Italians Don’t Speak Dialects. Or Do They?

Often you will hear people refer to the languages spoken in the various regions of Italy as dialects. Someone will say they speak the Florentine dialect or the Apulian dialect. I am currently reading the Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante, who frequently refers to characters using dialect. The reality is that the languages spoken in the various regions of Italy, those that differ from the official Italian language, are not Italian dialects.

Understand, a dialect is a variation of a particular language that is distinguished by a region’s or group’s manner of speaking. Think of them as siblings of a mother. They occur because languages are not static things, but evolve. Common words or phrases are replaced according to fashion. Grammar once deemed improper, becomes accepted. When was the last time you were concerned about a split infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition? When this evolution of language occurs in different areas independently new dialects are born. Just as siblings share common traits inherited from a parent but have their unique nature, dialects while having certain similarities, have unique vocabularies and grammar.

Consider the differences in English just within the United States. In some places, the word for a carbonated beverage is pop while others use the term soft drink. When I was a kid living in upstate New York, we used the term soda. While differences in the United States are not so great that we cannot communicate across regions, left unchecked over time, the separation between the various parts of the country would cause these languages to grow so far apart that this would not be the case. What minor differences do exist are being eradicated by mass media reuniting us all in a common language.

The key point here is that in the United States all these regional differences had one common parent, English. You may wonder then what is the issue with Italian, aren’t they all deviations of the standard Italian. As Hamlet would say; “ay there’s the rub.”

Let’s look back a bit in history to understand the development of language in Italy better. Due to geographical and technical constraints, when the Roman Empire collapsed the connections between the various regions broke down causing each of them to develop independently of one another. Each region or city-state saw itself as separate from the others, each with independent customs and culture. Part of culture, of course, is how we communicate with one another, language.

In this fractured time, there was no formal, accepted Italian language. They were Romans who spoke and read Latin. There were two forms of Latin, the classical formal Latin and the vulgar Latin, the common language spoken on the street. Although the Roman pronunciation of formal Latin has been lost, the vocabulary and syntax were preserved because formal Latin was written. Even after the fall of Rome this form of Latin was studied and used in official documents and literature. There was an emphasis among scholars to retain how classical Romans wrote.

The average person in Italy after the fall of Rome was not literate, they did not study formal Latin. The only language they knew was vulgar Latin. We should pause here to note that the sense of the word vulgar in this context means common. This is where we get the word vernacular which is a language spoken by ordinary people in a region or country. It only makes sense that languages that are exclusively spoken, that are not written, evolve much more quickly since nothing is preserving the language from one generation to the next as was the case with formal Latin. In the Venetian dialect, for example, they dropped the vowels at the end of words, so pane became pan. At the same time, in other parts of Italy, they retained the vowel.

It is clear, therefore, that what was spoken in each of the regions were not Italian dialects. They predated the standard Italian language and could not have evolved from it. If the languages spoken in the various regions of Italy are dialects at all, they are Latin dialects. They all descended from the mother language, Latin. This, of course, makes them siblings to not just the dialects spoken in the regions of Italy, but of all the Romance languages which by definition descended from the vulgar Latin.

There is one notable exception to all of this, Sicilian. The local language of Sicily is considered by many to be a completely separate language. Italian, the formal proper Italian, has more in common with the other Romance languages, especially French and Spanish than it does with Sicilian. As you study Sicilian you can see heavy Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek influences, which is no surprise when you consider that Sicily sits in the middle of the Mediterranean.

The relationship between the formal accepted Italian language and Italian dialects is reversed. It isn’t that they are children of a common mother, but forbears of a common descendent. This process began with the greatest of western poets, Dante Alighieri. He was the first to argue for a single unified Italy. As part of that unification, it only made sense that a unified Italian people have a single unified language. All speaking the same language. All sharing the same literature.

Dante proposed that this single Italian language be created by retaining a common core while throwing out regional idiosyncrasies. Understanding that language evolves, he believed that language should adapt to how people think from one generation to the next as well as to fit to changing times. While Dante may have had the right idea, his approach was somewhat lacking. Stitching together a language from various dialects, as if you were making a quilt, would result in an incomplete language. Rather, typically what happens is that a particular dialect emerges for a variety of reasons as superior to its siblings, becoming the standard. This was the case with Italian.

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio have been referred to as the three jewels of the Italian literary crown. All Tuscans, they created a body of literary work that raised the Tuscan dialect above the others which in turn made it the basis of the national language. Ernst Pulgram, noted American linguist, had said; “I should venture to say that without Dante, at least Tuscan would have no greater chance than Roman or Neapolitan or Lombard. Indeed, I should go so far as to say that if Dante had been a child of Naples and, providentially, Boccaccio and Petrarch also Neapolitan and not Tuscan would have become Italy’s national language.”

In the years after Dante and his fellow Tuscans, debates raged as to the definition of the proper Italian language. It wasn’t until roughly 1600 CE that standard Italian was defined. In 1582, Accademia della Crusca, frequently referred to as La Crusca, was establish with the charter to define and defend the Italian language. Thirty years later, in 1612, La Crusca published the first Italian dictionary which happened to be the first dictionary of any of the Romance languages. Since that time, La Crusca has worked to fulfill its mission.

Now, we can become pedantic, insisting that we refer to these as regional languages. On the other hand, you could argue that the regional languages, although descended from Latin, are Italian in the sense that they are used within Italy. Maybe calling them Italian dialects is not so heinous a crime, after all, we have said that languages evolve.

For more on Italian and Italian-American culture, read my book Italianità, The Essence of Being Italian

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