Women and the mother tongue in the Ottocento

Helena Sanson

in Women, Language and Grammar in Italy, 1500-1900

Published by British Academy

Published in print September 2011 | ISBN: 9780197264836
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754043 | DOI:

Series: British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship Monographs

Women and the mother tongue in the Ottocento

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This chapter first outlines the linguistic situation of Italy in the first decades of the nineteenth century. It then investigates the role that schooling had in spreading Italian in the post-unification period, with particular attention given to issues that concerned the female sex, now that state schools catered for young girls as well as boys. Controversies surrounding women's education were as alive as ever in the second half of the nineteenth century, with a decisive role being played by the question of how mothers could effectively and competently contribute to make Italian the language used in the family. If mothers could not instruct their children to use the national language competently — something that was now perceived as a good citizen's duty — female teachers, the ‘maestre’, were called to step in. They were entrusted with the quasi-religious task of spreading education and language to children, irrespective of the hardships and sacrifices that their poorly paid and unjustly undervalued profession imposed upon them. In a difficult linguistic situation, in which access to Italian still had to be gained with effort and study, Tuscan women (even if uneducated) were, contrary to the majority of women across the peninsula, in the privileged position of being considered the repository of an unspoilt form of language which flowed naturally from their lips. Some renowned non-Tuscan men of letters actively sought their help and assistance to give the language of their works that spontaneity they so much aspired to and did not possess.

Keywords: schooling; national language; Italian; education; female teachers; Tuscan women

Chapter.  27328 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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