This tale will give you a boot in the tail...or, at least, a country shaped like the boot in the tale.
(originally published in the Deutsche Rundschau, March/April 2004, Toronto, Canada) [www.deutsche-rundschau.com]
The United States is a nation of diverse heritages. Consequently, we are not a homogeneous society. However, Americans tend to think of Italy as precisely that. A “show stopper” when discussing linguistic and geographic trivia with friends is the following question, “What language is predominantly spoken in parts of northern Italy?” The obvious answer is Italian. What else should it be? Since the correct answer of “German” is so often met with incredulity….(particularly when discussing the issue with Italian-Americans)…it bears some explanation. The region known as South Tyrol was formerly a part of the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy. The official language was German. That monarchy was, of course, dissolved after its defeat in World War I. The Allied victors of World War I redrew the boundary of the defeated Austria. The main part of the Tyrol remained in the now much smaller, empire-less Austria. The portion of it known as South Tyrol was ceded to Italy. Since then, the province has been officially “Italian”, but the language has remained German by popular choice. Over the years, the indigenous folk resisted Italianization, at times stubbornly. In the 1920s and 30s, the Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini attempted to solve the problem by instituting mandatory Italian instruction in the region’s school system. However, within families and friends, the language of choice remained German and remains so until today. In normal circumstances, this bit of trivia is invisible to the outside world. It frequently comes to the fore during the Winter Olympics.
Georg Hackl, the German, had won the Gold Medal in the Men’s Single Luge event in the last three Olympics. The 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games saw Hackl fail in his attempt to win a fourth consecutive gold medal in the same event. A superior performance by the Italian, Armin Zöggeler, would defeat his goal. Hackl did win the Silver Medal in the event. Zöggeler, the Italian, was simply younger and better. Armin Zöggeler is not what anyone would consider a stereotypical Italian name. Interestingly, the Bronze Medal winner in the Luge event was Austria’s Markus Prock. When the competition was over and all congratulated each other on the winners’ podium and elsewhere, we can safely surmise they chatted in German. Two other Italians finished in the top 50 competitors in the Men’s Single Luge event, as well. Wilfried Huber finished 9th and Reinhold Rainer placed 12th. All three Italian gentlemen are from the South Tyrol region. It appears that some of Italy’s premier winter sports athletes have a Germanic heritage.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Koerner