Word War Italian Speakers Deface German Signs in South Tyrol

A move to change 135 place names in Italy's South Tyrol region from Italian to German has prompted a backlash. Over the weekend, Italian-speaking locals secretly added Italian names to hundreds of German signs.

Italian-speaking residents secretly added Italian place names to hundreds of German signs over the weekend.

Italian-speaking residents secretly added Italian place names to hundreds of German signs over the weekend.

By Friederike Heine

In Italy's South Tyrol region, a move to replace 135 Italian place names with their German equivalents has prompted some locals to pick up their sharpies in protest. Italian-speaking residents in the country's northernmost province secretly added Italian place names to hundreds of German signs over the weekend.

Photos of the altered signs were posted anonymously online. German speakers then responded to the backlash by crossing out the Italian names and replacing them with doodles and offensive messages, according to Italy's daily La Repubblica newspaper.

The news comes just two weeks after Luis Durnwalder, the German-speaking governor of the region, decided alongside Italy's minister for regional affairs, Graziano Delrio, that signs, maps and tourist information relating to 135 tourist attractions would henceforth be listed exclusively in German.

Long-Term Battle

Under the decree, local attractions including Lago di Finale, Forcella Mezdi and Croda Nera are to be known only by their German names -- Finailsee, Mittagscharte and Schwarze Wand. Durnwalder and Delrio also agreed that 750 other place names would remain bilingual.

The linguistic battle has been going on for decades. Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, South Tyrol was annexed by Italy after World War I. The Italian government set about translating the German place names in the region -- nearly 17,000 of them -- into Italian. After the end of World War II, reform processes saw the dual use of names on street signs tolerated, while the Italian versions remained the official ones.

In 2010, however, Durnwalder secured an agreement with Italy's then-minister for regional affairs, Raffaele Fitto, allowing him to start disposing of the Italian names. Though the South Tyrolean People's Party (SVP) -- which was responsible for the move -- said that the Italian names were defunct, critics argued that they were still in use among locals and tourists.

Campaign Pain

Local politicians have criticized the replacement of the additional 135 Italian names, with Enrico Lillo -- a member of the center-right People of Freedom Party -- stating: "It's the usual case of the SVP trampling over the Italian speakers."

The move also caused some controversy further afield, with Milan-based center-right Il Giornale newspaper writing: "Delrio is putting our Italian language up for sale. From now on, only German will be spoken in the Dolomite Alps."

A SVP spokesperson admitted that the disagreement was getting somewhat out of hand. "We have to think about how to deal with the issue, especially because we are currently in the middle of the campaign season," she said. "It might take some negotiating, but we will surely come to a mutually acceptable agreement."


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