A Linguistics Ph.D. Student Seeks to Save an Endangered Italian Dialect

September 12, 2023

Chiara Di Maio, a new Linguistics doctoral student, is trying to better understand and to protect a dialect spoken on an island in the Venetian Lagoon.

Chiara DiMaio headshot
Chiara Di Maio (Photo courtesy of Di Maio)

Chiara Di Maio grew up speaking Italian, but she is also a heritage speaker of Buranelo, a dialect spoken on the island of Burano, located just four miles — but at least 40 minutes, via vaporetto — from Venice in the northeastern part of the Venetian Lagoon.

Di Maio studied and wrote about Buranelo — as well as Kenyan Maay, an understudied language spoken in parts of Kenya and Somalia — as a master’s student at Syracuse University. This fall she is starting a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the Graduate Center with a goal of delving deeper into the dialect. She also hopes that her scholarship will help to preserve it — like many Italian dialects, Buranelo is considered vulnerable. Di Maio, who also speaks English, French, and Spanish and is currently learning Turkish, recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her plans:

The Graduate Center: How different are the Italian dialects from one another?

Di Maio: Italy is made up of many different dialects — they’re called dialects, but in fact they have all the features that a language has. Buranelo falls under Veneto, which is an umbrella term that covers [Venetian] dialects that have different features — lexically, syntactically, morphologically, they’re different. Most of them are mutually intelligible. I can understand people from the same region, basically.

My grandma is from Burano, the island where Buranelo is spoken, and I would spend all my holidays at my grandma’s place. Burano is very isolated in every sense, and so the dialect has been kept a little more protected. But people speak it — even little children speak it. And I had to learn it to be able to play with other children.

I want to continue my work on Buranelo because I want to learn more about my language, and also to spread the knowledge as much as possible. I think it’s very interesting that it’s not an official language. It’s not something that you hear on TV or anything like that. And it’s an endangered language, because Burano only has a little over 2,000 inhabitants. It might become more endangered over time. This is one of the reasons why I want to keep studying this language, because I want to protect it, in a way.

GC: Why did you choose to do your doctoral studies at the Graduate Center?

Di Maio: The Graduate Center has many different specializations that I’m interested in. They have the endangered language specialization, and they have labs that specialize in endangered languages. Also, one of the specializations is syntax, which is what I’m working on. I was very interested in working with Professor Christina Tortora (Linguistics), because she works on Italian dialects as well, and with Professor Cecelia Cutler (Linguistics, Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures), because she specializes in sociolinguistics.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics

GC: What are you most excited about as you’re getting ready to start the Ph.D. program?

Di Maio: I’m excited that I will be able to work with so many brilliant professors, and to get to know the students and former students as well. One of the things I’m most excited about is being able to work and study in New York City. Because obviously, I love being surrounded by different cultures.

GC: What’s your advice for students who are considering applying to Ph.D. programs?

Di Maio: Try to find professors who have the same interest as you do. Read their work, try to reach out to them because most of them are amazing, and they’ll reply, so you can ask them about the program and also if they’re taking on students, because they might not be.

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