According to research on the Friulian language released by ARLeF ('Agjenzie regjonâl pe lenghe furlane') and Udine University in 2015, there are an estimated 600,000 people speaking Friulian (420,00 regularly and 180,00 occasionally) in Gorizia, Pordenone and Udine. In addition, more than 90 per cent of the inhabitants in the three areas are able to at least understand Friulian.

Friulian, also known as Eastern Ladin, is a member of the Rhaeto-Romance language family. There are several variations of the language: central Friulan, eastern Friulan, Carnian, Gortan, Asino and western Friulan.

A 1988 study by the University of Udine established that there were around 800,000 Friulians living outside Italy, about half of whom use the Friulian language.

Historical context

Friulian originates from the Roman town of Forum Julii, which was founded in 181 BC. The Celtic population of the area adopted a vulgar form of Latin. In the sixth century AD, the Friuli area became part of the Duchy of Lombard. It was annexed by Charlemagne in 775 and transferred to the Hapsburg dynasty in 922. In this time Friulian was established as a distinct language. In the thirteenth century the first documents written in Friulian began to appear. The vast majority of the population spoke Friulian until the fifteenth century, while the nobility and educated classes spoke Latin or German. In the fifteenth century Friuli-Veneto became associated with the Republic of Venice and had Udine as its capital, while the capital of Austrian Friuli was Trieste. Trieste gained free port status in 1719. In 1866 Udine and the western Friuli region became part of the new Kingdom of Italy, while eastern Friuli and Trieste remained in the Austrian Empire. After World War I, eastern Friuli became part of Italy. In 1947 Italy ceded eastern Friuli, except for Trieste and Gorizia, to Yugoslavia.

The spread of the Venetian dialect and the increasing involvement of the Friuli region in Italian national cultural life had a negative effect on Friulian. Until 1876 most teachers spoke only Italian. From that time onwards, bilingual exercises and dictionaries were introduced for teachers. In 1923, regional languages and culture were incorporated into the education system. Under fascism Friulian literature and music were supported and Friulians, as a Latin civilization, were defended against Slav and German 'barbarism'. The 1934 primary education reforms encouraged all forms of tradition, folk music and traditional dress.

In the 1947 Constitution the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia was given autonomous status. This included recognition of the minority languages. The decision to make Trieste, where the main minority was Slovenes, the capital of the region met with resistance from Friulians and Venetians. Most subsequent laws for specific minority protection have mentioned Slovene rather than Friulian. The 1947 Regional Special Statute specifies that all citizens of the region should be treated equally, whatever linguistic group they belong to, and that their respective ethnic and cultural characteristics should be safeguarded. Article 3 of the 1963 constitutional law provides for instruction in local languages.

However, Friulian was only offered as an optional subject until a Friulian and Italian programme began in schools in 1987. The right for children to learn Friulian was enshrined in a 1999 law. Some 60 per cent of parents had requested Friulian teaching and over 1,000 teachers applied to teach the language.

A 1996 regional law defines the means, including finance, for protecting and promoting minority languages and culture in education, public administration and access to the law. In practice, the provision of Friulian in education has remained patchy because of local requirements and conditions, and the lack of standardization of Friulian. In public administration the law gave the right to use a minority language in oral communication. It gave the right to be heard in Friulian in court proceedings if Italian is not understood. All public documentation is in Italian. The 1996 law gave the regional government the right to conclude broadcasting arrangements for the minority languages with Italian state broadcaster RAI.

A 1999 Italian law on protection of minorities mentions Friulian. In order to claim their rights locally Friulians must be at least 15 per cent of the population.

In the 1950s two new grammar books, a description of the dialects and a history of the Friulian language were published. In the 1980s the ASLEF language atlas was completed.

The administrative unification of the Friulian-speaking areas in 1961 led to the emergence of organizations such as Moviment Autonomist Furlan, Int Furlan and Scuele Libare Furlane, dedicated to the preservation of Friulian language and culture.

Current issues

Some local councils have published notices in Friulian as well as Italian, although they are not obliged to do so. In Udine province 90 per cent of local councils have strategies for protecting the Friulian language and culture, and around 40 per cent have set up bilingual Friulian and Italian road signs.

In court proceedings, as all Friulians are bilingual and as judges do not usually know Friulian, the right to use the language has not been used.

The teaching of Friulan is provided in a minority of state primary and secondary schools in Udine province. In Gorizia and Trieste provinces it is available on request. There are problems in that there is no standardized grammar, native speakers have several dialects, and less than half of teachers understand Friulian. The University of Udine and some cultural organizations provide teacher training. Friulian language and literature are taught at the Universities of Udine and Trieste.

When looking for work, it is an advantage to know Friulian. In most small and medium-sized enterprises in the Friulian-speaking area, only Friulian is spoken, particularly among manual workers. Friulian also enjoys a strong position in the agricultural sector.

A couple of local radio stations broadcast in Friulian: Radio Spazio 103 and commercial radio station Radio Onde Furlane which only broadcasts in Friulian. The latter provides a contact point for other Friulian organizations. Several commercial TV stations broadcast some programmes, especially short news bulletins in Friulian. The regional government subsidizes the TV broadcasts by Tele Friuli. There are Friulian and bilingual magazines in both print and online versions, but no daily or weekly newspapers in Friulian.

The Società Filologica Friulana publishes textbooks and other books in Friulian and has a significant library of Friulian works. The Union Scritôrs Furlans (Friulian Writers Union) promotes literature and publishes a periodical. Literary prizes are given for works published in Friulian. There are a number of theatre groups producing plays in Friulan. Other private organizations promoting the Friulian language and culture include Pre Checo Placerean, Clape Cultural Aquilee, Institût di Studis Furlans, La Patrie dal Friûl and Glesie Furlane. Links have developed between Friulians and other Rhaeto-Romance language communities in South Tyrol and Switzerland.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.