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Language and regional ‘dialects’ – the debate continues


At the end of part two of this series, we concluded languages on the Italian peninsula evolved from Latin into Vulgar Latin. At the same time vocabulary from non-Latin languages began to increase the variability of the dialects of Vulgar Latin. 

The Romans and the inhabitants of Italy in classical times spoke hundreds of dialects of Vulgar Latin, just as Italians spoke hundreds of so-called “Italian dialects” when Italy became a nation. The exceptions were people belonging to the cultured elite who spoke both the dialect and the more cultured and official language. The latter was Latin in the Roman era (but also Greek) and Italian in the Risorgimento era (but also French).

In ancient Rome, laws, sacred texts, and literature were written in classical Latin. Even the writings on the walls of the latrines were in classical Latin, albeit with errors and influences from the vernacular. Vulgar Latin, or rather, its dialects, did not leave written evidence until the eighth century AD, when these forms of language began to replace Latin also in writing. 

Bilingualism was the norm until very recently, and just as in the first half of the 20th century, all Italians spoke one dialect or more while some also spoke Italian. In classical Italy, all Italians spoke one dialect of Vulgar Latin, and some also spoke Latin (understood as classical Latin). Just as there was no one who spoke only Italian in the Italy of the Risorgimento, it is difficult to imagine that there was anyone in Roman Italy who spoke classical Latin exclusively.

The so-called Italian dialects are none other than the descendants of these ancient dialects of Vulgar Latin. They also evolved in the same way as the Romance languages. The difference between dialects and languages is that, due to the vicissitudes of history, some dialects have become official languages of nations, while others have not had this luck. Those that today have an army and a navy are called “languages,” and almost all the others are dialects.

It should be noted that some dialects are called “languages” despite not having an army or navy, including Sardinian, Friulian, and Ladin. Often these “languages” exist only through their dialects. While they have not been codified, they do have a set vocabulary, pronunciation and grammatical structure which varies from one country to another. However, they rarely have consolidated writing rules. This is why it is proving so difficult in Sardinia to build a “common Sardinian language.” It is not even possible to rediscover a “primitive common Sardinian” which, if it ever existed, dissolved into dialects over two thousand years ago.

So what evidence is there that Italian dialects derive from dialects of Vulgar Latin, and that this origin may date to well before the third century B.C.? Some of these dialects still retain characteristics of archaic Latin, such as the exclusively hard sound of the “c” (always pronounced like a k) in the Logudorese dialect of Sardinian. This feature (and others) had already long since disappeared from classical Latin in the fifth century A.D. and could not have been transmitted to Sardinian.

Furthermore, all dialects and Romance languages have certain characteristics in common which are not present in classical Latin. These include definite articles, which must have been present in the common language of origin. With all these complexities, linguists will continue to question as to whether these dialects are separate languages from standard Italian or just dialects.

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