Transcript S2E11: South Tyrolean

Here is the transcript of S2E11: South Tyrolean. You can read more about this episode on the episode web page.

This transcript has been edited for readability.


LG = Luke Green
RB = Richard Bonomo


LG: South Tyrol is a majority German-speaking region in Italy bordering Austria and Switzerland. It’s home to approximately 550,000 people, and with those people come their languages and their dialects. In today’s South Tyrol you’ll be able to hear and see German, Italian and Ladin being used as the three official languages, and there are plenty of interesting words and expressions that are quite characteristic of the South Tyrolean population and have come about as a result of the contact between these languages. But this contact wasn’t always under positive conditions. In fact, South Tyrol has rather a dark past filled with annexation, attempts at language eradication, and an impossible choice that would go on to tear families apart.

In today’s episode, we’ll hear about the history of the region of South Tyrol as well as some of the features that distinguish the South Tyrolean dialects from other varieties of German. We’ll talk about how Italian has influenced the German spoken there, how South Tyroleans might deal with the question of identity, and why German was nearly erased from this region altogether.

So let’s do it, let’s crack on with the show.

[Theme music]

This is Yellow of the Egg. The podcast where we embark on the epic hike that is the German language. I’m Luke Green, and this is series 2 episode 11, South Tyrolean.

[Theme music]

RB: [South Tyrolean dialect]

LG: What you just heard is a South Tyrolean dialect of German, spoken by someone who comes from South Tyrol, or Südtirol, as it is referred to in German.

RB: My name is Richard Bonomo, and in my name there’s also part of my history. My first name is in German, and Bonomo, my surname, is in Italian. I am bilingual. I was born in Südtirol and I speak German and Italian, where if I say German I mean South Tyrolean German, which, as they say here, quite a strong accent. And I moved to Vienna five years ago, so my accent is now very diluted, but I still consider myself a South Tyrolean and an Italian. And this some might say double identity is my identity.

LG: South Tyrol is a region in the north of Italy, in the Alps, bordering Austria and Switzerland. It’s one of the relatively few places outside of Austria, Germany and Switzerland where German is an official language. In fact, despite the region being part of Italy, the majority of the population speaks German, at around 70%. This likely contributes to how South Tyrol is sometimes viewed by the rest of Italy.

RB: Some Italians, especially the more southern Italians, don't really consider it as a part of Italy, even though it officially and fully is, and that’s probably because many people there don't speak Italian as their first language. The majority actually speaks South Tyrolean or German, and only the second largest ethnic group is Italian. Italians would always, if they speak to me knowing that I'm from Südtirol, say “Oh yes, it is a part of Italy. Even though you only recently came to be part of the country, you are still part of us.” But when I hear other people, or when Italians don't know I'm from Südtirol, they say it's not part of Italy because most of the people there speak German, and because it only recently got annected [annexed] to Italy, quite recently. So that's probably the reason.

LG: Before this annexation to Italy, South Tyrol was subject to a relatively extensive back-and-forth of annexation and being pushed around between world powers. In fact, the region has a particularly troubled and some would say dark past, which doubtlessly contributes to the difficulties many people experience with their identities as South Tyroleans, even to this day. In order to understand present day South Tyrol, let’s go back and look at its history, starting with when the region first began to be referred to by the name Tyrol.

RB: So the term Tyrol only comes into being at about 1250. Before that, the ancient name of the land was Das Land im Gebirge, so ‘The land in the mountains’. And it was only in 1250 where the Counts of Tyrol could unite the territory that comprised North Tyrol, Südtirol, and Trentino, which is a more southern part in Süditrol, under one big rule called Tirol.

LG: In the centuries that followed, this region was annexed to the larger House of Habsburg, then later to Bavaria, the Napoleonic part of Germany at the time, meaning that South Tyrol was under French foreign rule for a time.

RB: This French foreign rule wasn't accepted peacefully by the Tyroleans. The figure of Andreas Hofer led the revolution. Andreas Hofer is our national hero. And by fighting the French foreign rule, he became a symbol that lasted over centuries of the Tyrolean autonomous freedom fighters’ movement against foreign rule. And this symbol is going to be re-referred to, also during fascist rule, foreign rule of South Tyrol a couple of centuries later.

LG: And this wasn’t the last time South Tyrol changed hands.

RB: At the end of the Napoleonic wars, Südtirol fell back to Austria, only to be lost in 1919, with Saint-Germain, to Italy.

LG: The treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was signed by both sides of World War I, so the victorious allies and the Republic of German-Austria. As part of this treaty, Austria accepted responsibility for starting the war, along with the rest of its coalition. Among the resulting major territorial losses on the part of Austria, South Tyrol fell to Italy.

RB: And this was the last time Südtirol got pushed around, in a sense, between world powers, because after that it stayed part of Italy.

LG: South Tyrol remains a part of Italy to this day, meaning that it has been under Italian rule for around a century at this point. This doesn’t mean that this past century has been without its troubles, though. In fact, the twentieth century contains some of the region’s darkest chapters.

RB: Starting from 1922, fascist Italy decided that the region of South Tyrol has always been Italian and that it should become Italian again. And they enforced this idea by starting a radical Italianisation programme.

LG: The Italianisation of South Tyrol became an extreme attempt to dissolve everything to do with the German-speaking world and the German language, and to make everything Italian, from the larger structures and institutions all the way down to the names of small villages.

RB: The first thing they did was to change the toponymy of the places. So what I refer to as Südtirol, and what has always been referred to as Südtirol, got changed into Alto Adige, which is still the official name of the region, goes back to 1922. Alto Adige stems from Italy's second largest river that rises in the Alps. And the toponomy didn't only [get] changed on a regional level, but every small village got its name changed and translated into Italian, sometimes really badly and sometimes in a very accurate way. So they did some research about what the Italian name of small villages could be. And they changed those names.

LG: These name changes could be a complete change of the name into something which disregards a connection to the German-speaking world, such as Südtirol to Alto Adige. And sometimes the names were simply Italianised.

RB: The two biggest cities’ names, which in German are called Bozen and Meran, simply got translated to Bolzano and Merano.

LG: German was being systematically eradicated from everywhere in South Tyrol, from street signs and official documents even down to people’s surnames. This of course had huge implications for people’s own self-identities. But the Italianisation of South Tyrol also had other, very tangible consequences.

RB: Many German teachers – all the German teachers – lost their jobs and because teaching German was forbidden from one day to the other, and in 1925 the German language banned from public social life. The first years of school of my grandmother were fully Italian and it was forbidden to speak German even on the streets during that time. She used to tell me that adults would spit on her on the streets if they heard her speaking German with her friends.

LG: German was being forced out of public life, along with anyone who still spoke the language or still identified with the German language or with German-speaking nationalities. This essentially pushed German underground.

RB: What many of our grandparents did was to attend German lessons in the so-called Katakombenschulen. Those were illegal classes that usually took place after school hours in the cellars of farms or houses, where children could attend lessons in German culture and language so that they don't lose it. And most of the time it was the German teacher that lost their job teaching them. So obviously it had to be hidden from the regime.

LG: German wasn’t taught in schools again until after the second World War. But this is not the full extent of the Italianisation programme. Around the time of the start of World War Two, this regime became even more radical. Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were allies at the time, and it was agreed that South Tyrol should remain part of Italy, while Austria was annexed to the Third Reich. The next step in the de-Germanisation of South Tyrol would divide the region and tear communities apart. This was called Die Option, ‘The Option’.

RB: What they did was giving to German-speaking South Tyroleans this option, whether to stay in South Tyrol, but lose their ethnic and cultural identity, assuming a new surname, an Italian surname, but in return they could stay in Italy. The other option was to leave Südtirol for good, but keep your German identity by living in the Third Reich. Most of the time it was Polish expropriated farms that South Tyroleans could go into and live. In the time of ‘The Option’, each family could decide for itself, or the father of the family could decide for his whole family, whether they wanted to stay and become Italian or go and stay German. And this choice tore the South Tyrolean population apart. Some of them stayed and lost their surnames. Some of them left for good, never came back. Some of them came back but had lost everything.

LG: It took a very long time to get from the days of die Option to where things are now, where there are three recognised official languages.

RB: It's going to be only after World War Two that slow steps were taken by the Austrian government to preserve the linguistic and ethnic rights of those Tyroleans living in post-World War Two Italy. The first foreign minister that addressed the South Tyrolean's problems was Bruno Kreisky, who in 1959 brought up the South Tyrolean question to the UN assembly. And since in his view the Italian government wasn't doing enough to really preserve and address the ethnic minorities’ needs. Whereas if you only look at Südtirol you can't really say it's a minority, because within Südtirol the German speaking people are the majority. From a more national perspective, of course, the rest of the country speaks Italian. It will take decades and decades of bilateral agreements and commissions being institutes until 1990, where finally South Tyrol got extensive self-government rights and a good minority protection programme. For instance, public charges nowadays get distributed equally, or let's say proportionally, to the three main ethnic groups.

LG: Two of these groups are the German-speaking South Tyroleans and the Italian-speaking South Tyroleans. The third group consists of the Ladins, or the Ladin people, with Ladin being the third official language recognised by South Tyrol in certain districts.

RB: So for example, if there are ten public charges open, seven of those would go to German-speaking South Tyroleans, two of those would go to Italian-speaking South Tyroleans, and one to Ladinic people. That means that it’s not equal in a sense, because it's not three, three, and three; but it's proportionate because it makes up for all the time where German-speaking [people] were not in charge at all. And so, to recreate equality, you kind of have to discriminate, sometimes, in a way.

LG: This recognition and proportionate treatment of the three official languages is a far cry from how things used to be. Things have come a long way, and now both German and Italian are represented fairly in public and official contexts.

RB: So the first thing one notices when visiting South Tyrol by car is that all the street signs, all the traffic signs, are both in Italian and German. My very own ID card and my driving licence are both in Italian and German. And every official document you get is usually in double column, both Italian and German. In court you can choose the language of the trial. And most of the shop owners and most of the public functioneers are bilingual. And on an administrative level, I think the coexistence works really well because you don't really need to speak the other language to get by on a daily basis.

LG: And in the districts where people speak Ladin, or Ladinisch, as it’s referred to in German, the Ladin language is represented too.

RB: You'll notice that because there the traffic signs are in German, Italian and Ladinisch. To me, Ladinisch sounds like a mix of German and Italian, even though probably a native speaker would say it doesn't sound like that at all, and it's totally incomprehensible both to German and Italian speakers. It sounds really different.

LG: While this is a podcast about the German language, we can’t mention Ladin without hearing about at least one Ladin word. And it is quite a good one.

RB: So the Ladin word for ‘vacuum cleaner’ is literally cuciapolver, which means ‘suck the dust’. And this is something that an Italian would understand, and if you had never heard it before, really laugh about because it's so literal and it's also so- as if a child said somehow. It's really funny, to an Italian especially. ‘Suck up the dust’, cuciapolver.

LG: That’s quite direct. It sounds like a command. “Do it, suck the dust”.

RB: [Laughter]. ‘Suck’- It is, it is an imperative, it is an imperative. Or at least it sounds like an imperative.

LG: I guess it’s similar to German in that way. The German word for ‘vacuum cleaner’ is Staubsauger, ‘dust sucker’. This part of the world really seems to be all about sucking dust. Moving back to German now, what about the dialect we’re all here to hear about? What is the South Tyrolean German dialect?

RB: First of all, I'd say that the South Tyrolean dialect is very diversified within itself. There are at least five big, and probably hundreds smaller sub-categories of this dialect, and some of them being so diversified that they wouldn't even be understood outside of their place or valley of origins by other South Tyroleans. So you might keep in mind that South Tyrol has lots of valleys, and some of them people don't leave the valley for a long time, and that's where those very tight dialects are made sometimes incomprehensible. If you ask me if non-native South Tyrolean or non-South Tyrolean German [people] would understand it, I'd rather say no. I’d rather say no because in its strictest form, it is not comprehensible to others. The younger generations though, and I'm speaking of also the generation of my parents and my grandparents, who got education in German schooling and especially around the more urban areas to speak a perfectly understandable German, also amongst themselves, that would be understandable to Germans from the outside. But as soon as you leave the cities and you go up in the mountains or in the valleys, you can get people that you can't understand with your normal German.

LG: It’s very difficult to pin down one variety within this collection of dialects that would stand for South Tyrolean German, simply because of the sheer variation. That’s why there’s not really one single standard South Tyrolean German.

RB: If there was such a thing as South Tyrolean standard German, it would be the one spoken in the capital city, which is Bolzano, or Bozen. It's a very diluted dialect that can perfectly be understood by other Germans, and it's not really the standard because, in my opinion, there is no standard South Tyrolean, but it's [a] good, let’s say, compromise of other dialects and a very soft form of the dialect. And you could instantly recognise it. And it's also the dialect people from different valleys speak because their dialects are so different that they leave it apart to communicate and speak in a more German German.

LG: One thing that sets South Tyrolean German dialects apart from other German dialects in other German-speaking countries is the high amount of influence from Italian. This naturally makes sense, seeing as we’re talking about a region in Italy, but when you bear in mind the attempts in the past to separate the two languages and even eradicate German from Italian, the Italian influence in South Tyrolean German can be seen in a whole new light. And there is a lot of Italian influence.

RB: Yes. I think Italian has had a very strong influence on the South Tyrolean dialect. There are quite a lot of examples I could make. Especially the younger generation that, going to school in the bigger cities, come into contact with Italian speakers, tend to mix a lot while they speak. Both in terms of the vocabulary they choose, and the grammar, how they phrase sentences. A good example of a[n] Italian influence is the word dai. So in Italian, dai literally means ‘give’, as an imperative. But it would be translated in English with ‘come on’, or ‘don’t give me that’. In Austro-Bavarian dialects, we have the expression Geh!, so ‘go’. We also have it in South Tyrol, but it is way more likely to hear someone say, if you tell a South Tyrolean something unbelievable, unrealistic, he would, in South Tyrolean German, say “dai, dai, dai”. And in Italian, if you tell an Italian person something unrealistic or unbelievable, he would go “ma, dai”. And so this is an Italian influence.

LG: Dai, dai, dai. To my English ears this sounds like a different kind of imperative.

RB: Yes, ‘die’, exactly. [Laughing]. It sounds like an imperative. ‘Die, die’.

LG: From expressing disbelief to expressing approval or affirmation now.

RB: Another interesting way of expressing one’s approval in South Tyrol is inhaling with one’s mouth, as if you were whistling in reverse. So if in some parts of South Tyrol you’d want to express your approval, you’d go like [sharp inhaling sound]. It’s [sharp inhaling sound] to say yes. In other parts, this would vary a bit. Instead of going [sharp inhaling sound], you would go [sharp inhaling sound], quickly retracting your tongue from your teeth while you’re inhaling, so reverse whistling. If you tell something to someone and he approves of it, he’d go [sharp inhaling sound] or [sharp inhaling sound].

LG: For instance:

RB: My co-worker asked me: “Did you plough the field today?”, and I’d go [sharp inhaling sound]. Instead of saying “yes, I did plough the field today”.

LG: It's kind of like when we might use the sound mhm to mean ‘yes’.

RB: It is a form of mhm, now that I think of it. Yes, it is a form of mhm. Some people basically don’t use yes, it’s just a way of saying yes to other people.

LG: While this might sound a bit like an expression of disapproval to people from other cultures, there is a gesture that goes with it which does disambiguate it a little.

RB: It is also combined with a head moment, an upward head movement. You look at the person and you raise your chin while you’re doing [sharp inhaling sound] to express your approval. So maybe in combination with the head movement upwards, it sounds a bit more as an approval than a sign of disapproval.

LG: This is not to be confused with a similar sound used in Italian, which has quite the opposite meaning.

RB: In Italian there is a sound of disapproval which is [tut]. But that’s a very rude sound of disapproval and disrespect. And it sounds very similar, and it looks perfectly identical when you move your head and go [tut], which is a very rude sound of disapproval. I have another example since this show is called Yellow of the Egg, I’d like to talk about another interesting expression in South Tyrolean dialect, which is the word for ‘egg’. And I never perceived it- I thought about it this morning, how weird it actually must sound to non-South Tyrolean speaking [people]. The word for ‘egg’ in South Tyrolean dialect is Goggele. Meaning probably, and I never thought of it before because I always used it on a day-to-day basis, a small form of ‘cock’ or of ‘hen’. So it is the miniature version, in my view, of a hen or a cock. Goggele.

LG: That must make you look at eggs in a very different way if it’s literally a mini chicken.

RB: Exactly. [laughing] Just to remind you what you’re exactly eating.

LG: This word Goggele provides a bit of insight into a regular feature of South Tyrolean German.

RB: Because Goggele, the last part of the word is a, I think you call it, diminutive. So if you want to make a noun sound cute or small, it’s -le in dialect. So if you say a small girl, it’s not Mädchen but Mädele. Or a small and cute boy is a Biebele, a small Bub. And the same thing applies to Goggele, which is a small form of, probably, a[n] animal, that does “Goggele” [bird sound], maybe.

LG: This ending can be compared to other diminutive endings in other varieties of German.

RB: It is, I think, the -le, the ending -le, can be compared to -erl­ in Austrian. So Sackerl, Bieberl. I would say they are the same thing, just said differently.

LG: And it’s not just the vocabulary and the grammar that give away a South Tyrolean. There is, of course, the accent.

RB: Ha, oh yes. There is a South Tyrolean accent. And many, even here in Vienna, I’ve been living for five years in Vienna, they would tell me up to these days that I have one when I speak German. And it’s a very specific one, especially if you compare it to the Northern Tyrolean dialect. If Northern Tyroleans refer to their capital city, they say “Innsbruck”. It has this [kx] sound at the end. Whereas South Tyrolean is way softer. They wouldn’t say “Innsbruck” [kx], but “Innsbruck” [k]. And so it wouldn’t have this [kx] sound that Northern Tyroleans are typically known for.

LG: While there are differences between South Tyrolean German and other varieties, South Tyrol is not a desert island. Like with most dialects, there’s not a clear boundary between one dialect and the next. So there are a few varieties which share common features with South Tyrolean.

RB: When I go to Vorarlberg, when I go to Bavaria, and when I go to the northern part of Tyrol, I feel linguistically speaking at home. So I think this whole area, Bavaria, up to Vorarlberg and probably even some part of Switzerland, and the whole bigger region of Tyrol, the languages are very similar. Also the customs, for instance the yodeln or the traditional dresses, are very similar. So I like to think of it as one big linguistic family.

LG: Richard said earlier that he speaks both Italian and German as his first languages, he is bilingual. He has a German first name, Richard, and an Italian surname, Bonomo. He said he considers himself both South Tyrolean and Italian simultaneously. Of course, the question of identity and how you relate to your home country or region is not necessarily a straightforward one, and I can imagine especially if your home region is South Tyrol. I asked Richard if at all he felt rather more Italian or more South Tyrolean.

RB: This is probably the hardest question, or, this used to be the hardest question to answer in my younger days. Because, you know, I have an Italian father and a South Tyrolean mother. So that question, in the beginning, always felt like “Who do you like more? Do you prefer your dad’s language and culture, or your mum’s?”, in a way. So at the beginning it was really hard. And in school the kids ask you “So what are you? Are you a Inter Milan football fan, or are you a Juventus fan?”, for instance. And that choice always was easy. You just choose one and go “I’m a Juventus fan”, or not. Whereas with language and culture, because of all the levels on which you live this identity, this conflict is harder within oneself. And I myself identify as both. So I’m not, let’s say, 50% South Tyrolean and 50% Italian, but I am 100% Italian and 100% South Tyrolean. Because I fully lived both cultures in my youth, and so I am both.

LG: South Tyrol obviously has history with Austria. Is there any part of you that feels Austrian?

RB: No. Austria, for me, was something – up until now, where I actually live in it – was just like any other country, just like Germany or Switzerland. I never felt closer to or further away to Austria than I would feel closer or further away to Germany, before I moved here.

LG: There is a dark history behind this region. A history full of annexation, fascism, destruction of communities and crises of identity. The divide between German-speakers and Italian-speakers was a particularly defining consequence, and the ripples of this rift can still be felt to this day.

RB: On a social and cultural level, I think the difference[s] are still very big and the past of Italians and Germans still lives on in the minds of the people. Even if it's just, you know, just older people ranting about Italian dominion or the other way round, cultural differences are maybe still somewhat relevant to some people. Nowadays, or for how it is now, I notice that more and more young people do speak both languages, or are willing to learn both languages, which wasn't always the case. Also, the Germans are more likely to learn Italian than the Italians to learn German. This might be because Italians generally are a bit more resilient to learn a foreign language, but that's just an assumption, or a not-very-educated guess of mine. But I think South Tyrol is a very good example, all in all, of two quite different linguistic groups living together and getting along. So, I myself am happy about how things are, even though they are not perfect, I think they are pretty good.

[Theme music]

LG: Thank you so much to Richard Bonomo for joining me for this episode. To find out more about him, do check out the Yellow of the Egg website, that’s

Remember to follow the podcast on Instagram @YOTEpodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-Podcast, Facebook @yellowoftheegg, or send me an email at You can support me and the show by giving the podcast a five-star rating and review, and by recommending the podcast to anyone you think would love a show all about the German language. Thank you for your support

So with all that being said, thank you so much for listening. Playing us out this series are Euphoniques, this week with “No Fear”. Check them out on Spotify, links in the shownotes. Enjoy the song and I’ll see you in the next episode. Machts es gut, servus aus Wien.

[Music: “No Fear” by Euphoniques]

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