Almost everyone knows that Italian is the official language of Italy. You might think it seems fairly obvious; it’s even in the name. Some visitors know that German is spoken in Italy too, and a bit of French in the northwest, but what about all the dialects? If you’ve ever been anywhere near Naples, you’ve probably heard of, or heard, Neapolitan being spoken. Maybe you’ve heard Venetian if you’ve set foot in Venice, where street signs say cale rather than via, but what about the multitude of other dialects spoken down the length of the country? And why are there so many different ways of saying things from region to region, and in some cases even from city to city?
I’ve always been intrigued by foreign languages; I learned French and then Italian before moving to Italy to practice it. When I arrived, I realised Italian is far from the only language spoken there. While London is full of different cultures, nationalities and languages, English is the only one that appears on the road signs; things are rather different in Italy. Stroll down a street in certain regions and you may be greeted in German and French, occasionally you may even hear dialect, for although Italian is the official language and is spoken throughout the country, in some regions it actually shares equal recognition with another language.
In Alto Adige (or Südtirol) for example, German is recognised as an official language alongside Italian. Head to Bolzano and you’ll see everything written in both German and Italian. From experience, German seems to be the primary language used, although many of those I met were bilingual. This seems reasonable when you look at where it’s geographically located – right next to Austria – and consider its history, the region was actually part of the Austro-Hungarian empire before it was annexed to Italy at the end of the First World War. Similarly, in the very north west of Italy, Valle d’Aosta (or Vallée d’Aoste) accepts French as an official language used by its relatively small population. It too is situated in the mountains and is on Italy’s border with a European neighbour (this time not Austria but France and Switzerland). Towns in both of these regions bear names in both Italian and the other official language. Children speak French and German in schools (region dependent) and even yoghurt pots appear bilingual. But aside from Italian, German and French, what other languages are spoken on the peninsula?
In total, there are currently around 30 dialects and minority languages spoken in Italy, according to UNESCO. These range from Venetian in the northeast, to Tuscan and Ligurian in the centre and Sicilian in the very far south. Some of them are fairly similar to the Italian widely spoken today, while others sound completely different and are influenced by Spanish, Greek and even Arabic words, depending on where you are in the country (and who may have invaded the region at one time or another).
If you were to greet someone and say ‘good morning’ in standard Italian, you would say buon giorno. However, were you to say it in Sicily, you would say bon giornu, in Bologna (in dialect) this changes to bån dé and in Naples it becomes buonjuorno. Similarly, if you wanted to ask somewhat their name, in Italian you would say come ti chiami?, but in Bolognese dialect you would say cum t ciâmet?, in Sicilian you would say comu ti chiami? And in Neapolitan you would say comme te chiame?
Italy still retains such a high number of dialects due to the fact that it is still a relatively young nation and, until unification in 1871, consisted of multiple independent city-states. When the country was unified and became the Kingdom of Italy, a standard language was needed for the different regions to all be able to communicate with each other. As a result, Italian evolved as the official state language and was modelled on the Tuscan dialect. For this reason, Tuscan is very similar to the Italian spoken today. Conversely, Neapolitan sounds completely different and is pretty hard to comprehend if you don’t actually speak it. UNESCO actually recognises Neapolitan as a language in its own right as it is sufficiently distinct from Italian. It has Greek, Spanish and French origins, which can be seen in some of its words. Sicilian too is influenced by a previous Spanish invasion, a proximity to the Arabic speaking world and has also been given status as a minority language. Other dialects and minority languages present in Italy (and with a reasonably large number of speakers) include Venetian, spoken in Venice; Ligurian, spoken in Genoa and the region of Liguria; Emilian-Romagnol, spoken in Emilia Romagna; Sardinian, spoken in Sardinia, where a version of the Spanish influenced language Catalan is also used in the city of Alghero; Lombard, spoken in Lombardy (and some of Switzerland); and Piedmontese, spoken in Piedmont.
To make things even more complicated, these dialects vary within each regions, depending on where precisely they are being spoken. For example, in Emilia Romagna, Bolognese (a dialect of Emilian-Romagnol) is different from Modenese (also a dialect of Emilian-Romagnol), but the two cities are located just over 40 kilometres apart, and although they sound fairly similar, they are not entirely the same. You can almost travel from town to town and hear a slightly different dialect spoken, that is, if you’re speaking to the right people. These days it seems that many of the more rare dialects are only spoken by older people, and certain ones risk dying out. One such dialect, which is currently at risk of extinction, is töitschu, a language spoken by around 200 people in the small village of Issine, in the middle Valley of the Lys in Valle d’Aosta.
You may wonder how many people actually still speak dialects. According to Istat, Italy’s Instituto Nazionale di Statistica, around 50 per cent of the Italian population still speak a regional dialect as a mother tongue. However, the exclusive use of dialect (so speaking dialect without also using Italian) is decreasing, and it seems that dialect is more commonly used amongst those with lower levels of education, than amongst those who hold a degree. Dialects are also more commonly spoken between friends and family, than at work for example. This probably explains why (as a non-Italian visitor to the country) I only heard them spoken on very few occasions. That said, one the more widely spoken ones, Neapolitan, is still used in a range of contexts such as TV series and in popular songs. Of the Italians I know, some speak a dialect, some do not, but nearly all of them agreed when asked that their grandparents’ generation are now the main users of regional languages and dialects. A few were of the opinion that the widespread use of dialects will die out in the not too distant future, and most seemed to think that learning a second language was more important than a regional dialect. Yet surely it would be a little sad to lose Italy’s dialects, and by association some of the history of the different regions, if they were to become extinct.
Maybe dialects should be considered in a less practical sense and more as part of Italian culture, less about communicating with others, and more about remembering the history of the relatively modern country of Italy. Perhaps, being from the UK, and having no dialect of my own to learn and speak with my friends and family, I have romanticised the idea of being able to speak a dialect. Maybe, if I were Italian, I would resent it. Yet I still find it fascinating that, if you know where to look and who to talk to, these ancient languages and dialects can still be heard today.
A few words and phrases
Come ti chiami? – What is your name?
Mi chiamo… – My name is…
Piacere! – Pleased to meet you!
Per favore – Please
Grazie – Thank you
Comme te chiame? – What is your name?
Me chiamme… – My name is…
Piacere mij! – Pleased to meet you!
Pe favore – Please
Grazij -Thank you
Comu ti chiami? – What is your name?