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What is a dialect? Apparently even the scholars can’t agree


Previous lessons have mostly focused on learning our heritage language and the importance of understanding some Italian history and the evolution of Italian from Latin through familial languages and “dialects.” 

This month we will explain, based on linguistical studies, when a dialect is considered a dialect as opposed to when a language is mistakenly referred to as a dialect. It is not just language learners but also Italians who are among those who misuse the word dialect. This misrepresentation was further clarified this past Feb. 21, a date in which all countries recognize International Mother Language Day. 

The date and proclamation were an initiative of Bangladesh and was approved at the 1999 UNESCO General Conference and observed worldwide since 2000. The goal was to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. 

This year the Sardinian government reiterated that Sardinian is an official minority language in Italy. As such it should not to be improperly classified as an Italian dialect but as a separate and distinct romance language. 

There are numerous other “Italian” dialects which, grammatically and linguistically, qualify as separate and distinctive minority languages. These are “dialects” which are not mutually intelligible with standard Italian. There are a number of linguists who suggest the Italian “dialects” should be more correctly defined as local romance languages or minority languages and not as altered forms of Italian. These so-called dialects are nothing other than the evolution of vulgar Latin, on site, in 2000 years of history. As such they should not be considered languages subordinate to Italian, but languages with equal dignity like the major romance languages Spanish, French, Romanian and Portuguese. 

Standard Italian is nothing more than an archaic and sophisticated form of the Tuscan vernacular. The only dialects spoken in Origo, closely related and mutually comprehensible with Italian, were the peninsula’s central dialects such as Perugian, Viterbo, and Corsican, which is a derivative of archaic Pisan. Northern dialects once had closer relationships with the Occitan and Old French dialects, Langue d’Oil and Arpitano’ than they did with Tuscan-Italian. 

In the mid-20th century, a newly unified Italy began to use a common language. This occurred when Mussolini’s fascist government decreed standardized Italian the only acceptable language for education and in mass media. Nonetheless, the use of these regional languages has persisted, particularly in the south in Sicily, Sardinia and even in Corsica. In 1859 Italian and Corsican were banned on the island of Corsica and only French was approved as the official language.

In recent years, in Italy’s five autonomous regions and the now French autonomous region of Corsica, some educational institutions are now teaching these regional mother languages in select subject areas. They are often included in lessons pertaining to the region’s history and in language arts classes. 

Friulian and Sardinian are two regional languages officially recognized by the Italian government as separate and distinct languages and not dialects. There are also ongoing legislative attempts at the national level to have Neapolitan recognized as an official minority language. Sicilian has also been recognized as a minority language by UNESCO. Below are a few examples in which you can compare the variations as well as connections between the languages used in different regions. 

Italian and Tuscan: Il diavolo è saggio, perché è vecchio.

Sicilian: Lu dimoniu sapi assai, perchì è vecchiu.

Corsican: U diaule ne sa, eppò ne sa, perch’ è becchiu.

Lombard: El diaol el ne sa tante, perché l’è vèc.

Venetian: El diavolo ghe ne sa assae, perché l’è vecio. 

Piedmontese: El diavo a l’è sa tante, a l’è vej. 

Sardinian: Su diaulu est sàbiu, ca est betzu.

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