The Ladin Valleys – A Linguist’s Dream

We have moved from our base in San Cassiano to a little apartment in the hamlet of St. Linnert, outside the village of Badia. Grounded by some rain in the valleys and snowfall in the rock-filled areas (a little too early in the season, say the locals!), our via ferrata adventures are on hold for the moment. But we’re enjoying this landscape, nevertheless. We’re exploring WW1 ruins, hiking, and taking in the language and culture of the area (while praying for sun and warmer temps!). (More to come on these adventures in later posts.)

Surrounded by steep, rugged mountains, now connected by a vast system of tunnels that have been blasted tremendous distances through the rock, it is easy to see how isolated cultural pockets develop distinct ways of life.

One of the things that fascinates me about geography is the way that landscapes, especially BIG landscapes, can shape, create, protect and nurture culture. We’re experiencing that in so many ways here in the Trentino-Alto-Adige region of Northern Italy, and more specifically in the areas we’re exploring, known locally as the Ladin Valleys, around the Sella mountain range. Places like Badia, San Cassiano, Cortina and Corvara (that you may have caught me mentioning in previous posts) are right in the heart of it.

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Some of the crazy switchbacks on the road up to Falzarego Pass.

High-alpine access points like Passo Valparola, Passo Falzarego, and Passo Gardena allow limited access to the Ladin Valleys… as those passes and their high roads are closed in the winter, even in modern times. Today tunnels connect the valleys to elsewhere in Italy and Austria, and I get a thrill out of passing through these engineering marvels.

But historically, these valleys were exceptionally isolated. Though they have belonged to the Roman, and  later the Austro-Hungarian Empires, they were only slightly influenced and their cultures and languages shaped due to their geographic inaccessibility. And so Ladin, as both a language and a culture, developed over the centuries.

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The Dolomite mountains tower over the town of San Cassiano out the window of our apartment there. Make no mistake, these are spectacularly beautiful landscapes. Their steeply cut valley slopes are incredibly green, even in September, with the humidity they experience here.

I find it really interesting that the valleys are named, not after the mighty Dolomite peaks that tower over these valleys dictating, to a great degree, the way of life in these remote areas, but for the language that developed in a few small, distinct valleys tucked between them.

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The Dolomites peaks are amazing!

You’d think the language would be called Sella, because it is spoken and protected primarily in the valleys that surround the small cluster of mountain peaks known as the Sella Group, but it’s not. It is the Ladin language, and the preservation of that language, that is fiercely protected here. And so, these are the Ladin Valleys.

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This is the view out our apartment window in the hamlet of St. Linnert, outside the town of Badia. When we opened the window, all we heard was the rush of the water in the stream that tumbled down the hillside (bottom right) and the soft tinkle of cowbells coming from the grazing herd on the hillside. It is picturesque pastoral at its best!

Encompassed in that linguistic preservation is the protection of an entire, distinct culture.

You may think, “Is she talking about Latin or Ladin?” And you’d be right to be confused. The language did originate in the time of conquest of the Roman Empire when the Alps were pulled into its domain. The Rhaetian people (pronounced “Ree-shan”) who lived in the Dolomites at the time were forced to adopt the Latin language of the Romans who came through, organizing the people, collecting taxes and soldiers, etc.

Like any culture forced to adopt new customs, the old ways remain fiercely protected, waiting to rise again. And so once that period of history was finished, the Ladin language developed as a hybrid of the two cultures: the Rhaetian vowel shifts and local vocabulary were melded with the ancient Roman Latin. These particular valleys were further isolated by Bavarian and Slavic migrations, along with their geography, and the Ladin language continued to develop its unique character.

Over the passage of more modern times, there was an influx of influence on the language from the Italians to the south and the Germans to the north that wove its way into the fabric of the language.

It is spoken only here and vastly protected by the local government through its mandatory teachings in the schools. However, at one time, each little valley in this small area had its own Ladin dialect. We spoke with one local, a young girl in her twenties who had graduated university having studied languages (Russian, Italian, German and Spanish), and she bemoaned the fact that growing up, she had to come to the San Cassiano valley to go to school and so had to learn to read and speak the Ladin dialect of that valley, and not of her own. She feared that her culture, her roots and her heritage were being lost.

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A typical home in the area, built like the old style barns with the animal stalls beneath, allowing heat to rise to the home, and the lofts for hay storage above, insulating the home sandwiched between. Now buildings like this contain apartments. You can see winter is definitely a beast to be contended with, by the amount of firewood stored outside every home and apartment building in the area!

This whole Trentino/Alto-Adige/Südtirol area is fascinating. It’s highly autonomous, and that comes from a history of belonging to Austria prior to 1918, and then being ceded to Italy in the treaties that ended that war. Prior to WWII, there were agreements made between Hitler and Mussolini to move Germans out of the area and Italians in, to keep this area under Italian influence, while watering down the area’s unique Ladin ethnicity and lessen its sense of independence.

Then, post WWII, conflicts arose through a local terrorist group called BAS (Committee For The Liberation of South Tyrol). The United Nations had to intervene to settle down the conflict in the 1960s and then the International Court at The Hague had to intervene again in the 1970s. The end result: the region’s powers are now dictated by the Autonomy Statute. Through those negotiations came a remarkable thing: Südtirol is now a highly autonomous region within Italy that can keep 90% of its tax dollars! Imagine the impact of that one fact alone! Incredible.

There are remarkable parallels to the preservation of the Quebecois French language in Canada (from Québec’s language laws, its separate education system, and its Front de Libération de Québec terrorist group)… with the Ladin protection laws that still exist here in the Badia area today that ensure children learn the Ladin language in schools right through to BAS terrorist acts attempting to force the national government’s hand to provide certain protections and liberties to the region, culture and language. It’s fascinating stuff.

And it’s why this area feels so much like a separate European country. It’s not really Italy. It’s not really Austria. It’s more like a Euroregion with its own distinct culture and flavour. And we are loving it! (And I haven’t even got into the regional food items… like pine nuts in apple strudel, and all the fabulous cheeses in this hillsides-full-of-cows-with-bells-tinkling-and-udders-full-of-milk region!). I’ll leave you with a few photos of St. Linnert….


For more on our 2017 Italy-Slovenia Trip go here: Venice & The Dolomites 2017. And for other places we’ve been around the world, poke about under the Travel tab of my Blog.

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