The idea itself of dialect may be difficult to grasp for non-Italians. It’s not a language, yet it’s not a variety of one either. It may sound like Italian here and there, yet it can also be extremely different and to make things worse, people speaking different dialects may not necessarily understand each other. I have vivid memories of how I, a born and bred Piedmontese girl, would stand in confusion when, as a teenager, a friend’s Neapolitan stepdad would speak to me using his colorful, beautiful dialect. God bless Parthenope, of course, but I think I have never felt so confused in my life.
Dialects are a typical linguistic feature of Italy, one that for decades has been neglected, even taunted and ridiculed by certain socio-cultural groups, who would read in their use a sign of backwardness and lack of formal education. Many people of my generation barely speak their local dialect, albeit they are likely to understand it: most of us grew up with parents and grandparents who would speak it in front of us, but we were never encouraged to use it, for fear it may have made learning proper Italian correctly more difficult.
And that was the mistake. Dialects are not a bastardized language, or a poorer, less syntactically correct version of it; they’re a rich, at time complex and multi-faceted form of linguistic expression, within which the history and traditions of an entire area can be discovered.
Dante Alighieri, the first to put his own poetically perfect foot down, stating that yes, il volgare was a language deign to discuss the most elevated of topics
If we had to define a dialect, we would say it’s a linguistic form strictly associated with a specific region, characterized by a profound phonetic and lexical variety, even within the region itself. In my region, Piedmont, the dialect of Turin is different, for instance, from that of Cuneo, even though the two are mutually intelligible. Such variety is the reason behind the impossibility to quantify the actual number of dialects Italians speak: truly, each corner of Italy has one.
Yet, academics have been doing their best to make dialect studies a bit simpler by dividing them into three large groups, based on geographical and linguistic features. The first group, which includes roughly all dialects spoken in the North of Italy (excluding Friulano, which is a real language) is denominated “Gallic-Italian” as all the dialects within it share many similarities with French. Then, we have Tuscan, spoken in Tuscany and singled out by specific phonetic characteristics, such as the empty, breathe-through sound given to the “c” letter, as well as grammatical features like the common use, even in the spoken language, of the Passato Remoto tense, which is largely unused in oral production in the North.
The third group, the “Central-Southern”, embraces all dialects of the Centre and the South of the country. Here, the influences of French are accompanied by those of Spanish - and, in Sicily, even Arabic: languages belonging to past conquerors of these beautiful areas of the Bel Paese.
But Why Such a Variety?
The answer is simple: history.
Bear with me while I bring you back a few thousand years, to a time pre-dating the mighty Romans of a few centuries. Each area of the country was inhabited by different populations, each with their traditions, habits and languages. You may be familiar by name, for instance, with the Etruscans, ancient lords of Tuscany and northern Latium, but there were also the Ligurians, the Latins, the Siculi…. When Rome unified the peninsula, it did so not only politically and economically, but also linguistically, Latin becoming the first “unified” language of Italy, if you will.
But if you think those other languages were forgotten, you’d be mistaken. There’s nothing as stubborn as idioms: they simply remain with you, even when you stop using them, defying time passing and other languages taking over (ask my grandma, who spent one year in France when she was eight, never spoke French again, yet, well in her 70s, was perfectly able to converse with me when I began learning it in middle school). As a consequence, Latin itself had differences, depending on the area of Italy where it was spoken, differences based on the languages used prior to the Roman conquest. In Calabria, for instance, pockets of Greek based dialects still exist, deriving from the ancient Magna Graecia colonies of the 5th century BC.
Fascinating, isn’t it, but the history of dialects is far from over.
When, in the 5th century AD, the Western Roman Empire eventually collapsed, Italy was assailed by several waves of invasions, throughout the good part of the following 600 years: from the Goths to the Normans, all the way through the Byzantines and the Arabs, the country became once again a cultural and linguistic melting pot, even if its Roman and Christian imprinting remained strongly in place, along with the Empire’s language, Latin.
However, new languages and idioms, with their lexicon and sounds, entered the daily world of the people, adding upon Latin, itself influenced all those centuries before, by other ancestral languages: a substratum, a language and a super-stratum, the first and the latter different for each and every area of the country.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Latin remained the language of the Elites, whereas people in the streets would speak what was commonly known as vulgar language, a popular idiom based on spoken Latin, the one most influenced by the substratum and super-stratum of the previous paragraph.
Enters then Dante Alighieri, the first to put his own poetically perfect foot down, stating that yes, il volgare was a language deign to discuss the most elevated of topics. To show us all what he meant, he came out with the masterpiece of Italian literature, the mother itself of our own language, La Divina Commedia. Dante used Tuscany’s volgare, but each area of Italy had its own. Because all based on the same language, Latin, they were similar, but it was Dante’s volgare that became “the” language of Italy.
In the 16th century, in order to distinguish Tuscan volgare from all the others, the word “dialetto” was introduced to indicate the various different form of volgare spoken in the country. With decades passing, people became acquainted with Italian, but remained very much attached to their dialetto, especially orally.
So, when Italy finally became a sole country in 1861, Italian was far from being the national language: even our king, Vittorio Emanuele II, spoke Piedmontese and French fluently, but was not too fond of Italian. People around the country would keep on using Italian only and exclusively for official reasons or in school and universities, making of it the language of the intelligentia and the administration, but certainly not that of the common people like you and me, who would have kept happily speaking their own dialect.
It was only with the advent of the radio in the 1920s and 1930s and, later on, of television sets, that Italians all over the country finally began listening and using their national language, slowly but steadily replacing dialects. Today, at least in the North where I am from, dialects have been enjoying a new lease of life: no longer associated with the idea of illiteracy and lack of culture, they are, for people of my generation, a badge of honor and tradition: the perfect mean to deliver a good pun, a sign of intimacy with friends, a way for many of us to cherish and share memories of those who, when we were children, in that dialect taught us all that truly counts in life.