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C - 22 : Memories of Languages

When sailing up the Dalmatian coast we will hear the cacophony of tourist chatter but only one domestic language: Croatian. Architectural memories of the glorious Roman or Venetian past are everywhere but their language is gone. Dalmatia's population today is homogeneous and Croatian.

It was once a bit different. After the Roman Empire ceased to exist in the 5th century AD, the towns on the Dalmatian coast continued to speak Vulgar Latin. What created today's French - Vulgar Latin blended with Celtic - had an equivalent in Dalmatia. Vulgar Latin mixed with the Illyrian language and became Dalmatico. To illustrate it with an example: the Latin word for head is caput. Roman soldiers in Gaulle used testa (shard) instead given the heads vulnerability. Testa became tête in French. In Dalmatico, caput became kup.


Attracted by the emptiness of the Balkan after several pandemics and the westward move of the Goths, the Croatians' ancestors moved slowly and peacefully into Illyria. By 700 AD they were firmly established. These Proto-Croatians settled mostly in the hinterland, the deserted villages on the coast and some islands. In the towns, the Roman population continued to dominate and speak Dalmatico. The limestone soil of Croatia did not support high population density thus a natural equilibrium between Dalmatians - living in the towns - and the Croats - living in the countryside - developed. Over the centuries, these two groups intermarried an all Dalmatian towns became bilingual.

Dalmatia Veneta until 1797


Things started to change with the decline of the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century. Not able to protect Dalmatia any longer and being conquered by the 4th Crusade in 1204, Constantinople was replaced by Venice. Military alliances between Dalmatian towns and Venice were signed first but eventually morphed into Venetian rule. Now, Venetian traders established Kontors, administrators and governors from Venice arrived and Venetian, an Italian dialect and the language of the Serene Republic established itself as main language. Slowly but steadily, Dalmatico was replaced. First in the written form, than as spoken tongue. By the 19th century, Dalmatico had disappeared. Had it not been for a few linguists who documented the dying language we would not even know it existed.

Promised Italian territorial gains for its entry into WWI on the French & English side in 1915


The reign of the Serene Republic lasted to 1797 when it was taken over by Napoleon. For a few years, Dalmatia became French but was given together with Milan, Venice and Tuscany to the Austrian Empire at the Peace Conference of Vienna 1815. In this multinational state, the Italian speaking Dalmatians lived peacefully with their Croatian brothers - as they had done for many centuries. Everybody spoke a different language in Austria-Hungary. It was not a big deal. The Royals from Vienna and Budapest loved to holiday on the Istrian coast (Brioni) and the Imperial Austrian Fleet was stationed there as well - more about this in a later blog).


However, nationalism intensified before WWI and the Italian population became the subject of a big powers poker game. To entice Italy to enter WWI on the side of the Allied, England and France promised Italy in a secret protocol to the Treaty of London (1915) that it could "re-unite" all Italians within its borders and made significant territorial concessions in Tirol, Dalmatia and Turkey (there were no Italians living on the Dodecanese Islands and in the south of Turkey ....). England was keen to have Italy with its 38 million people and an army of 2 - 3 million on its side - all principles were thrown overboard.


As you can see on the map above, the promises from London were not kept. Despite enormous losses in men, Italy gained little from his involvement in WWI. The unpopularity of this war, the broken promises and the collapse of the Lira were the reasons why the Fascists under Benito Mussolini could get into power in 1922. Mussolini had to wait for WWII however to realise his dreams of an Italian Dalmatia.

The three provinces which formed Italy's Dalmatia 1941 - 1943


He got the three provinces after Nazi Germany had occupied Yugoslavia in1941. But his joy did not last long. After the Allied Forces invaded Calabria on mainland Italy at the end of 1943, Italy surrendered - Mussolini became an outcast. The Italian soldiers in Dalmatia became prisoners of war - either of the British, Tito;s Guerrillas or the SS which treated them with harsh brutality as traitors.

Liberated areas in Europe after the surrender of Italy in 1943


Nazi Germany did not have the manpower to garrison all the territory that the Italian Army had occupied. Thus, Marshall Tito, the Communist Partisan Leader, was able to quickly establish his own rule over large parts of Croatia and Bosnia. The Italian provinces of Dalmatia were immediately disbanded. The Italian population put on notice to be ready to pack and leave. Once the Adria could be safely crossed, the Italian speaking Dalmatians were expelled - many of them innocent families with hundreds of years of history in Dalmatia. They paid the human price for the nationalist follies hatched out in Europe's capitals. Ethnic cleansing was an established and accepted policy during and after WWII. Times were different then. Since 1944 Dalmatia has a homogeneous Croatian population. The only Italian you hear this summer is spoken by Italian tourists.





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