it’s retribution for fighting the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which was aligned with Germany) in the First World War?  The history of this region is quite troubled, and even now, the relationship between the majority of German speakers, and the minority of Italian speakers is can be problematic. And of course there is a section of the German speaking population that doesn’t want to be part of Italy, or Italian citizens. 

 So we went to the town of Ortisei/St Ulrich/Urtijëi.  You would have seen that the first name of in Italian, the second is German and the third is in Ladin, one of those languages that have survived since Roman time in Alpine valleys.  I was wondering whether me speaking Italian could fe resented. As far as I saw there were no problems. Perhaps because I was speaking English as well, and I wasn’t identified as an ‘Italian’ as such, or I was a tourist, but I never felt that my use of Italian was an issue, in fact it was welcomed by those who couldn’t speak English well. What impressed me was the fact that the population can switch between three languages with ease showing a triumph of multilinguism

It was strange to be in a place that was in Italy, but it didn’t feel as such. Most of the people either spoke in Ladin or German, and the architecture was definitely Tyrolian.  I was thinking how it would be perfect for me if such a place exited, but instead of German the other language was English.  I could use both languages everywhere and so would everyone else. I would feel perfectly at home.  

Of course the main reason of going to this part of Italy was to see the Dolomites, and they didn’t disappoint.


They were stunning, and as someone who studied Geology/Geomorphology at uni, it is even more astounding that these mountains were formed as coral 250 millions of years ago in a tropical sea about 30 degrees of latitude.  So basically the Dolomites are a Great Barrier Reef who was over geological time uplifted and with tectonic forces located where it is now.  In early days, before the concept of evolution and geologic tome was known, seeing fossils of marine fauna in this rock so high and so far from the sea confused the beegesus out of people.  

As Carl Sagan said: 

The surface of the earth is far more beautiful and far more intricate than any lifeless world. Our planet is graced by life and one quality that sets life apart is it’s complexity.

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1 Comment

Filed under Italy, Musings

One response to “Alto Adige – Südtirol, the triumph of multilinguism

  1. ” I was thinking how it would be perfect for me if such a place exited, but instead of German the other language was English. I could use both languages everywhere and so would everyone else. I would feel perfectly at home. ”
    For that you can try Malta, providing you like vacationing also at the beach, and not only on the mountains.

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