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Why dialects remain vital languages throughout Italy

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo

“That’s not real Italian!” and “My nonna doesn’t say it like that” are protests that Italian teachers have heard from students studying the “official” language of Italy. Personally, I never disputed their claims but simply explained there was a difference between standard Italian and what they heard at home from their Italian-American relatives.

For centuries, Italy was divided into many states, usually under foreign rule which led to a great diversity of languages spoken on the peninsula. When the country unified in 1861, the new government leaders decided to make Tuscan the official language of the country. When “standard Italian” was adopted as the only official language, several adaptations had to be made in grammar, lexicon and pronunciation. It was also compulsory in all acts of public administration and taught in schools, when no “standard Italian” existed, although it had been somewhat used prior to the unification in official acts, in schools and in universities.

However, this in no way changed the fact that outside of schools and government agencies the people of Italy continued to speak a variety of dialects across the regions as well as from province to province.

As a non-Italian by birth and a retired teacher of Italian, I have often been asked
if Italian dialects were just a subset of the official language or separate languages derived from Latin. Research and personal views of linguists often differ on this question.From my own personal experience, having both traveled throughout Italy and lived in Lazio and Sicily, I believe that no local language or dialect of Italy can be considered a dialect of “standard Italian.” Moreover, having to learn the local jargon of these two regions and other areas where I traveled, proved to me that the various dialects were being used as living languages.

Just imagine how absurd it would be to consider the Florentine dialect, from which standard Italian derives, a dialect of standard Italian, when it was spoken before standard Italian even existed. One might even argue that standard Italian is a dialect of Florentine. While I studied the “standard” Italian language in college, it wasn’t long after I first visited Italy that I was learning a whole different language. In fact, the first two Sicilian words I learned were iddu and idda, (lui and lei), meaning he and she in standard Italian. It wasn’t long before I began a whole new learning process.

Regions of other countries which became part of the new nation of Italy often kept some other language spoken locally as their “standard” language. This remains true to this day, especially in Sardinia, the area around Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige sometimes referred to as South Tyrol. Although Italian became an official language in many of these areas, few people could speak it and so they continued to communicate in their “local languages” instead. It can be said that Italy was inhabited by people who spoke a “continuum” of dialects whose features changed gradually from town to nearby town. It was nearly impossible to find a place, or a boundary, where a dialect ceased to be spoken and a different one was used in its place, with one dialect gradually fading into the other.

It can be said that Italy was inhabited by people who spoke a “continuum” of dialects whose features changed gradually from town to nearby town.

Traveling across Sicily, you could (and still can) listen to different “dialects” of Sicilian being spoken from one end to the other. Crossing the strait of Messina, you would hear Calabrese dialect being spoken. At first the Calabrese dialect would have several points in common with Sicilian, but as you moved North, it would become markedly different, without there being a precise place or boundary where it changed abruptly. This also happens while moving across the peninsula, north from Calabria to Piedmont and east from Piedmont to Veneto.

Linguists find conventional “isoglosses” (a line on a dialect map marking the boundary between linguistic features) where some features change systematically, such as the pronunciation of certain sounds, or the use of certain words. But don’t expect to cross one of these lines and find that people speak completely differently: the languages spoken immediately to one side and to the other of the isogloss are virtually identical, only that on one side they have a certain feature, that linguists have recognized, that allows to fit them within a specific “linguistic family” while on the other this feature is missing.

All these languages spoken in Italy are called dialects, but they are not dialects
of standard Italian: they are rather the evolution of the dialects of “vulgar Latin,” a language spoken in ancient times which lived alongside the best known “classical Latin,” and which was itself divided in hundreds of dialects, not being codified nor standardized.

There has never been, until very recent times, a common language spoken by almost everyone in Italy, and what we
call “languages” such as “vulgar Latin” or “Tuscan” or “Sardinian” were groups of dialects sharing many common features. The standardization of Latin, which gave rise to what we call “classical Latin” was limited to a few accultured people who used it to write literature, to address the gods and to write laws and court rulings. For common matters, the dialects that are collectively known as “vulgar Latin” were used by everyone.

In addition to the dialects of modern-day Italy, there are also two groups of languages and dialects that have had an independent evolution from vulgar Latin and are therefore considered separate languages from the other languages of Italy: Ladin and Sardinian. Ladin is a group of dialects spoken along the Central and Eastern Alps, of which the most widely spoken “dialect” is Friulan, spoken in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Sardinian is spoken on the island of Sardinia and is divided in two large groups of dialects: Logudorese, which is by far the most conservative Romance language of all, having a vocabulary and a pronunciation which is remarkably close to the vulgar Latin spoken in the first and second centuries BC. Campidanese, which is also a very conservative language, has a consistent influence from Catalan and Castilian Spanish during over 200 years of Iberian domination.

Finally, be aware that a distinction between “language” and “dialect” is always arbitrary and made less clear by its political value: As linguist Max Weinreich once said, “A language is a dialect with a navy and an army.”

rrocco
Author: rrocco

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