Slovenes of Italy

Location: Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Population: 52,000
Percentage of population: 0.1% of Italian population
Religion: Catholic
Language: Slovene, Italian

The Slovene speakers of Italy are largely those which remained inside the borders of the Italian republic in the region of Trieste after World War II. This area has had a chequered political history and from the end of the war until a final settlement in 1975 was the subject of a dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia. In addition there are some small indigenous communities of Slovene speakers, descendents of earlier waves of immigrants.

The area in and around the port city of Trieste had been under Austrian control from the fourteenth century until after World War I when it was awarded to Italy in 1920 under the Treaty of Rapallo. At the end of World War II Trieste and its surrounding hinterland was claimed by Yugoslavia, partially on the grounds that it was inhabited by Slovene and Croat speakers. In fact the area was ethnically mixed although Trieste City itself was mainly Italian. Since agreement between Italy and Yugoslavia was not possible, the southern area was placed under Yugoslavian administration while the northern area, including Trieste, remained under an Allied (US and UK) military administration, and was divided into two zones. In 1947 it became a Free Territory of Trieste under UN Security Council administration, although in practice it remained under Allied military administration. Continuing friction between the Italian and Yugoslav governments and the Allied powers led to a memorandum of understanding between the Italian, Yugoslav, British and US governments (known as the London Memorandum of 5 October 1954) which in effect gave the city of Trieste and the northern zone to Italy, while the southern zone was awarded to Yugoslavia. Among the provisions of the Memorandum was a special statute on the rights of the population of the areas to be transferred, including the rights to use their own language and the use of bilingual street names and other public inscriptions in districts where ethnic minorities constituted at least one quarter of the population. The memorandum, which was a de facto agreement, was superseded by a de jure agreement in the Treaty of Osimo signed on October 1, 1975, and which came into force on April 3,1977. This Treaty reaffirmed the minority rights of the 1954 agreement.

In addition to the Treaty of Osimo the Italian government has passed a number of laws concerning the language rights of the Slovene minority. In addition in 1963 Trieste became capital of the newly created special-statute region of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

According to official Italian government figures Slovene speakers totalled 52,000 out of a total of 632,000 people in the 32 communes where Slovene speakers reside. However other estimates give a figure of over 100,000. Slovene speakers are almost always bilingual as few non-Slovenes know the language. In addition the Slovene spoken in Italian areas is in many ways rather archaic and it has at least six main dialects. During the interwar period the Italian government laid down various restrictions on the language, which has affected its present development.

The province of Trieste has the best provisions for Slovene speakers, mainly because of the effects of the laws and the Treaty, the existence of Trieste as a free port and the proximity of Yugoslavia. There are various types of Slovene and bilingual schools, Slovene is allowed to be used in local courts and on some official documents. There are well established Slovene cultural organizations, numerous papers and periodicals, some of which receive finance from the regional administration, and Slovene language radio programmes.

(See also Friulians; Slovenes of Austria)