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Italian Lesson – Aug: What’s the difference between a language and a dialect?


In our first summer lesson we focused on Italian as compared to its sister languages. In the July summer lesson, we pointed out the fact that Corsica, an island belonging to France, has an Italic language that is an Italic which many Italians, especially from Tuscany and Liguria, would easily understand. We then went on to point out that the Sardinian language, which is never classified as an Italian dialect, is recognized as a distinct Romance language and would be almost 100 percent unintelligible to Italians.

Now we will answer the question, “Are the numerous dialects of Italy really dialects?” The answer is Italian dialects are quite different languages, with different lexicons and a different grammar. According to Ethnologue, an annual reference publication which provides statistics and other information on the living languages of the world, Italy is home to 28 Indigenous languages and six non-Indigenous languages. However, the use of the word dialect persists. Based on the fact that the word dialect is universally accepted in Italy, we will refer to these variations of communication as “dialects,” rather than as languages.

All areas of Italy have a dialect. In current times, not everyone speaks a dialect. If you go back some 70 to 80 years, you would be hard pressed fi nding someone whose main language was standard Italian. People spoke the local dialect with everyone and learned Italian in school. Then Italian media, through television, radio, online and written communications changed the game. Nowadays, many if not most people in Italy generally speak standard Italian with an accent and a few “localized words” thrown in, and they reserve dialect to a marginal role or cannot even speak the local dialect because they were never exposed to it. Especially in the cities, the youth are more likely to speak mostly Italian and a limited, very watered-down version of the dialect or no dialect at all.

The so-called Italian dialects, with the exception of those in central Italy that are closely related to Italian, are actually true independent Romance languages, like French or Spanish. So those who speak only Italian cannot understand them, except in a very partial way, as is the case with other Romance languages, spoken in other countries. The dialects of the Northwest are closer to the ancient French langue d’oil than to standard Italian and are the dialects now most threatened with extinction.

Normally an Italian can understand only those dialects that are closely related to his own. So, if you are Milanese, you can understand other dialects of the north quite well, but certainly not those of the south or the islands. If you are Neapolitan you can understand, quite well, the dialects of the mainland south, but you will understand nothing or almost nothing of the very different dialects of the north.

Let’s look at an example. Piedmontese and Lombard are mutually intelligible, but a Sicilian wouldn’t understand a thing when listening to these two Northern dialects.

ENGLISH: My grandfather always came back from the vegetable garden with a bag of potatoes, onions, beans, and a couple of strawberries for us children.

ITALIAN: Mio nonno tornava sempre dall’orto con un sacco di patate, cipolle, fagioli e un paio di fragole per noi bambini.

LOMBARDO: Ol nono al torneva sempar dol cioss cont on sacch da pomm da terra, scigoll, fasœu e on pari da maostar par nun fioritt.

PIEDMONTESE: El pare grand turnava semper dal’ort cun un sach ed tartifl e, siule, fasöj e un paira ed frole per nui masnà.

SICILIANO: Me nannu s’arricampava sempri râ nuara c’un saccu ri patati, cipuddi, fasola e un paru ri frauli pi nuatri picciriddi.

Since all these three languages are Romance, there is some intelligibility when these languages are written, but when spoken it is very diffi cult to understand – so as you can see, southern dialects and northern dialects aren’t mutually intelligible. In the next issue, we return to our regular lesson format. We hope you have enjoyed delving into some background on the origins and difference of the languages of Italy.

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