The Relationship Between Modern Italian and Dialects

By: Caroline Lauria-Sheehan

Introduction to Italian Language

Language is a fundamental part of defining culture and national identity. It allows us to communicate effectively with one another and share a common ground when it comes to our sense of nationalism. But in addition to helping strengthen national identity, language has also been a powerful tool in diplomacy and politics for centuries. Being able to understand one another through a common language is essential to communicating across cultures and borders.

In Italy, language has been a popular topic for centuries. Before unification, Italy was characterized by having various regions with their own languages or dialects. People in these regions only spoke their dialect as there was no modern Italian language that exists today. Modern Italian would not come for many years as the country remained divided. However, when Italy began to unify it became clear that one language would be needed to bring people together. The implementation of one language was complex and many people were unhappy with the concept of losing their dialect. For this reason, many people in Italy today speak both modern Italian and their regional dialect depending on who they are speaking with.

Background and History:

The history of the Italian language is complex and complicated to understand. Before Italy was unified there were dozens of dialects across the country, representing the different nation states that existed within Italy. There was no unity between the nation states, and the dialects ensured that it was impossible to communicate with other Italians as the languages were so different from one another. Abby Thomas notes this in her paper on modern Italian language, claiming “In fact, when speaking about the Italian dialects it is often more accurate to think of them as distinct languages” (Thomas, 2015, pg. 2). She goes on to note, “Up until the 20th Century, the common people have been almost exclusively dialect speakers. If someone were participating in mainly local trade and did not have far-reaching political or social relations there would seem to be no need for a means of intercommunication” (Thomas, 2015, pg. 4). Thomas stresses that dialects were the primary means of communication, making it impossible for one region to speak with another. In order to better understand how many dialects were present in Italy, this map highlights each region with a key at the bottom for the dialect spoken there. 

Map of the Italian Dialects (Wikimedia Foundation, 2022)

This map showcases just how many dialects were present in Italy at one time, indicating how diverse the country truly was. Before unification, Italy’s regions operated completely separately which led to various cultures, traditions, and languages that represented these geographic areas. However, when Italy finally unified, it became clear that a national language was needed if there was any hope of uniting the different people and regions of Italy. With this map in mind, it is much easier to conceptualize how difficult it would be to implement one Italian language for the entire country to use. To further understand the differences between the dialects and their cultural significance, the following YouTube video helps gain a better understanding of this subject. For the purpose of this exploratory essay, the most important section to watch is from the beginning until 3:47. While the rest of the video is interesting to watch, this section is the most relevant to this essay.

This video clearly demonstrates how different the dialects are. One of the most important parts of the video is when he mentions how frequently modern Italian is used versus the dialects. He uses statistics from the Italian government to point out that 50% of Italians use modern Italian when speaking with family and friends, and 73% use modern Italian when speaking with strangers. When speaking with family members, 33% use a combination of modern Italian and their regional dialect, 16% only speak in their dialect with family members, and 5% speak their dialect with strangers. The following screenshot from the video highlights these statistics, indicating that the dialects remained an important part of may Italians’ culture.

Screenshot from YouTube Video on Italian Dialects (Langfocus, 2017)

These are important statistics to consider when thinking about the influence of modern Italian. The original intention of creating a national language was to unify the country, and these statistics show that a majority of the population does use modern Italian when speaking to strangers and to family. However, it is very important to recognize that the dialects are still very present in Italy today. Many Italians still use their dialect when speaking to people they know, emphasizing the cultural importance of the dialects in regional identity and culture.

The video makes it clear that the Italian dialects were not something that you could simply eliminate. They represented the culture and history of the region where they were spoken, and people were not fond of the idea of having to learn a new language. This concept is addressed by Eric Hobsbawn in his article in the journal Social Research, where he says, “The concept of a single, exclusive, and unchanging ethnic or cultural or other identity is a dangerous piece of brainwashing. Human mental identities are not like shoes, of which we only wear one pair at a time. We are all multidimensional beings” (Hobsbawn, 1996, pg. 1067). This idea relates to what was happening in Italy, as many people felt like eliminating the dialects would erase the rich culture that existed through them. While creating one national language to communicate with each region was very important, it also became increasingly important to preserve the dialects. For this reason, it is easy to understand why Italians continued to use their dialects in addition to the new Italian language. Dialects represent much more than simply a way to communicate as they were laced with the rich history of the region that they came from. 

How Was Modern Italian Implemented?

When looking at how the modern Italian language came about, it all began with Mussolini. According to Thomas, during Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime “nothing besides the accepted language, the accepted culture, or the accepted ideology would be tolerated because it could undermine the powerful homogeny that was needed for the Fascist state to thrive” (Thomas, 2015, pg. 9). This is an essential piece of Mussolini’s Fascist rule, as he needed every person in Italy to abide by his rules. Mussolini was known to be very adamant about establishing one Italian language, and he even banned the use of dialects in public during his rule. While Mussolini was clearly not a good example of a leader, this strategy did help with implementing the new language across the country. The following image is an example of a sign that would have been hung up in Italy during Mussolini’s reign.

An image of a sign present during Mussolini’s reign on the use of Italian (Dukovski, 2009)

This sign translates to say that Italian should be the only language being spoken in public. This is just one example of one the tactics that Mussolini used to implement the new language. People were forced to learn Italian if they wanted to go into shops or restaurants, which helped spread the language must faster. Mussolini also banned the use of dialects in films, theater, and songs and started to refer to the dialects as folklore in an effort to force Italians to give them up (Thomas, 2015, 11).

In addition to the strict regulations on speaking Italian in public, the media also became an important tool. According to Carmen Covito and Francesca Novello, “Standard Italian established itself by means of the mass media, independently of the will of linguists. To be precise, radio began the process of “cleansing” standard Italian of its various vulgate elements, and later, with exponentially increasing speed and force, television took over in the early 1950s” (Covito & Novello, 1997, pg. 1). They continue with, “In less than fifty years television has solved the multipartite “language question” (Covito & Novello, 1997, pg. 1). According to these authors and many other scholars, the use of the media proved to be an effective tool to teach Italians a new language. If Italians wanted to listen to music or watch a movie, they would be forced to do so in the new language which ensured that the public was constantly surrounded by the new Italian. Additionally, teachers, priests, and public officials began using the language as well which also contributed to the constant nature of the language.

Perspectives:

People were not very happy with the idea of learning a new language because dialects had so much culture associated with them. While Italy wanted to unify and having a national language was essential for that to happen, many people thought it was wrong to push away from dialects that had been so important to the cultures around the country. Thomas notes that, “The Italian leaders were following in the footsteps of other nations like France, who during their politically formative periods focused on language as the main element for creating cohesion among their citizens” (Thomas, 2015, pg. 5). However, despite their good intentions, the creation of a national language sparked controversy. Thomas states that there were intense debates on which dialect the new language should be based on. She notes that there were questions such as, “should the modern Florentine vernacular be used, or should the archaic, fourteenth century literary form be chosen? Some felt that the older version was not adaptable to modern life while others claimed that the present day speech was not grand enough for so noble a cause as the joining together of Italy” (Thomas, 2015, pg. 5). However, in the end the older Tuscan language was chosen as it was more familiar to the elite. But, with this choice many people who did not speak this dialect were unhappy.

Another issue that people raised with the new language was that it was not accessible to the lower class. During this time only the elites could afford an education, meaning the literacy rate in Italy was extremely low. This concerned people as it seemed impossible for the lower classes to learn the new Italian without access to the proper education. However, this issue was combated with the expansion of education in Italy.

Young people were also concerned with the new language. Thomas claims, “especially among the youth and leftist political groups, Standard Italian began to be seen as artificial. It was, to them, a fabricated culture that had been forced on the people during a time of oppression” (Thomas, 2015, 14). This concern touches on the reality that modern Italian is not an accurate cultural representation of the country. The dialects held significant meaning and history to the region that they originated from, and the modern language simply did not have this effect. Many people now use dialects as a form of political resistance against the Italian government and the spread of the new ideals during unification.

Looking back at the background section, it makes sense that Italians were generally unhappy with this at first. Dialects had been around for centuries and they represented the culture and history of each region. While Italy was unifying now, the country had been very divided for centuries, so people did not want to simply erase the dialect that they knew. For this reason, many people learned modern Italian while also continuing to speak their dialect at home. The video from earlier touches on how many people continue to use their dialect when talking with friends and family, showing just how important they were to the culture of Italy.

Conclusion:

When Italy decided to unify, it was essential that there was a national language. Without a national language there would be no way for people around the country to communicate, and the nation would continue to feel fragmented and separated. However, the decision to implement a national language came with many consequences. People were generally unhappy with this idea as well as the process they went through to learn the language. The first major issue that came up was which dialect to base the new language off of. Regardless of the outcome of this decision, many people were bound to be upset if their dialect was not chosen. Another issue that followed this was how people were going to learn the language. At this time, education was not accessible to everybody which made it difficult to understand how the lower class would keep up with the new language. Finally, people found the new language to be artificial. It did not have deep historical ties to the country, and many found that the implementation of this language was just a reminder of the Fascist regime that helped to create it.

However, despite these concerns it is clear that many Italians still use their regional dialect as well as modern Italian. This hybrid system seems to have found the best of both worlds when it comes to communicating effectively while still preserving the history of the dialects. While Mussolini wanted to eliminate the dialects completely, the balance that exists between them and the modern language has bridged the gap between the different regional cultures in Italy while successfully preserving their rich history.

Work Cited:

Academic Sources:

Covito, C., & Novello, F. (1997). In Search of the Italian Language: Integrated Italian. World Literature Today, 71(2), 309–312. https://doi.org/10.2307/40153049

Hobsbawn, E. (1996). Language, Culture, and National Identity. Social Research, 63(4), 1065–1080. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971324

Thomas, A. (2015). Modern Italy’s Changing Language and Its Role in Nationalism. https://scholarlycommons.obu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=history

Mutimedia Sources:

Dukovski, D. (2009, February 10). Fascismo. Istrapedia. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.istrapedia.hr/it/natuknice/745/fascismo

Langfocus. (2017, May 21). Languages of Italy. YouTube. Retrieved April 27, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e34M6P1NXYM

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, April 24). Languages of Italy. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Italy

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