Last Updated on December 1, 2023 by Laura Teso
The other day on my Facebook page Patrycja asked me if I could tell her (and you) a bit more about Italian dialects. This is her question:
Is it true that that there is plenty of them and hardly anyone uses the official Italian language in Italy? I want to learn but someone told me that it can be quite frustrating to communicate because of that.
Since I think the topic can be quite interesting for everybody, here’s my new post about Italian dialects.
Don’t you worry about Italian dialects
First things first, you don’t have to worry about dialects if you want to learn Italian. Everyone in Italy understands standard Italian. The only exceptions could be some quite isolated areas and very old people. But, apart from that, you won’t have problems.
The only tricky thing is maybe the accent. If you learn Italian spoken by a person from Northern Italy, you could have problems to easily understand a person speaking with a strong southern Italy accent… and vice versa . Especially if this person speaks very quickly.
I think it’s the same with English. The accent of a person from southern England is very different from that of a Scottish person. Right?
All started from Latin
Since the first expansion of the Roman dominion on the peninsula, there has always been a coexistence of a cultured language, classic Latin, (codified and written, used for official documents and for literature) and various local variations, called vulgar or vernacular, not codified nor written, spoken in the various parts of the country.
Each area, even the tiniest, has developed over time a specific way of speaking. Since communications between close areas were somehow frequent, there’s a dialectal continuum between neighboring dialects, while the differences gradually increase if we compare two distant dialects.
Italian dialects are not variants of Italian
It follows that Italian dialects are not variants of Italian. They were born before modern Italian, and therefore they cannot derive from it. They derive however from dialects of vulgar Latin, i.e. the Latin spoken by the people.
The only varieties of Italian language are in the Tuscan dialects and a part of the Lazio dialects (such as the Roman dialect), in addition to the various forms of regional Italian, which are influenced by the local dialect. Why? Because standard Italian mostly derives from Tuscan language, with roots in the works of great writers of 1200 like Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca.
Think that centuries later, after the unification of Italy (1861), still only 10% of the population spoke Italian. Basically only nobles and intellectuals. Or Tuscans. 😉 90% of the population only spoke their local dialect.
During the XX centuries, the new media, radio first and television later, contributed to the diffusion of standard Italian.
Map of Italian dialects
Italians do not understand other regions’ dialects
Apart from several exceptions, a person from a region would not quite understand a person from another region if the latter is speaking the dialect. I once heard an old man speaking on the phone at the café and I thought he was Arabic. But then I realized he was speaking Sicilian. While a friend of mine told me that, when she was along Santiago’s walk, she mistook for Slavic two boys speaking the dialect of Bergamo (a city only 2 hours away from our city, Padova).
Dialect vastly shapes the pronunciation of Italian in different regions. We Italians can immediately tell if a person speaking Italian is from the north, the center or the south of the country. Those with a good ear for languages can also tell the region if not even the city this person is from. Yes, because sometimes the pronunciation varies a lot within the same region, not only among different cities but sometimes also among two close villages.
And that’s why Italians use so many gestures. It is a quick way to understand each other.
In the image below you can see the many different dialect variations within just one region of Italy, Apulia.
I’m from the Veneto. All my family is from a small village in the province (district we could say) of Venice, called Eraclea. Eraclea is about 1 hour away from Padova, where I live. And yet, there are similarities but also many differences. When I happen to use a certain dialectal term from Eraclea, here in Padua no one understands me.
Sometimes it also happened to me that I discovered that a word I habitually use was not standard Italian at all, but Venetian, only when I said it to a person from another region. For example the word onto. I thought it was an Italian synonym for sporco, meaning dirt. But it’s only Venetian dialect.
Or the expression dire su which is basically a Venetian phrasal verb. Dire alone means tell. But dire su means to scold, to yell at someone. In Italian, it would be sgridare, cause Italian has no phrasal verbs. But Venetian apparently does.
Dialects are disappearing
Linguists say that dialects are disappearing though. According to a 2012 study, only 1,7% of Italians speaks exclusively dialect in everyday life. 84,8% speak mainly Italian. 10,7% can alternate Italian and local language.
Dialects are not taught at school (with a couple of exception, for example, Ladino, spoken in Trentino Alto Adige, Friuli and Ampezzo area of the Veneto). Therefore the majority of Italians do not know how to write correctly the words of their own dialect.
I’m in my 40s and I can’t speak dialect fluently, except for some idioms, some words or everyday phrases. When I’m pissed off or in danger or something, I will surely use a Venetian expression.
I really love dialects and accents and I have so much fun trying to guess where somebody’s from judging by his accent. I usually guess right or I get close. While Matteo, my husband, can almost never tell or quite. 😀 As for the sound, I must admit I have a thing for the accents of Emilia Romagna. While people from the Veneto always sound drunk to other regions’ listeners, because our intonation is similar to a singsong. Quite sad considering that I basically don’t even drink alcohol.
Well, there is something more you’d like to know about Italian dialects? Let me know!
In the meantime, feel free to browse the blog section about Italian language.