The innovations of Molise Croatian

I’ve just finished Heine & Kuteva’s highly entertaining monograph The Changing Languages of Europe (Oxford University Press, 2006), which shows how certain European languages have become remarkably alike over the last 2000 years in a series of language contacts spreading outwards from one centre or another. One of the languages that the authors frequently use as an example of contact-based grammaticalization is one I was previously unfamiliar with: Molise Croatian. The speech of the Albanian and Greek minorities in Italy is fairly well-documented, but this was the first time I had ever heard of this Croatian dialect spoken in three villages in the Molise region.

Under Italian influence Molise Croatian has grown apart from standard Croatian. The three genders of standard Croatian have been reduced to two with the loss of the neuter, although intriguingly when Italian preserves traces of the neuter, Molise Croatian does as well. Where the standard language has e.g. nožem ‘with a knife’, preserving the traditional use of the Slavonic instrumental case, Molise Croatian has merged comitative and instrumental constructions in s nožem, cf. Italian con un coltello. Synthetic comparative constructions have been replaced with analytic constructions, as in standard Croatian lyepši ‘more beautiful’ versus Molise Croatian veče lip, cf. Italian’s use of più as a degree marker.

Interestingly enough, centuries of Italian influence have not sufficed to equip Molise Croatian with definite articles. The use of demonstratives to indicate definiteness is a major or minor use pattern and not fully grammaticalized. Furthermore, in spite of some hints that it won’t last, Molise Croatian nouns still have a full array of cases.

There is what I should think a rather glaring mistake in Heinze & Kuteva’s citation of Molise Croatian material. Twice in the book the mala of the sentence jena hiža mala is glossed as ‘big’ and then the whole is translated as ‘a big house (not a small one)’. The root mal- would be understood by anyone with even limited experience with the Slavonic languages as meaning ‘small’, and either it has switched to the opposite meaning in Molise Croatian, or the translator had it wrong. Both times the sentence is cited from Walter Breu’s 1996 paper ‘Überlegungen zu einer Klassifizierung des grammatischen Wandels im Sprachkontakt (am Beispiel slavischer Kontaktfälle)’ in Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 49(1). I’ll have to look for that paper and see if the error is made by Breu or by Heine and Kuteva.