Italy: Un Mosaico Linguistico

Dante Alighieri, the father of the Italian language

Italian culture is renowned worldwide due to its depth and important contributions to the arts, science, and civilization as a whole. From the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, to the highly acclaimed Italian cuisine, and the advancements made by Galileo and Marconi. One aspect of Italian society that reflects the richness of its diversity perfectly is the intense linguistic diversity that exists within the nation. In Italy, multitudes of dialects exist separate from the Standard Italian language, with each having unique histories and influences despite coming from within a relatively small geographic area. Since the Risorgimento, dialects have been the target of multiple campaigns by the various incarnations of the Italian state to remove them from use, and have seen a sharp decline in their use in favor of Standard Italian, a construction based on the Florentine dialect. Throughout modern Italian history, many factions have claimed that dialects weaken the Italian nation and encourage social disunity throughout the country, as people do not feel tied by a common Italian heritage, while others have supported the use of dialects as a way of preserving local heritage and as a way to support nationalistic movements, especially in the North. However, it is impossible to ignore the value added by the extra dimension that the dialects contribute to Italian society and culture as they enhance the diversity of the peninsula’s cultures.

History of the Languages of Italy

Map of the Pre-Roman cultural and linguistic influences in the Italian peninsula and beyond

The Romance languages of Italy, from Standard Italian, to Sicilian, and more, derive from the varieties of Vulgar Latin spoken across the peninsula during Roman times, with each variety drawing from the unique populations who lived in the regions before the Romans and the influences that came after. These existing languages formed substrata, or subregions, within the peninsula’s linguistic landscape, with each region already containing a myriad of influences from which to draw upon in creating dialects. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the North, the lack of a unified power in the area caused various dialects to emerge centered on the multiple city-states and associated areas for much of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period. Major dialects that emerged included the Tuscan dialects, notably including Florentine, Venetian, and Piedmontese. These languages experienced influence from Gallo-Italic languages such as French and Occitan, and German, as they sat at a commercial crossroads for much of Europe and interacted with these bordering cultures through trade. For the South and especially Sicily, there was a pronounced Greek, Norman, Arab, and Spanish influence as these foreign powers dominated the region for much of the last two millennia. These areas were unified up until the Risorgimento, unlike Northern Italy, causing the two major dialect groups of the South, those of Neapolitan and Sicilian, to revolve around the two major areas of the region, especially Naples, Campagna, and Palermo, Sicily. While the South stereotypically is considered to have been less developed than the North, written records and literature in Sicilian predate those of Dante and Boccaccio, two Florentine writers considered fundamental to the establishment of the Italian language.

Following the Risorgimento and the wave of nationalistic pride that influenced it, the new nation of Italy was left starkly divided into two main regions, North and South, both of which were further divided by the existence of countless languages that were essentially mutually unintelligible. The leaders of the new Italian state opted for a strategy of Italianization that promoted the Florentine dialect, seen as prestigious and historically important, as the official language of the country, sparking decades of attempts to introduce the new Standard Italian into the everyday lives of Italians. Historians have pointed to the formation of the unitary state and the institution of compulsory national military service, education, progress in the political and trade union movement, and dissemination of the press as major reasons for the gradual adoption of Standard Italian by the majority of the country. The new nation faced an uphill battle, however, as most Italians conversed in their local dialects and only a small percentage of the population could speak the Florentine dialect, mostly Northern elites and aristocrats. 

The Fascist regime under Mussolini took a similar stance on dialects in line with its ultra-nationalist ideology and view of Italy as a nation and a society. By 1932, the government had banned the use of dialect in schools and the press, with the only acceptable use of dialects being in novels and scholarly journals as long as they remained limited in scope and aligned with Fascist ideology. Despite all of these measures, the majority of Italians continued to converse in their local dialects, a trend which began to reverse following the Second World War, with today’s statistics showing a severe decrease in dialect speakers since this time relative to 2015. Today, dialect usage is strongest in the Northeast regions of Alto Adige and Veneto, with significant amounts in the Southern regions of Sicily and Calabria speaking Sicilian.

The Modern Use of Dialects: Detractors

Multiple socio-cultural factors caused the marked decrease in the use of Italian dialects as the major medium of conversation of the majority of Italians since the Risorgimento and even before. Ideas regarding Italian vernacular and the standardization of Italian predate the creation of Italy, with the Tuscan and specifically Florentine dialects receiving much notoriety due to major works written in these languages by famed authors Dante and Boccaccio. Many of the leaders of Italy during its early years conformed to this school of thought, including Alessandro Manzoni, an influential Italian poet whose works contributed to his goal of standardizing the language and therefore unifying the country. Dialects were believed by these men, and later by the Fascists, to be corrosive to the maintenance of the Italian state and its unity, and therefore policies were created that pushed the population to stop the use of dialects. These ideas have continued to constitute the Italian government’s general attitude toward dialects in public use, with the government opting to consider all of the regional languages contained within Italy to be dialects of the Standard Italian language, a view that is not in line with the academic consensus on the status of the so-called dialects. Nonetheless, Standard Italian has been increasingly adopted by society as the main means by which they communicate, with about 45% of Italians, some 26 million people, solely speaking Italian, 32% speaking a mixture of Italian and a dialect, 14% only speaking in dialect, and the remainder speaking another language. Another factor that contributed to the decline in the dialects in favor of the standard language is the increased ease of communication that resulted from the development of communication technology such as the radio, television, and the Internet. As Italy entered the modern age, internal migration from the South to the North combined with these new technologies contributed to the adoption of the Italian language as a lingua franca and gradually as the sole language used across Italian society. 

The Modern Use of Dialects: Supporters

Map of the Romance languages of Europe, which form the Romance language continuum

Today, linguistic consensus differs greatly from the policy of the Italian governments, with most scholars agreeing that the dialects of Italy are to some degree independent languages based on geographic locations throughout the nation. Languages officially considered dialects by the Italian governments, including Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Romagnol, are considered to be full members of the Romance language family in conventional academic thought, forming a part of the Romance language continuum alongside major languages such as French, Portuguese, and Spanish. 

Accordingly, in Italian society today, dialects are seen paradoxically depending on the perspective of each individual. For some, dialects are relics of regional culture that are often forgotten in Italian society in favor of modern Italian popular culture’s adoption of the standard language. Still, others view the dialects as means through which to express resistance to assimilation and pride in one’s background, a view adopted rather benignly by hip hop artists but aggressively by political movements like La Lega Nord. For Italian rap artists, dialects provide an alternate medium to construct rhythms and lyrics, but also for them to call back to their roots and identify with their backgrounds. Artists point to dialects and their association with the lower-income people from their hometowns as major reasons why they produce music in these languages, to raise awareness and breed solidarity for the struggle of the people they identify with. This sense of pride is taken to an extreme by nationalists who use dialects to justify their ideologies, a notion that is reinforced by the adoption of seemingly repressed regional language as a rallying point for the movement. La Lega Nord and its movement for Northern separatism in the form of the nation of Padania has previously employed northern languages in their appeals to the public for separation from the larger nation. Accordingly, Sicilian nationalism has drawn on the prolific Sicilian language as a source for its support in Sicily, despite being a lesser-known movement. However, between these two groups of dialect supporters lies a significant portion of the population of Italy that uses both Standard Italian and dialect for conversing, a group which has syncretized the languages, and with the advent of increasing movements toward the revival of these dialects, they have remained a vital part of Italian culture.

Conclusion

All in all, the linguistic variety contained within Italy is due to its long and unique history of cultural interactions and social development, and constitutes a process that continues to this day. From the languages of the first settlers of the Italian peninsula to the influx of migrants in recent years to the nation, the languages of Italy are constantly evolving and innovative in their adoption of multiple influences from a variety of sources. Though the use of the mislabeled Italian dialects has seen a decline since the establishment of the Italian nation due to a long process of Italianization that has historically been supported by the Italian elites to unify the nation, the dialects remain an active and crucial part of Italian society and culture, representing loyalty to one’s regional background and the long history of the storied Italian culture. Despite remaining a controversial topic in modern times, it is undeniable that the dialects of Italy perfectly reflect the admired richness of the Italian culture and its ability to contain within it a multitude of unique cultures and identities, each with their own histories and contributions to the overall cultural identity of the nation and civilization as a whole.

A Comparison Between Standard Italian and Selected “Dialects”

LanguageExample
EnglishShe always closes the window before eating.
Standard Italian(Lei) chiude sempre la finestra prima di mangiare.
SicilianIḍḍa ncasa sempri a finesṭṛa prima ’i manciari â sira.
NeapolitanEssa ‘nzerra sempe ‘a fenesta primma ‘e cenà.
Apulian(Jèdde) akjude sèmbe la fenèstre prime de mangè.
PiedmonteseChila a sara sèmper la fnestra dnans ëd fé sin-a/dnans ëd siné.
VenetianEła ła sara/sera senpre ła fenestra vanti de diznar.
Romagnol(Lia) la ciud sëmpra la fnèstra prëma ad magnè.
(Red text indicates Southern languages; Green indicates Northern languages)

Works Cited

Ben-Ghiat, Ruth. (1997). Language and the construction of national identity in fascist Italy. The European Legacy, Toward New Paradigms, 2(3), 438–443. https://doi.org/10.1080/10848779708579754

Lepschy, G., Lepschy, A. L. (1998). The Italian Language Today. United States: New Amsterdam Books.

https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/JttCb4GHLqsC?hl=en

Mitchell, T. (2000). Doin’ damage in my native language: The use of “resistance vernaculars” in hip hop in France, Italy, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Popular Music and Society, 24(3), 41-54. https://link.ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.neu.edu/scholarly-journals/doin-damage-my-native-language-use-resistance/docview/208066690/se-2?accountid=12826

Panaccione, D. (2018, March 8). L’uso della lingua italiana, dei dialetti e di altre lingue in Italia. https://www.istat.it/it/archivio/207961.

Sanga, G. (1981). Linguistic Dynamics of Italian Society [1861-1980]: On the Birth of Popular Italian through the Diffusion of Linguistic Ethnicisms. Langages, 15(61), 93-115. https://link.ezproxy.neu.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.neu.edu/scholarly-journals/linguistic-dynamics-italian-society-1861-1980-on/docview/85450694/se-2?accountid=12826

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