There has been a heated debate in Italy for many years. One party favors the term dialects, and the other opposes it.
From a linguistic point of view, Italian “dialects” and the national language are on the same level. Both originated from Latin.
What are Italian “dialects”?
Italian dialects are not a corruption of Italian. Each one of these languages branched out from the same root as Italian. But, today, Italian and “dialects” have different sociolinguistic roles. The former is the language of communication within the Italian Republic, the Republic of San Marino, and the Helvetic Canton of Ticino. The latter has more limited use and, in some cases, is limited to family use.
Why was the Italian language chosen above the other “dialects”?
Cultural, historical and economic reasons favored the nationwide adoption of what is known today as the Italian language. Before this happened, it was known as the Tuscan “dialect.”
The formidable literary production of the 14th century (Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio) developed in Tuscany and spread throughout much of the Peninsula. Thus, non-Tuscan authors such as the Neapolitan Sannazzaro and the Emilian Boiardo wrote in Tuscan.
Could it have been otherwise?
Probably so. If, for example, the same fate had befallen the Sicilian Poetical School (12th century), we might today be speaking a language with Sicilian characteristics. But we can only speculate because it didn’t happen!
Was the Italian language an imposition?
Unlike French in France or English in Britain, Italian spread without the support of a state apparatus until at least the unification of Italy. After all, the previous interventions of the various Italian states tended to make political choices in the administrative sphere with hardly any impact on the almost illiterate population (about 80 percent at the time of the formation of the unified state).
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?
With the Roman conquest, Latin spread throughout half of Europe, especially the Mediterranean basin. Latin overlapped with the languages previously spoken by those populations.
The subsequent barbarian invasions added ingredients to the mixture. And the result was the various “dialects” of Italy.
However, there is also a newer theory. It states that the father of all dialects would not be the Latin of Romanization. The Latin used before the Roman Empire was born would be the father. During a phase of Latinization that occurred in the regions where the Latins and other Italic peoples would have sojourned before stopping in the areas we historically know. The theory explains how the present-day dialect areas coincide with the frontiers of ancient cultures in prehistoric Italy. And linguistic and archaeological data confirm the thesis.
But do all Italian dialects have Latin as their ancestor?
No, they do not. There are many German dialects around Italy. Here we list a few municipalities:
- Around Monte Rosa (Alemanni).
- In Verona and Vicenza (Cimbri).
- In Friuli (Carinthian).
- South Tyroleans and the Mochenians (Bavarians).
Slovenian dialects are also present, such as Friuli Venezia Giulia. Croatian dialects of Molise, the Grecanici (or Grichi) dialects of Salento, and the southern end of Calabria. The Albanian dialects spread throughout much of south-central Italy and Sicily.
All these are examples of languages of which Latin is not the father.
Italian dialect groups
A first subdivision is that which, following the La Spezia-Rimini line, separates the northern dialects from the central-southern ones. The former belong to western Romània, the latter to eastern Romània, the other great distinction affecting Latinized Europe. In northern Italy, proceeding from west to east, we have the Gallo-Romance dialects (Occitan and Franco-Provençal), the Gallo-Italic dialects (Piedmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, Emilian, Romagnolo), Venetian, Ladin, Friulian, Tuscan, Central-Southern (Umbrian, Marche, Abruzzese, Molise, Apulian, Campanian, Lucanian, Salento, Calabrian, Sicilian) and Sardinian.
Would you like to continue reading about the Italian language? Click here to check out a post with several interesting facts about the Italian language.