Research group Multilingualism on my mind

How would Dante’s Commedia be understood?

In this post, Alessandro Carlucci talks about inherent intelligibility, intercomprehension and cross-linguistic communication in past (and present) multilingual settings.

An medieval ilustration of Dante’s Commedia

The Commedia and its fame through the centuries

Next year the world will celebrate the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death in 1321. During these seven centuries, his Divine Comedy (Divina commedia or, more accurately, just Commedia in Italian), the poem in which Dante recounts his journey through the afterlife, has continued to grow in popularity across Italy and the rest of the world, leading to its enduring recognition as one of the finest products of Italian culture, as well as its firm establishment as one of the greatest literary classics of all time and place.

According to a series of more or less explicit testimonies, which form a long tradition going all the way back to Dante’s times, the Divine Comedy was appreciated at all levels of society, and it soon became popular not only among the educated, but also among people from low socio-cultural backgrounds in different parts of Italy. A recent exponent of this tradition, the late British academic Peter Armour, stressed once more the “popularity of the poem among the people in general” in a 2007 multi-author volume:

“In an age like Dante’s, only professionals – churchmen, lawyers, scholars – were truly literate in the official language of writing, Latin; some of the upper classes and rising bourgeoisie (though not, according to Vita nuova, XXV, their womenfolk) might have retained a smattering of schoolboy Latin and could have read a vernacular text. In this society, the principal means of diffusion of a poem such as the Comedy among the people as a whole would have been by public recitation or by public reading out loud, perhaps with some commentary. Until the invention of printing put copies of the poem into many private hands, the vast majority of the earliest receptors of Dante’s masterpiece would have experienced it as an oral-aural work, and its recitation would have been a public, indeed a social, act”. [1]

Armour introduces comparisons with other medieval genres, including “the religious laude [which] reached most of the people by some form of performance” and “the chivalric romances in vernacular dialect forms […] circulating in the streets”. He then goes on to argue that, in the same way, “the Comedy, also a great vernacular narrative in verse, was capable of being diffused at all levels of society, among the educated, the ecclesiastical and secular leaders, the merchants and middle classes, and even […] those members of society who were least likely to have any literacy at all”.

How could it cross language barriers and become so popular?

For those who have an interest in the use of languages in history and society, this and other similar views about the popularity of the Divine Comedy raise a big, intriguing question. The received wisdom in Italian linguistics is that, since the Middle Ages, the linguistic varieties descended from Latin and spoken in Italy (also known as Italo-Romance vernaculars or dialects) have been “very different from each other, and mostly unintelligible to speakers of other dialects”. [2] Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in his native variety, Florentine, which was just one of the many linguistic varieties used in the Italian peninsula. A common literary language, largely based on medieval Florentine, did not become established in Italy until the sixteenth century, and only in the twentieth century did this language cease to be a predominantly written variety and finally enter the every-day lives of large masses of population. If these points are true, how is it possible that Dante’s poem was widely performed and enjoyed – even “in pubs and in the square”, as another great poet of medieval Italy, Petrarch, put it in one of his letters?

Before moving to Bergen to start a new research project, I began to explore this question as one of the case studies for my research on cross-linguistic comprehension in late medieval Italy, within the University of Oxford’s Creative Multilingualism programme. My research sat within Strand 3: Creating Intelligibility across Languages and Communities, led by Martin Maiden. The evidence I have gathered so far, and the possible interpretations I suggest, are going to appear in articles (one of them has just come out) and other academic publications. Here I would like to summarise some of my arguments and the answers that can be put forward with regard to the specific case of Dante’s poem.

Perhaps it was not as popular as we have thought…

A possible answer is that, actually, the language of the Commedia was only intelligible in Florence, and perhaps in adjoining Tuscan towns. A more radical version of this answer is that, even in Florence, Dante’s poem did not find an audience at all levels of society, and so never enjoyed widespread popularity. Far from corresponding to reality, early allusions to popular readings and performances of the poem will have been introduced into their writings by Dante’s elitist critics as a way to diminish the artistic and intellectual standing of his poetry. This argument has been put forward in modern scholarship, with reference to the complexity not only of the language, but of the contents, of the poem. [3]

…or perhaps the audience was aided by multilingual skills and resources typical of language contact situations

If, however, we wish to pursue a less negative answer, it may be worth going back to Peter Armour’s comparison with religious poetry – namely the genre of the laude, which spread from central Italy. In this respect, my attention has especially been attracted by a fifteenth-century manuscript containing poems by Jacopone da Todi – a friar from the Umbria region, in central Italy, who was born some thirty years before Dante. This manuscript was probably prepared for circulation and recitation in northern Italy. It contains an introduction aimed at facilitating the fruition of Jacopone’s religious poetry in a different linguistic environment, followed by a bilingual list of words used in Jacopone’s texts:

A bilingual list of words used in Jacopone’s texts.

Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut.90 inf.27, fol. 3v.

MiBACT. Further reproduction by any medium is forbidden.

In this period, bilingual dictionaries were still rare and usually comprised of Latin or French in combination with an Italo-Romance variety, whereas here both languages are Italo-Romance varieties. They are identified by labels which we could roughly translate as “Umbrian” and “northern Italo-Romance”. Words are listed following an alphabetical order, which is also noteworthy compared to other medieval proto-dictionaries (or glossaries, as they are sometimes called). [4] But if we look more closely, we notice something even more interesting. One of the entries in the list does not provide lexical equivalents, but equivalences between letters and so, probably, sounds:

Equivalences between letters and sounds.

Gli, glie, glia = ly, ye, ya [fol. 4r]

MiBACT. Further reproduction by any medium is forbidden.

The sequence of Latin [l] + [j] had led to the emergence of palatal sonorants in much of central and southern Italy ([ʎ:], [j:] and other variants), indicated here by <gli>; whereas in northern Italy the same sequence had yielded [j] or [ʤ], represented by <y>. This correspondence appears, for instance, in the entry for “family”:

Correspondence in the entry for “family”.

Famiglia = Fameya [ibid.]

MiBACT. Further reproduction by any medium is forbidden.

This source seems, therefore, to provide an example of those automatic conversion patterns that Uriel Weinreich described in his seminal work Languages in Contact, [5] and it helps to explain how people from different parts of medieval Italy could communicate. Conversion patterns enable speakers to adapt their speech to that of another area, and, at the other end, they can guide listeners in matching up features of another variety to features of their local variety. Equivalences of this kind (other examples include, for instance, Tuscan [e] often corresponding to Sicilian [ɪ], etc.) were certainly present in medieval Italy, and it therefore seems reasonable to argue that they facilitated communication. [6]

That the Commedia may have crossed linguistic boundaries in this way is suggested by two main types of evidence: first, the way the text of the poem was transcribed in different parts of Italy, which shows various degrees of phonological, morphological and lexical adaptation (in Sicily, Dante’s le stelle ‘the stars’ becomes li stilli; in southern Italy, quei bronchi ‘those trunks’ becomes quilli trunchi) [7]; second, the invectives of snobbish intellectuals against street performers who mispronounced, and showed not to have a full understanding of, Dante’s poem. [8] In addition, early manuscripts of the Commedia contain commentaries and annotations which often provide local equivalents for Florentine words and sometimes betray the misleading interference of the commentator’s native variety (as in the case of tosto ‘hasty’ interpreted as ‘hard’ under the influence of Neapolitan tuosto). [9]

How can we benefit from this knowledge today? Didactic implications

Equivalences and near-equivalences can foster mutual intelligibility between speakers of different languages, and can also facilitate language learning. The possibility of recognising and exploiting systematic correspondences is, of course, greater in the case of closely related languages (such as Italo-Romance varieties). But, as my former Oxford colleagues pointed out during a school presentation, “correspondences between languages […] reflect sound changes that can be traced back in time” and can be helpful also in the case of less closely related varieties: “For example, if we consider how German <z> pronounced [ts] often corresponds to English <t> it is not difficult to guess that the German words zwei and zehn (numbers) correspond to English two and ten”. [10]

At the end of this journey – which started with Dante’s Commedia, passed through a little-known fifteenth-century manuscript and finally reached a group of students in present-day Britain – we are struck by two facts. First, how much our understanding of language change has expanded thanks to modern historical linguistics; second, how little this knowledge has been pedagogically applied, since the time when the person who collected Jacopone’s poems offered a selection of words, in which systematic correspondences appeared, and encouraged people to move further in this direction in order to overcome linguistic barriers. [11] As the Oxford school presentation highlighted, this is one of the challenges for contemporary research on multilingualism:

“In a post-talk Q&A session, one student asked a sensible but unexpected question: where can I find information on tricks, such as how the German <z> often corresponds to the English <t>? We hesitated in answering. The literature on sound change is very rich, but there is, to our knowledge, no immediate resource for children that we could recommend. This fact has reinforced our aim of producing a website and app for school children that could deal with this issue”. [12]

Other links to research on multilingualism and mutual intelligibility

The evidence presented in this post also highlights the complexity of research on an apparently straightforward question such as “are languages A and B mutually understandable?”. First of all, research on Italy is likely to encounter a connected issue: are A and B (and C, D, …) different enough as to count as separate languages? The boundary between internal variation and multilingualism is not always clear, and mutual intelligibility has often been called in as the criterion that should help us decide when variation ends and a different language begins. [13] In terms of genetic relations, there are strong reasons for distinguishing Italo-Romance varieties, which descend from Latin, from modern varieties of Italian (also referred to as “regional Italian”) which emerged after Florentine-based Italian spread throughout Italy and are indeed mutually intelligible. As Weinreich explained (in a piece published in French shortly after his death), “a concept of multilingualism (plurilinguisme, in the original) which does not posit a minimum distance between the languages in question is excessively lax and gives the impression that our object of study is not rigorously defined”; however, this founding father of contact linguistics added that there are also “strong reasons to claim that, for example, the simultaneous knowledge of French and Vietnamese, or of French and Provençal, or of the French spoken in Paris and the French spoken in Marseille, are variants of the same fundamental phenomenon”, and that in all of these cases “speakers have to deal with a qualitatively identical problem”. [14]

Map of the italo-romance languages.

Geographical distribution of the main groups of Italo-Romance varieties.

Wikimedia Commons user Spiridon Ion Cepleanu.

What does it mean to “understand” a language?

Another connected question is what we mean exactly by “understanding”. In my research I have found it useful to identify at least three basic notions. First of all we have “inherent intelligibility” (also known as “intrinsic bilingualism” or “inherent receptive multilingualism”), which is expected to result from structural similarities between varieties “whose speakers have not had contact”. [15] It can be measured by establishing how much lexicon and grammar A and B share, and by administering comprehension tests to speakers of A who, ideally, do not have any previous experience of B, and vice versa. Checking how closely the results of experimental testing actually match those of structural measuring is also an interesting endeavour often undertaken in this field. [16] As far as historical research is concerned, degrees of “inherent intelligibility” can be hypothesised on the basis of structural similarities, as long as we have sufficient grammatical and lexical information for the languages in question. But the direct testing of speakers is, of course, precluded to historical research.

We then have “acquired intelligibility” or (especially in Francophone scholarship) “intercomprehension” (intercompréhension), which is essentially the ability to understand closely related languages as a result of exposure to them. This kind of intelligibility is affected by speakers’ perceptions, attitudes, training and motivation, and especially by their ability to exploit similarities between languages and turn systematic, recognisable differences into helpful correspondences capable of aiding comprehension. [17] Finally, we could speak of “cross-linguistic communication” when understanding results not only from linguistic, but also from extra-linguistic, factors – including pragmatic and contextual clues specific to a particular interaction [18], visual aids, as well as the gestural and theatrical skills that were notable among those who publicly recited the Commedia. Specifically designed research on the diffusion of this poem has the potential of clarifying especially these last two types of comprehension, and their varying degrees across late medieval society, with reference to the many languages of Italy.



I wish to thank Åsta Haukås, Laura Saetveit Miles and Irina Tiurikova for their comments on earlier drafts of this post.



  1. P. Armour, ‘The Comedy as a Text for Performance’, in Dante on View: The Reception of Dante in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. by A. Braida and L. Calè (London: Ashgate, 2007).
  2. G. Lepschy, ‘How Popular is Italian?’, in Culture and Conflict in Postwar Italy, ed. by Z. Barański and R. Lumley (London: Macmillan, 1990). Many other remarks about Italo-Romance varieties could be cited, which similarly imply that these varieties have always been ‘as incommunicable, from one end of Italy to the other, as they are today’, as stated by C. Dionisotti, Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana (Turin: Einaudi, 1967), p. 79. See e.g. A. Tosi, Language and Society in a Changing Italy (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2001), p. 21: ‘Dialect diversity is still so marked in Italy that it usually prevents intelligibility’.
  3. See e.g. C. Dionisotti, ‘Dante nel Quattrocento’, in Atti del congresso internazionale di studi danteschi (Florence: Sansoni, 1965), vol. 1, pp. 333-378, esp. on pp. 333-34.
  4. See F. Bruni, ‘Fra Lombardi, Tusci e Apuli. Osservazioni sulle aree linguistico-culturali’, in Testi e chierici del medioevo (Genoa: Marietti, 1991), pp. 11-41, and A. Rossebastiano Bart, ‘Alle origini della lessicografia italiana’, in La lexicographie au Moyen Age, ed. by C. Buridant (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1986), pp. 113-156. A transcription of the glossary which appears in the MS (fols 3v-5r) was provided by A. Tenneroni, ‘Antico glossarietto umbro-lombardo’, Rivista critica della letteratura italiana, 5 (1888), pp. 28-30.
  5. U. Weinreich, Languages in Contact (New York: Linguistic Circle of New York, 1953), p. 2.
  6. See A. Andreose and L. Renzi, ‘Dai volgari ai dialetti: Schizzo di storia linguistica dell’Italia medievale’, LabRomAn, 4, 1 (2011), pp. 59-77.
  7. I have taken these two examples, respectively, from I. Baldelli, ‘Citazioni dantesche in glosse cassinesi’, in Medioevo volgare da Montecassino all’Umbria (Bari: Adriatica, 1971), pp. 179-181, and from N. Havely, Dante’s British Public: Readers and Texts from the Fourteenth Century to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 29.
  8. See J. Ahern, ‘Singing the Book: Orality in the Reception of Dante’s Comedy’, in Dante: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. by A. Iannucci (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pp. 214-239.
  9. See A. Mazzucchi, ‘Contributi dell’antica esegesi dantesca a un vocabolario storico del dialetto napoletano’, in Tra res e verba. Studi offerti a Enrico Malato, ed. by B. Itri (Padua: Bertoncello Arti Grafiche, 2006), pp. 79-135, on p. 115. See also F. Franceschini, Tra secolare commento e storia della lingua. Studi sulla Commedia e le antiche glosse (Florence: Cesati, 2008).
  10. Chiara Cappellaro and Martin Maiden, ‘School Presentation: Foreign Languages Are Not As Foreign As We Think’, https://www.creativeml.ox.ac.uk/blog/exploring-multilingualism/foreign-l... [accessed 8 August 2020].
  11. See, however, methods for developing receptive competencies such as the one proposed by F.J. Meissner, C. Meissner, H.G. Klein, T.D. Stegmann, EuroComRom – Les sept tamis: lire les langues romanes dès le départ. Avec une introduction à la didactique de l’eurocompréhension (Aachen: Shaker, 2004).
  12. Cappellaro and Maiden, ‘School Presentation: Foreign Languages Are Not As Foreign As We Think’.
  13. As a particularly relevant example, see M. Tamburelli, ‘Uncovering the “Hidden” Multilingualism of Europe: An Italian Case Study’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35 (2014), pp. 252-270.
  14. See U. Weinreich, ‘Unilinguisme et multilinguisme’, in Le langage, ed. by A. Martinet (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 647-684, on p. 648 (my translation). On the Italian case, see esp. N. Vincent, ‘Language, Geography and History in Medieval Italy’, in Ciò che potea la lingua nostra: Lectures and Essays in Memory of Clara Florio Cooper, ed. by V. De Gasperin, special supplement to The Italianist, 30 (2010), pp. 44-60.
  15. G. Simons, Language Variation and Limits to Communication (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1983), p. 3.
  16. See C. Gooskens, V.J. van Heuven, J. Golubović, A. Schüppert, F. Swarte and S. Voigt, ‘Mutual Intelligibility between Closely Related Languages in Europe’, International Journal of Multilingualism, 15, 2 (2018), pp. 169-193; H.I. Härmävaara and C. Gooskens, ‘Mutual Intelligibility of Finnish and Estonian Vocabulary’, Lähivõrdlusi. Lähivertailuja, 29 (2019), pp. 13-56.
  17. See S’entendre entre langues voisines: vers l’intercompréhension, ed. by V. Conti and F. Grin (Chêne-Bourg: Georg, 2008).
  18. A Norwegian saying kan du gi meg paraplyen? ‘can you give me the umbrella?’ may not be understood by her French-speaking flatmate, despite lexical similarity (cf. Fr. parapluie); but if this request is uttered while leaving the flat during a downpour…