European nation states are now so well grounded in their respective national languages that we often overlook what a vibrant history many non-standard languages —"dialects"— have. Perhaps the recent (1976) granting of linguistic autonomy in Spain to three minority languages —Galician, Catalonian, and Basque— is a sign of some sort of backlash in Europe against overbearing language hegemony, or, at least, a recognition of the importance of smaller languages in the lives of people. It is, at least, an excellent example of how to defuse an issue often touted as potentially explosive —the rights of linguistic minorities.
The official language of Naples, of course, is Italian. It's what newscasters speak, it's the language of the print media and it's what kids learn in school. It is the national language of Italy because of its glorious literary tradition going back to the language of Dante and Boccaccio in 1300. It is the official language of Naples because southern Italy was made part of the rest of Italy by a series of wars in the 19th century, collectively called "The Wars of Unification" in history books. The spoken language of most of the people in Naples, however, is the Neapolitan dialect, that southern brand of Latin vernacular with as long a history as the northern Tuscan vernacular upon which the national language is based.
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In the group of southern Italian literary figures since the Middle Ages who have expressed themselves in their native, southern language, one of the most important is Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), the author of Il Pentamerone or Li Cunto de li Cunti (The Tale of Tales), known in English as, simply, The Pentameron. It is the first published collection of European fairy tales. It is a frame-story like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron; that is, the telling of tales is presented within the framework of a group of people passing the time by sharing stories. Basile's Pentamerone tells fifty tales over five nights, all of them in Neapolitan. The most famous of the tales is Zezolla, also known as "The Cat Cinderella," apparently the first published version of the famous fairy-tale, better known to English-language readers in a translation of the later French version by Perault.
Basile was born in Naples and lived and wrote there. He also traveled to and wrote in Venice and Mantua, but always returned to Naples, where he was the court poet for various families of the nobility, including that of Stigliano Carafa. By 1620 he was among the most respected Neapolitan writers, known for both madrigals and odes in Italian as well as poetry in Neapolitan.
A German edition of The Pentameron
It is, however, for The Pentameron that he is remembered. It is a valuable source for those who today study such things as comparative folk-tales in an attempt to pin down themes that crop up almost universally across cultures. At the time of Basile's death in 1632, no such lofty ambitions engaged most people, least of all Basile's sister, who put the collection of fairy tales on the back shelf somewhere while she tried to get her brother's other works in Italian some posthumous attention. Fortunately, that back shelf was on the premises of a local book-shop, the proprietor of which had a great love for literature in the vernacular; within a couple of years, the first few Neapolitan tales were published and by 1644 a complete version was published.
The Pentameron was relatively late in finding a broader audience through translation, almost certainly because of the linguistic difficulties of the original version. Translators often worked from fragmentary French versions done in the 1700s. Complete versions in German and English did not appear until the early 1800s. Interestingly, a complete translation with scholarly notes in Italian (the original Neapolitan is hopelessly foreign to those in northern Italy) did not appear until 1920s when Benedetto Croce turned his attention to it. "The Cat Cinderella" tale in The Pentameron has gained more recent acclaim through the efforts of Neapolitan musicologist, Roberto De Simone, whose staged version of the tale has appeared throughout Europe in various languages.
One might ask, Why would a poet who wrote odes and madrigals in Italian be fascinated enough by dialect fairy-tales to devote so much of his life to collecting them and writing them down? Not that everything needs to be explained, but at least one version says that Basile was more than a little uncomfortable with the opulence of the Baroque. He worked at the noble courts of Naples in the early 1600s—a time and place when the rich were very rich and the poor very poor. He had the reputation of being a modest person who went out of his way to be honest and to avoid displays of whatever wealth he possessed. Maybe, too, he was just fascinated by tales in which simplicity is a virtue, ones in which good is rewarded and evil punished. Or, maybe, he just liked a good story, like the rest of us:
Once upon a time, there was a woman who had three daughters. Two were good-for-nothing and wicked, but one, Nella, was beautiful, delightful and good. And in that land there lived an enchanted Prince who so loved Nella that in order for them to be together, he crafted a crystal passage from the royal palace directly to Nella's abode, although it was many miles distant. Then he gave her a magic powder saying, "Whenever you wish to see me, throw a little of this powder into the fire, and I will come to you instantly through this passage, as quick as a bird, along the crystal path to gaze upon this face of silver.
—from "The Three Sisters" (commonly known as Verde Prato) in The Pentameron by Giambattista Basile
That's hard to beat. (If you want to read how this ends, see part 2, below)
[For another passage from The Pentameron, see this link.
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No, really - please, keep reading.
Most fairy tales have happy endings, including the one cited directly above. I used an alternate title, "The Three Sisters," because I have seen it like that in some translations and because the original title in Neapolitan and modern Italian, Verde Prato (Green Meadow), has nothing to do with the story and may be a proofreader's "correction" of Penna Verde (Green Feather) which may have been what Basile intended. But that also has nothing to do with the story. The story, however, does involve three sisters! Most editions simply leave the title as Verde Prato and assume it is the name of the prince in the tale. In any event, it is the second tale told on the second day within the frame story of Basile's The Tale of Tales (The Pentameron). Most editions give you a short gloss of the tale before the text:
Good Nella's beloved Prince always comes to her through a magic crystal passage. But she has two very wicked and very envious sisters who cause the passage to collapse, wounding the prince gravely. His father, the King, offers a reward to anyone who heals his son. The princess overhears an evil ogre telling his wife that the fat from their bodies has curative powers. She kills them and uses their body fat to cure the prince and is rewarded by being given to him in marriage.
(I note in passing that good Nella must have had to boil Mr. and Mrs. Ogre down to get the fat! Hell hath no fury like a woman who wants to wind up with an enchanted prince. The tale has a one-line admonition at the end that says: All evil is punished. The two wicked sisters? You don't want to know. There were no liberal do-gooders in those days, so they were not sent to rehab.)
Folklorists study these tales to see what they can tell us about our culture and what we all may (or may not) have in common and have developed various classification systems to describe Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and all the rest. A widely used system is called the Aarne–Thompson-Uther Index (it stems from 1910 but was updated in 2004). It is a catalog of over 2000 distinct, cross-culturally stable ‘international tale types’ from more than 200 societies. Each tale type has a number depending on the motif. Our tale, cited above, Verde Prato, is numbered 432: tales of magic run from 300-749 and involves a supernatural or enchanted wife, husband or other relative (400-459), specifically a husband (the prince, 425-449).
Phylogenetics? If you have studied even a small bit of biology you know that phylogenetics (or phyletics) studies the evolutionary history of an organism. The relationships among organisms are often expressed as "trees". If you have seen your "family tree" with you at the root and your mother and father as two branches above, then more branches above them for their parents, and so forth, that is a phylogenetic map. In a similar fashion, we can relate languages with the same kind of "tree". Put our English at the bottom and you will have related branches above to show "parent" languages that influenced English such as Latin, Germanic (Gothic), etc. Can you do the same thing with fairy tales? That is, build a phylogenetic tree to see what fairy tales exist among all (or most) Indo-European peoples? And, importantly, what does that tell us about ourselves — our common origins, our common cultural habits, our marital customs, our legal systems, our general social behaviors, etc.? At this point, I direct you off-site to an article at sciencemag.org entitled Some Fairy Tales May Be 6000 Years Old by David Schultz. It is short and very well written. If you want to start at his source, see this link to "Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales" (includes a free .pdf download) It is long and insanely complete.