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What is a dialect? Separating facts from myths (part 2 of 3)


In part one of this three-part series, we provided an example of an Italian proverb in Italian and the same proverb in six Italian “dialects.” However, linguists continue to debate as to whether they are dialects or romance languages.

For the most part, linguists agree that the dialects of Italy are often mistakenly called “Italian dialects” which implies their derivation is from the Italian language. Most of these languages, if not all, pre-exist modern Italian, and therefore cannot develop from it.

Most linguists agree these dialects, together with all the other romance languages, are instead, with a few exceptions, dialects of vulgar Latin. This was Latin spoken by the people, and it is distinguished from literary Latin. It is this “classical” Latin which is studied by students today in schools where it is taught. 

There is a hard-to-die myth regarding the origin of romance languages and their dialects still found in various instructional texts. Some polyglots opine that these languages evolved around the beginning of the 5th century A.D., when Rome began to lose control of its enormous empire, due to the contamination of Latin with the non-Latin languages spoken in the colonies.

Prior to this date, myth has it that classical Latin was spoken in Italy and in the lands conquered by the Romans. Linguists concede that it was also accompanied by the vernacular or everyday language of the people, but in a single common version. Also spoken were other languages of the various regions of the Roman Empire. 

In Italy it is evident that a condition of “diglossia” has existed since the first expansion of Roman rule. There was a coexistence of a “cultured” and “codified” language used for official documents of the state and religious communication both in speaking and writing and the “local” vernacular languages which were not codified nor written.

These “local languages” were numerous due to the low mobility of the populations. Over time they developed their own specific way of speaking, different from that of neighboring countries. Since communications between neighboring countries were frequent, a “dialect continuum” was formed in Italy whereby dialects close to each other are similar while the differences gradually increase as dialects spoken in areas further away from each other are compared.

These vernacular languages were not written and not taught with grammatical or pronunciation rules. This lack of structure, along with their coexistence of other non-Latin languages, increased the variability of the dialects of vulgar Latin, and generated the enormous dialectal variety in Italy.

Here are a few more examples of these differences.

Italian and Tuscan: Gallina vecchia fa buon brodo.

Sardinian: Puddha bezza faghet brou bonu.

Corsican: Ghiallina vecchia fa buon broda.

Leccese: Jaddina ecchia fa bon brodu.

Piemontese: Galina veja a fa bon brod.

Triestino: Galina veccia fa bon brodo.

(An old hen/chicken makes good broth)

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