If you’ve never visited Italia, you might not know that Italians have more dialects than you can shake a pizza at. They’re not just one big spaghetti family, no. They’re a diverse bunch of linguists, with unique dialects and quirks.
For example, if you stroll down the cobblestone streets of Rome and eavesdrop on the locals, you might think they’re speaking a completely different language. They have their own beautiful ‘declinations’ of Italian that are music to the ears.
Now, these dialects aren’t written languages, but they’re the lifeblood of informal conversations between folks from the same city. And sometimes, it can get a little confusing. If you’re from Milan and visit Naples, you might need a translator to understand what’s going on.
But let’s pause here for a second. Oh boy, do we love a good debate in Italy! And this one’s been heating up for years. On one side, we’ve got the folks who love calling regional languages “dialects.” And on the other side, we’ve got the scholars who say, “No way, Jose!”
Now, I’m not one to pick sides, but let’s take a look at the facts. From a linguistic point of view, our Italian ‘dialects’ and the national language are on the same level. Most of them come from the mother tongue, Latin.
But the word “dialect” has some baggage. It sounds like a second-class citizen of the language world. And let me tell you, our regional languages are anything but second-class. They’re vibrant, colorful, and full of life.
So, why can’t we call them what they are? Our regional languages. They deserve a little respect.
But now that the concept of regional languages has surfaced, you may be afraid to travel around Italy. But don’t worry, Italians know how to speak the “official” Italian language. And they use the regional language as a secret code to communicate with other Italians from the same region.
And get this, the Italian language as we know it today is based on the literary Florentine used back in the 1300s. So, if you want to learn the real deal, you best head to Florence.
What are Italian “dialects”?
Each one of these languages branched out from the same root as Italian.
But here’s the thing, Italian and regional languages have different sociolinguistic roles. Italian is the language of communication within the Italian Republic, the Republic of San Marino, and the Helvetic Canton of Ticino. It’s like the cool kid at school who everyone wants to hang out with.
And then there are regional languages, or as we mentioned above, some mistakenly like to call them “dialects”. They’re like the shy kid in the back of the class who only speaks up when they’re with their family.
Now, don’t get me wrong, regional languages are still important. They’re part of Italy’s cultural heritage, and add some spice to the linguistic soup. But let’s face it, they don’t get invited to all the parties.
Why was the Italian language chosen above the other “dialects”?
Oh, Italy, you’re full of surprises. Did you know that before Italy had its beloved Italian language, it was just a humble Tuscan “dialect”? Yeah, we all started somewhere, didn’t we?
But then something magical happened. Literary greats of the 14th century, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, started writing in Tuscan. And it was like a switch was flipped. Suddenly, everyone wanted to speak like the cool kids from Tuscany.
It’s like when your favorite celebrity starts wearing a certain brand of clothing, and it’s all the rage. Next thing you know, even your grandma is sporting the same look.
And that’s exactly what happened with Tuscan. Non-Tuscan authors, like the Neapolitan Sannazzaro and the Emilian Boiardo, saw how cool it was, and started writing in it too. It was like the hip new language on the block.
But let’s be real, it wasn’t just because Tuscan was cool. It was because it had been enriched with Tuscany’s literature and culture.
So, here we are today, with Italy’s official language, based on the Tuscan “dialect” that took the country by storm. And Italy couldn’t have it any other way. Because let’s face it, who doesn’t want to speak like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio?
Could it have been otherwise?
Like if Italy’s official language was based on the Sicilian Poetical School instead of the Tuscan “dialect.” Can you imagine that?
I mean, sure, Italians would be speaking with a bit more of a Sicilian flair. Maybe, throwing in some “Mastru Cola, Cu ‘Na Furma” now and then. But who knows what else would be different? Maybe hand gestures would also be different, more in the Godfather style.
But we can only speculate, my friends. Because it didn’t happen. Italians crowned the Tuscan “dialect” and have been running with it ever since. And let’s be real, it’s worked out pretty well with some pretty impressive literary giants under its belt.
So, let’s not dwell on what could have been. Let’s focus on what is, and that’s a beautiful language that brings all Italians together. Whether from Sicily, Tuscany, or anywhere between. They can all speak the same language and understand each other.
Was the Italian language an imposition?
Unlike the French or the Brits, Italians didn’t have a state apparatus to back up the spreading of a language until the unification of Italy.
And let’s not forget about those Italian states – they were like overbearing parents who thought they knew best. They made political choices left and right, but it was all just noise to the poor, almost illiterate population. Can you believe that about 80 percent couldn’t even read or write at the time of the unification? Talk about a tough crowd!
So, every regional language had its opportunity to expand and take control over Italy before the unification without the Italian State’s intervention. When Italy became one, the Tuscan “dialect” was the clear winner and thus became the Italian language.
Can it be said that Piedmontese, Marche, and Neapolitan are languages?
Yes and no for the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this post. It must be kept in mind, however, that the opposition to the term dialect springs as a reaction to a period of great contempt for dialects.
What is the origin of Italian dialects?
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we talk about the origins of the Italian languages! We’re diving into the deep end here, folks.
With the Roman conquest, Latin spread like wildfire throughout half of Europe. It was like a language virus, infecting everything in its path. And of course, it overlapped with the languages spoken by the locals.
Then the barbarian invasions came along and added their unique flavors to the mix. Everyone brought something to share, and it ended up being a feast for the ears.
But wait, there’s more! There’s a new theory in town, folks. It says that the father of all dialects isn’t the Latin of Romanization. Nope, it’s the Latin used before the Roman Empire was even born. It’s like going back to the roots of the language and finding a whole new family tree.
This theory explains how the present-day dialect areas match up with the frontiers of ancient cultures in prehistoric Italy. It’s like a linguistic archaeological dig, and the evidence confirms the thesis.
But do all Italian dialects have Latin as their ancestor?
No, they do not. So, we’re mixing it up now, folks! Most of the regional languages do descend from Latin. But it’s worth mentioning that there are German dialects around Italy. It’s like a language buffet. Here we list a few municipalities:
- Around Monte Rosa (Alemanni).
- In Verona and Vicenza (Cimbri).
- In Friuli (Carinthian).
- South Tyroleans and the Mochenians (Bavarians).
But wait, there’s more! Italy also has Slovenian dialects in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Croatian dialects in Molise, and the Grecanici (or Grichi) dialects of Salento and the southern end of Calabria. And don’t forget the Albanian dialects spread throughout much of south-central Italy and Sicily.
These languages are only a few examples from the group in which Latin is not the father. So, contrary to the general approach taken at the beginning of this post, diving deeper, we discover that some regional languages do not descend from Latin. Yeah, Italians have more language flavors than Baskin-Robbins.
Italian dialect groups
Oh, buckle up, folks, because we’re going on a linguistic road trip across Italy. It’s like “The Amazing Race,” but instead of challenges, we’ve got dialects.
So, we can not talk about this topic without mentioning the line called the La Spezia-Rimini line, it’s like the Mason-Dixon line of Italian dialects. It splits the northern ones from the central-southern ones.
Now, let’s talk about some of our famous dialects. We’ve got the Sicilian dialect that’s like music to the ears with its sing-songy tones. And then there’s the Neapolitan dialect, which is so fast and furious, it’ll leave your head spinning faster than a plate of spaghetti.
And let’s not forget about the Venetian dialect, which is like a warm hug from a grandmother. You might not understand a word she’s saying, but you feel the love in every syllable.
So, let’s see some of the most famous Italian dialects! In the picture below, there are several expressions. Could you guess what they mean? Read until the end of this post to get answers.
The beautiful region of Tuscany and their fancy way of speaking go together. They like to aspirate their “c’s”, which is quite impressive! I mean, try saying “La Coca-Cola without any “c’s” – it’s like trying to do a one-handed push-up while juggling pineapples!
And that’s not all, they also like to shorten their verbs. “Andare” becomes “anda'” – it’s like they’re saying “I gotta go, but I don’t have time to say the whole word, so let’s just get this show on the road!”
UNESCO recognizes Neapolitan as the real deal. You can hear it in Naples and the Campania region. And let me tell you, it’s a tough nut to crack!
It’s like they took Italian, put it in a blender, and added a dash of Greek origins. It’s a linguistic smoothie that can be a real brain-buster! You’re just sitting there, nodding along, pretending like you know what they’re saying, but you’re just thinking about pizza. And who could blame ya? I mean, have you tried Neapolitan pizza? It’s wonderful!
But back to the language. It’s UNESCO gave it the recognition of a language. It’s like a cultural treasure. So next time you’re in Naples or the Campania region, don’t be afraid to try it! Who knows, maybe you’ll impress the locals, and they’ll invite you over for some pizza! And let me tell you, that’s an invitation you don’t want to turn down!
The beautiful island of Sicily is full of traditions and habits. And its language is rich with many influences!
It’s like a linguistic gumbo, a flavorful combination of Latin, Greek, Arabian, and so many more ancient civilizations! It’s no wonder it’s still studied today, it’s like a linguistic time capsule!
And let’s not forget about the strategic location of Sicily. The island was the ultimate melting pot of cultures, a hub for trade, and a crossroads of civilizations. I mean, even the mafia couldn’t resist its charms! But let’s not talk about them, let’s focus on the beauty and wonder of Sicily.
From its stunning coastline to its rich history, Sicily has something for everyone. And its language is like the cherry on top of an already amazing sundae!
One of the most difficult dialects to understand is Venetian. It’s like they take the vowels and chop ’em off like a chef preparing vegetables! “Cane” becomes “can”, and “pane” becomes “pan.”
Liguria is a language with a flavor all its own. There are many variations of this dialect. But the most important one is the Genovese dialect, which is like the Parmesan cheese on top of pizza – it’s what gives it that special kick.
And did you know that the locals have a nickname for Genova? They call it “Zena” – kind of like how we call San Francisco “Frisco.”
Sardinia is no ordinary island. The language spoken there is independent of all the other neo-Latin languages in Italy. That’s right, it’s like the renegade rebel of Italian dialects, saying “I don’t need no stinking Italian, I’m my own language!”
And it’s not just any language. Sardinian is the most conservative of all the Latin-derived languages. It’s like the grandpa of Italian dialects, holding on to its roots like they’re going out of style. But you know what they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Now, if you head up to the northwest part of the island, to the city of Alghero, you might be in for a surprise. You might hear an archaic variation of Catalan, the language spoken in Barcelona and other parts of Spain. And you might be wondering, “What is going on here? Did I take a wrong turn and end up in Catalonia?” But fear not my friends, it’s all because of Spanish immigration that occurred way back in the late 1300s. Talk about leaving a mark on a place!
Hello, Puglia! Here the beaches are pristine, and the food is fantastic, but watch out – the dialect can be a doozy! That’s right, folks, if you’re not from around these parts, you might find yourself scratching your head and saying “What did they just say?”
The dialects of Puglia come in two flavors, like a delicious gelato – there’s the one from the city of Bari, and then there’s the one from the Salento area. And let me tell you, they both pack a punch!
Now, if you want to impress the locals, try saying this little tongue twister: “Salento: lu’ sole, lu’ mare, lu’ ientu.” It means “Salento: the sun, the sea, the wind, and it’s a very common quote related to the Salento area.
Translation of the expressions shown in the Illustration above
Did you guess what they meant? Here are the answers.
1st Expression: A sciacquai sa conca a su burriccu, si perdidi abba, tempu e saboni.
It’s a saying in the Sardinian language.
Translation into standard Italian: A lavare (sciacquare) la testa all’asino si perde acqua, tempo e sapone.
Translation into English: To wash (rinse) a donkey’s head, you lose water, time, and soap.
2nd Expression: Quann’ ‘o mare è calmo, ogni strunz è marenaro.
It’s a saying in the Napoletano language.
Translation into standard Italian: Quando il mare è calmo, ogni stronzo è marinaio.
Translation into English: When the sea is calm, every fool is a sailor.
3rd Expression: Vattinne và!
It’s a saying in the Bari language. This one is pretty much universal in southern Italy. You’ll hear this when someone says some tall tale that is in no way real. It literally means get out of here.
Translation into standard Italian: Fuori da qui!
Translation into English: Come ooon!/Suuure/Get out of here!
4th Expression: Acqua, cunsigghiu e sali a cu n`addumanna `n ci nni dari.
It’s a saying in the Sicilian language.
Translation into standard Italian: Acqua, consiglio e sale non darne a chi non te ne chiede.
Translation into English: Water, advice, and salt should not be given to those who are not asking for it.
Have you discovered why they are called languages and not dialects? Were you impressed with the diversity present in Italy? I have a treat for you! Are you ready for some more Italian language fun? Of course, you are! Just clickety-click right over here, and you’ll find a whole post-chock-full of interesting facts about the Italian language.
Wow, this was an entertaining article. I am passionate about learning new languages. I speak several fluently. When it comes to Italian, I understand it very well. Unfortunately, I’m not proficient in Italian.
I speak Spanish fluently. And I want to read an article similar to this, but about Spanish dialects.
Hi! Thanks for sharing your interest in Spanish dialects. I am also fluent in Spanish. I am also interested in opening a blog for English speakers that want to learn Spanish. So, I would publish such an article there. Stay toned. I will let you know.
This is all SO interesting! I had no idea Italy had so many languages. And you’re right. Calling them “dialects” is a put-down. The same thing has been going on with the Scottish language. English speakers have been putting it down as the dialect of the unwashed illiterate when, in fact, it is a language totally worthy of respect.
It surprised me to find out that Dante’s language became the official one since, at the time, he was scorned for not writing in Latin. But then, it’s not surprising, either. Elitism is fickle like that. First, it puts him down for writing in Tuscan, then it pretends Tuscan is the be-all, end-all, the only language that counts, and it becomes the new elite.
Elitism is so destructive.
Italy is not the only small-ish place with a lot of languages. I’m sure that was how it always has been with us, everywhere. But elitism systematically wiped out the diversity. I don’t know about Europe, but in North America, the elitist invaders wiped out SIX HUNDRED languages. It boggles the mind.
How did Italy escape the same fate? Was it because Rome (being an elitist invader itself) was too busy going OUT to conquer that they didn’t have time to subdue their own people? It is not a theory I have or anything. I only thought of the question because of what I learned from your post. Or maybe they just appreciated having a lot of languages. I know they used to love having tons of religions. It’s kind of the same.
I REALLY loved this post.
Regional languages are disapearing at a fast rate. But six hundred languages is way more than what most countries have experienced.
Thanks for sharing insights into regional languages in Scotland and North America. Not only I, but also readers of this post value your comment. Thank you very much!
I thought all Italians had the same roots concerning language. But it turns out that they have so many distinctive influences in different regions. Even to the point of their local languages being incomprehensible to each other. It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, because I have a hard enough time understanding the English of plenty of my own countrymen who reside in different parts of the states than myself. What can be said about people that speak completely different languages?
Yes, it’s true. Their languages have influences all over the place. And if we struggle sometimes listening others speak their version of English, how much more would we struggle to understand people speaking a different language!
You may not believe it, but years ago, in Canada, I did a wedding for a couple with a bride from Italy. I did the service half in English and half in Italian just by reading from an Italian prayerbook. Of course, I practiced for a long time. When the service was over, the bride’s grandmother came up and hugged me and said (through a translator) that she understood every word. I don’t remember which region the people were from, but it was a cheese-maker family.
I had no idea that there were so many languages in Italy.
Thanks for sharing this experience. Italian cheese culture is way more than just the stretchy mozzarella on your pizza or the fancy provolone on your sandwich. The cheese tradition of Italy is as diverse and unique as the country itself.
I am sure that Italy has a lot of different accents, as in my own country where people speak Dutch. Foreigners can learn the language all they want, but still, they don’t understand what people are talking about, because they learned the language completely different than what the people are saying haha! It can get quite complicated to learn Italian well, I can imagine. Although for me personally,learning Italian is much easier than learning Spanish, as the sounds and words are more “pronounced” clearly. But yes, hearing an Italian accent can get confusing.
I didn’t know Italy has a lot of languages. Back here in Uganda, we have a lot of languages too. You find someone in Eastern Uganda can’t communicate with someone from western Uganda because of the language barrier. But good enough, we have English as our national language. It helps us communicate when regional languages fail.
Hi! Thanks for sharing about the languages in Uganda. I find it interesting too.