Italian Dialects

Italian Dialects: Why Italians speak Thousands of Languages

Italians speak one language. No, actually, they speak thousands of them. I will tell you more: Italian is a newborn baby compared to the thousands of languages spoken in this country.

Let’s start from the beginning: let’s go back to 1861, when Italy was finally born, later than other European countries. The Regno d’Italia (Italian Kingdom) had just been formed, but what about the language?

“Fatta l’Italia, facciamo gli Italiani” (“We’ve made Italy. Let’s make the Italian people!”) This is what Italian writer and politician Massimo d’Azeglio rightly said. A unified country needed a unique language.

Which was not easy at all, since Italian people had been speaking their local dialects for centuries. This is why it took a lot of time for Italians to “learn” a unique language, and in this process television played a great role in that it helped spreading the language across the peninsula, alongside school education and newspapers.

But what is the status of our dialects and how did they develop throughout time? Despite they are (wrongly) classified as bad versions of the Italian language, dialects in Italy are real languages, that originated from Latin long before Italian was born – we are talking of a period of latinization that took place prior to the Roman empire times. Some of them, which are spoken in  the northern part of the country, derive from German; some are Slovenia dialects, and there are also dialects deriving from Greek and Croatian.

We have an extremely precious wealth of languages that is Italy’s past and present – yes, because Italians still speak (and most of them think in) dialects. I myself grew up in a family where Venetian was the first language, so I can consider myself bilingual. Speaking of my city, Venice, a curious phenomenon is worth mentioning, namely what sociolinguistics would call “diglossia”: a situation in which two languages or dialects coexist in the same area, but are used in different spheres of social interaction. In Venice, the Venetian dialect is used in informal situations, and has a lower prestige, whereas Italian is spoken in formal contexts and has a higher prestige.

Our dialects are therefore the “grandparents” of modern Italian: more specifically, only one Italian dialect, the Florentine one, gave birth to the “lingua italiana”, and this is due to a purely random reason. In fact, Florence happened to be the cradle of the Italian literature, home to big names such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. But if things had gone differently, another dialect could have stood out, and now we would be speaking a language very similar to it.

Although speaking only the national language is becoming increasingly popular among Italian families, we should not be ashamed of speaking to our children using dialects: they are our heritage, just as the Colosseum and the many art treasures we cherish.

What’s your opinion about it? Have you ever heard anyone speaking dialect in Italy?

  • Adrian Sanchez Alcon

    Very interesting!!

  • Excellent post. I knew of the concept of ‘diglossia’, but had never actually heard that word before. My partner is from Sicily and that is where we met each other. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I asked him, shortly after meeting him, if the Sicilian dialect was very different from Italian. “It’s a whole different language!” was his reply. Initially, although I understood Italian, I could hardly understand any Sicilian at all. They might as well have been speaking Portuguese. Now, four years later, I understand quite a lot and I have a lot of respect for this complex language. We now have a daughter together and I speak English to her and he speaks Sicilian. People wonder why he doesn’t speak Italian to her, but Sicilian is his madre lingua, so it makes sense that he would pass that onto her. It’s more natural that way and within a language and its ‘modi di dire’ lie the culture of the people who speak that language. I am fascinated by Italian dialects (and dialects in general) and believe they should be celebrated and passed on with pride 🙂

  • Rebecca

    My family are Calabrese, from a city called Crotone specifically. It’s a small city but a big province and everyone knows everyone. I remember growing up my mother and my zios and zias would all speak in “crotonese” to each other with my grand parents too but when me and my cousins were younger we would always be told off for speaking in dialect. As we’re getting older now we’re speaking it more and more however we’re always being called ‘tamarri’ by our parents when we do speak it. One thing I never understood is why people were called ‘chavs’ for speaking in dialect when as stated above it is the grandfather of Italian.

  • Christopher Murano

    I still consider myself tri-lingual. I grew up speaking English and Napulitano. I learned Italian later. Dialects are, in fact, actual languages with their own rules of grammar and spelling.

  • Adam Hovey

    Don’t forget some Italians also speak Slovene German or French as a first language

    • Marc

      Correct, people from South Tyrol speak German and not Italian and their is a group of people from a town called Meana di Susa on the French border who speak a dialect which is very similar to French.

  • Marc

    There is a fact that some older generation Italian’s cant even speak proper Italian. They are so suck in speaking their dialect in their owe community that they never learned Italian properly. I have seen cases where someone from Calabria cannot speak to someone from Piemonte without having a hard time understanding each other.