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The Italian people generally refer to Italian dialects as all vernacular idioms spoken in Italymarker other than Italian and other languages recognised by the Italian state. As a rule of thumb, all Romance languages spoken in Italy are customarily termed as dialects. Ethnologue, the registrar of the ISO 639-3 recognises them as languages of Italy.

Origin of Italian dialects

Many Italian regions already had a different substratum before the conquest of Italy by the Romans: Northern Italy had a Celtic substratum (this part of Italy was known as Gallia Cisalpina, "Gallia on this side of the Alps"), a Ligurian substratum, or a Venetic substratum. Central Italy had an Etruscan substratum, and Southern Italy had an Italic or Greek substratum. All of that began as a diversification between the way to speak Latin (the official language of the Roman Empire).

Due to the Italian Peninsula's history of both fragmentation and colonization by foreign powers (especially Francemarker, Spainmarker and Austria-Hungary) between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and unification in 1861, there has been ample opportunity for linguistic diversification.

However, most states used either the colonial language as the official one, or Latin in the case of independent Italian states (such as the Vaticanmarker). Rarely was the local vernacular used in official documents, and as such a formal grammar for most vernaculars was usually not established. Private citizens who could write would use vernacular as an informal way to write notes, as Leonardo da Vinci did, using Latin instead for more important publications.

The synthesis of an Italian language from the various dialects was the main goal in the life of Alessandro Manzoni, who advocated building a national language derived mainly from the vernacular of Florencemarker, which had gained prestige since Dante Alighieri had used it in his Divina Commedia.

Dialects remained the common parlance of the population until about the 1950s. With progressive increases in literacy, standard Italian became gradually accepted as the national language. Until World War II people who could not afford schooling or simply had no use for a national language continued to use their own dialects in their daily lives. It is probably in this period that the stigma against using dialects in public arose, since it was a sign of low social status . Later on, this trend to marginalize people using dialects subsided; however, dialects were still not used in public because new generations, as well as immigrants from other parts of Italy, could not understand them.

Current usage

The solution to the so-called language question that had troubled Manzoni so much came from television. Its widespread adoption as the most popular appliance in the Italian home was the single main factor in helping "low-class" Italians learn the national language. Roughly in the same period, many southerners moved to the north to find jobs. The powerful trade unions successfully campaigned against the use of dialects to maintain unity among the workers. This allowed southerners, whose dialects were not mutually intelligible with the northerners', to integrate using Standard Italian. The large number of mixed marriages, especially in large industrial cities such as Milanmarker and Turinmarker, resulted in a generation that could confidently speak only Standard Italian, and usually only partly understood the dialects of their parents.

As a result of these phenomena, dialects in Italy remain in use most strongly where little immigration occurred; that is, in the South, North-Eastern Italy, in rural areas (where there has been less blending and less influence from trade unions), and among older speakers. Being unable to speak Standard Italian still carries a stigma, and even strongly pro-dialect political forces such as the Northern League rarely resort to anything else than Standard Italian to write or speak publicly.

Use of dialects in literature is not inconsiderable, with plays of Carlo Goldoni in Venetian being a notable example. The various dialects of Italy are also spoken in parts of the world with significant Italian immigrant populations.

Dialects of Italian and dialects of Italy

Dialects of Italian are regional varieties, more commonly and more accurately referred to as Regional Italian, with features of all sorts, most notably phonological and lexical, percolating from the underlying languages. Tuscan, and Central Italian in general, are in some respects not distant from Italian in linguistic features, due to Italian's history as derived from a somewhat polished form of Florentine. Nevertheless, the traditional speech of Tuscany is rightly viewed as part of the collection of Dialects of Italy. Some of the "dialects of Italy" should thus be considered distinct languages in their own right by some scholars, and actually are assigned to separate branches on the Romance language family tree by Ethnologue and other academic works.

For historical, cultural and political reasons, most "dialects of Italy" have not yet been given an official status, with the Italian legislation only recognizing as proper languages Franco-Provençal, Friulan, Ladin, Occitan and Sardinian . This distinction is more political than linguistic, since no distinction can be drawn on linguistic grounds between language and dialect. Each dialect is, in fact, a minor language.

A clear example of the differences and the confusion between dialects of Italy and dialects of Italian is the following. Venetian language, a dialect of Italy, has a very different grammar from Italian. In Venetian, "we are arriving" would be translated "sémo drio rivàr," which is quite distinct from the Italian "stiamo arrivando." In the Venetian dialect of Italian, (inflessione veneziana, italiano regionale del Veneto) the statement would be "stémo rivando," which is how a Venetian would colloquially pronounce the Italian "stiamo arrivando." However in Italian, the two different definitions are often expressed with the same term "dialetti italiani", it is a common conviction that all of them are varieties of standard Italian. So, Venetian language is popularly held by some to be a variety derived from standard Italian, and the same is true for well-known "dialetti" which show considerable differences in grammar, syntax and vocabulary: for example, Neapolitan, Sicilian, and Gallo-Italic languages.

All the dialects of Italy exhibit internal variety, especially the dialects of the North, where the fragmentation into different states was more pronounced and where there was montane isolation. An example is Lombardy, where at least three different and non-mutually intelligible linguistic groups are to be found (Western, Alpine and Eastern), further divisible into six varieties within which there are differences in pronunciation, grammar and lexicon between one village and another (especially in Western Lombard). Yet the several varieties spoken in Lombardy are all conventionally referred to as Lombard language.

Maltamarker's close ties with Italy meant that Maltese played a similar role to the other Italian dialects, and under Fascist Italy, it was simply considered another dialect, even though it is based on Western Arabic with heavy interlarding of Italian vocabulary.

List of language varieties of Italy

See also: List of languages of Italy

  • Dialect areas closest to Italian in features


  1. Lepschy, G. (2002). Mother Tongues and Other Reflections on the Italian Language. University of Toronto Press.
  2. Ethnologue report for Italy
  3. Law n. 482 of the Italian Republic, art. 2
  4. [1]
  5. [2]
  6. Eurolang report on Corsican
  7. Encyclopedia Britannica
  8. Galli de Paratesi, N. (1984). Lingua toscana in bocca ambrosiana. Bologna: Il Mulino.

External links


  • Comrie, Bernard, Matthews, Stephen and Polinsky, Maria: The Atlas of Languages: The Origin and Development of Languages Throughout the World. Rev. ed., New York 2003.
  • Manlio Cortelazzo, Carla Marcato, Dizionario etimologico dei dialetti italiani, Torino: UTET libreria, 2005, ISBN 8877500395.
  • Giacomo Devoto and Gabriella Giacomelli, I Dialetti delle Regioni d'Italia, Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1971 (3rd edition, Tascabili Bompiani, 2002).
  • Grimes, Barbara F. (ed.): Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Vol. 1, 2000.
  • Hall, Robert A. Jr.: External History of the Romance Languages, New York 1974.
  • Maiden, Martin: A Linguistic History of Italian, London 1995.
  • Maiden, Martin and Parry, Mair: The Dialects of Italy, London 1997.
  • Andrea Rognoni, Grammatica dei dialetti della Lombardia, Oscar Mondadori, 2005.

See also

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