If you are attempting to learn Italian and you are ready to immerse yourself in some of the best classic Italian movies, like The Godfather, don’t get too surprised in case you have the following thought: “this movie is supposed to be in Italian, but the actors seem to speak some other kind of language!”
How come? Well, it is more than possible, since Italian is far from being the only language spoken in Italy! We are not only referring to the linguistic wakes of the bordering countries, but also to those regional languages, or dialects, which make the boot-shaped country a linguistically heterogeneous nation.
According to Ethnologue, the approximate number of native living spoken languages in Italy is 34. Most of these are recognised as non-standard languages, in other words as dialects. But there’s more: some people in Italy don’t even use Italian!
An analysis conducted in 2015 by the Italian national statistical institute (ISTAT), reveals that 14% of the Italian population uses the language of the region they live in, rather than the standard.
Italian dialects are not an accessory of the standard
Dialects are not used in formal and official public speeches. So, why should Italian language learners even bother getting to know them? Firstly, they still play a relevant role in Italians’ everyday life, as well as in their artistic expression. Secondly, a wider look at the linguistic world of Italy can be really fascinating. Finally, because they are, according to some linguists, proper languages!
The regional dialects of Italy are, in fact, not to be considered as an accessory of the Italian language. The reason behind this has to be found primarily in history. The establishment of Italian as the standard dialect of the country was not the result of bureaucratic and political affairs, as it happens for most languages, but it was the outcome of a flourishing literature.
Italy has always been characterised by a striking social and linguistic diversity: each State used to have its own language. How did they come up with a standard variety? The literary works written by the fathers of Italian (Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca, among others) played a part in solving the peculiar linguistic fragmentation of Italy.
During the thirteenth century, the language they used in their masterpieces, the so-called Florentine dialect, gained more and more relevance across the Italian peninsula.
However, it was only with the unification of Italian States (accomplished in 1861) that Italian, the sequel of Florentine, was adopted as the unifying language. The process has been slow and gradual. At the beginning, in fact, it was spoken only by intellectuals and well-educated people. As time went on, and thanks to the influence of mass media, Italian put down roots.
It turns out that the language that we nowadays recognise as Italian was in the past only one of the many dialects spoken in Italy! Isn’t it a notable fact? It is definitely interesting to think that before 1861, and even during the first years right after the unification, Italian people didn’t use to speak the same language!
The dialects of Italy, Florentine included, have shaped the identity of a country for so long... and they are still doing it! Moreover, a very remarkable fact is that in some cases, they have very little to do with Italian!
Yes, most of them are Romance languages: they developed from Latin, just like Italian or Spanish and French did. However, some of them belong to a different family. Among the languages of Italy we encounter some Germanic languages (like South Tyrolese, Cimbrian, and Mócheno), and Slavic languages (spoken in Molise and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions). In some parts of southern Italy, they speak Arbërisht, and Italiot Greek, varieties of Albanian and Greek.
So… Italian landed quite late in the country, therefore we can say that the already-existing dialects did not originate from Italian… and some of them don’t even belong to the same language family. Isn’t this enough to affirm their autonomy and value?
Now...are you ready to meet the regional languages of Italy?
A categorisation of the dialects of Italy
Linguists refer to the dialects of Italy by grouping them in different categories. They came up with different ways of categorising. Let’s take a look at Giovan Battista Pellegrini’s method!
- Northern Varieties (Dialetti Settentrionali)
- Friulian Varieties (Dialetti Friuliani)
- Tuscan Varieties (Dialetti Toscani)
- Middle Varieties (Dialetti dell’area Mediana)
- Southern Varieties (Dialetti dell’area Meridionale)
- Extreme Southern Varieties (Dialetti dell’area Meridionale Estrema)
- Sardinian Varieties (Dialetti Sardi)
Please note: for each of these varieties there are other semi-varieties. The dialect spoken in Florence is different from the one you can detect in Siena, even though the two cities are part of the same region: Tuscany. Similarly, the Venetian dialect spoken in Venice is not the same as the one of Verona. Keep this in mind when discussing dialects with Italians, or you might upset them!
We can’t conclude this section without giving special attention to Ladin (spoken in Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia) and Sardo (one of the varieties spoken in Sardinia). According to some linguists (Graziadio Isaia Ascoli is one of them), these varieties are recognised as completely independent from Italian. In other words, Ladin and Sardo are labelled as ‘separate languages’, given their unique nature.
In spite of the attempts to categorise all the languages of Italy, it is important to bear in mind that it is not easy to mark a line between one and the other. While sometimes differences can easily be observed in the dialects spoken between neighbouring towns, at other times these differences are much more subtle, and there can be significant overlap between different dialects. Languages are fluid, and we should treat them as such.
The 5 main Italian dialects: key features and curiosities
It’s time to zoom in the picture! In the next paragraph you’ll be introduced to some of the main dialects spoken in Italy: Neapolitan, Sicilian, Roman, Florentine, and Venetian.
Spoken in the land of pizza, Neapolitan has been considered as a heritage for all humanity by UNESCO!
The reputation of Neapolitan as a language of art is notable. We bet you know about ‘O Sole Mio and Tu vuò fa l’americano. The satire of Totò is unforgettable, and Massimo Troisi was definitely one of a kind.
The Neapolitan language is characterised by a powerful and compelling identity. As the writer Erri de Luca explains in Nàpolide, “we don’t pronounce the last vowel, words remain hanging: prima (before) and dopo (after) are primm’ and dopp’. Our ammor’ (love) is stronger than amore (love), ‘a famm’ (hunger) is more shameless than fame (hunger).”
One of the most interesting proverbs in Neapolitan is: Ogni capa è ‘nu tribunale! (each head is a courthouse), meaning that we all have our own opinions and perspectives, there is no such thing as ‘the truth’ but only ‘your and my truth’.
Spoken on the island of Sicily, this language is so fascinating to the point of becoming addictive! It’s one of the most enjoyable languages of Italy, and arts definitely played an important role in it. Classical and immortal movies like The Godfather or One Hundred Steps made this beautiful language travel long distances.
One of the most interesting features of Sicilian has something to do with the letter D: in many cases the double L will turn into a D. Some examples are: Bello (beautiful) = Beddo, or Beddu. Why that U? Well, it’s another interesting feature of Sicilian: this dialect thrives on this vowel!
Sicilian people often say: Cu `un fa nenti `un sbaglia nenti, which means “only the ones who don’t do anything at all won’t make mistakes.” Do you get it, picciotto?
If you will ever plan to visit Rome, be prepared for the many “ahò” you will hear without really understanding what is going on! But keep calm, and let’s ease things up a little!
Ahò is basically a jolly; it can have more than one meaning. It is primarily a way to draw attention to yourself… not the kindest manner, though! However, you can also use it to greet your friends: “Ahò! What’s up?” If you want to be really accurate, then you should say: “Ahò! Come te butta?”
The second most famous word of the Roman language is definitely Daje! This particle serves to cheer someone up, but also to pressurize someone. If you are watching the Rome soccer team playing a match, then you scream “Daje!”; similarly, if you are late and unfortunately stuck in the traffic jam you would scream “Daje!”
Amusing and simple, this is also the language of some world-class movies. Have you ever watched “Un americano a Roma”?
Florentine is only one of the many Tuscan varieties: it’s the most popular, and the dialect that inspired the standard language of Italy. However, the current standard variety, Italian, sounds a bit different from the current Florentine dialect. Let’s take a look at the latter!
One of the most famous pun about Florentine is: una hola hola hon la hannuccia horta horta (a coca cola with a very short straw). In standard Italian this sentence would be pronounced differently: una coca cola con la cannuccia corta corta. Basically, sometimes Florentine speakers put the C sound to sleep.
This pronunciation feature is called gorgia toscana, and it makes the dialects spoken in Tuscany unmistakably noticeable. If you know Roberto Benigni, from now on you will notice his marked Florentine accent!
This dialect has been prestigious in the past, when, during the times of the Republic of Venice, it gained the status of lingua franca in the Mediterranean Sea.
While the written form is still similar to Italian, the pronunciation is completely different: Southern Italian people can hardly understand the main topic of a conversation held in Venetian!
Some differences are observed in the grammar structure as well. For instance, reflexive tenses use the verb to have, just like English, German and Spanish do. Standard Italian, instead, uses the verb to be.
The connection between Venetian and other foreign languages is confirmed by the locution “drìo a” which expresses the progressiveness of an action and translates to “behind to”: me pàre 'l jèra drìo a parlàr (my father was talking). This feature resonates with the French construction en train de, and it also shares the same meaning with it. Isn’t it curious how an Italian dialect is actually more similar to French than it is to Italian?
Overcome the taboo of the "unsophisticated language"
Many people think that dialects are shameful, because of their rough nature. Actually, as underlined in this article, they are in many cases the language of arts. Movies, poetry, songs… Italian dialects are used to spread beauty and nobility of spirit. They represent the essence of people, the core of a culture.
For this exact reason, Italian language learners who aim to not only learn a language but also to discover a culture, should get in touch with these bizarre and intriguing parlances. After all, Italian has been picked from the crowd of dozens of regional languages, so why wouldn’t you have a go on the other dialects spoken in Italy?
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