The Curious Linguistic History of Italy
The Italian language situation is one of the most unusual in the world. For starters, the Italian national language, which is called italiano standard (standard Italian), is a literary language that has never been spoken by the population, and the Italian dialects aren’t dialects of Italian, but rather sister languages. Even more bizarre, there isn’t just one Italian spoken in Italy, there are 20 regional Italians, and these are the true dialects of standard Italian. So, how did this happen? And what language do Italians speak?
Making Italians and Italian
After the unification of Italy in 1861, the Italian government faced the daunting challenge of uniting a culturally and linguistically diverse population. The Italian people spoke a multitude of languages derived from the Mediterranean and Indo-European populations that had inhabited the peninsula for centuries. Italy’s leaders assigned author Alessandro Manzoni the task of establishing a national language. Manzoni proposed his own blend of the spoken Florentine of the era with the elite 14th-century Florentine dialect presented in the literature of Boccaccio and Petrarca that he had used to write his 1827 novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).
The Rise of Standard Italian and the Fall of the So-Called Dialects
Because of the historical prestige of Florence, the Italian government approved of Manzoni’s selection of Florentine as the national language. However, linguistic purists within the government opted instead for the archaic 14th-century literary version as the Italian standard. In 1868, the government officially imposed standard Italian on the Italian population, a political act that immediately demoted the other languages of Italy to the status of dialetti (dialects).
The imposition of standard Italian had an unintended linguistic consequence. Rather than learning to speak pure standard Italian, which was undoubtedly a difficult undertaking and particularly for those whose dialects differed most from Florentine, Italians mixed the standard with the dialect of their region. For example, inhabitants of the Veneto region spoke a mixture of standard Italian and the Venetian dialect. This practice of blending languages produced twenty distinct varieties of the standard, one in each region, known as italiani regionali (regional Italians). These regional Italians are therefore the real dialects of standard Italian.
Swiss scholar Robert Rüegg was the first to study regional Italian. In 1956, he conducted a survey of 124 individuals from 54 provinces in Italy to investigate regionalismi segnici (sign regionalisms), which are synonyms for standard Italian terms that have arisen in a given geographical area because of the influence of the local dialect. He asked the participants to provide the dominant or exclusive word used to describe 242 common notions. The only instance in which all 124 individuals provided the same term was in response to the prompt “‘caffè forte (strong coffee),’” which they described as “espresso (espresso).”
Another interesting finding of the study was that some sign regionalisms are specific to a single region, while others may be used within several regions or throughout the entire North, Center or South of the peninsula. For example, the Sicilian regionalism for young man is picciotto (from the Sicilian dialect term picciottu), while the standard Italian equivalent is giovanotto. An example of the North-Central-South distinction are the words for watermelon, which are anguria in the North, cocomero in the Center and melone in the South.
Notably, some regionalisms become so well known outside of their region that they enter into standard Italian usage. A famous example of this phenomenon is pizza, which is a Neapolitan dialect term from the Campania region.
In addition to sign regionalisms, there are also regionalismi semantici (semantic regionalisms), which are words that have a different meaning from one geographic region to the next. For example, the standard Italian term topino (little mouse) is used in Puglia to mean purse snatcher (borseggiatore in standard Italian). Likewise, Northerners call shutters on the window of a house gelosie (jalousies), which also means jealousies in standard Italian (incidentally, these are called persiane [Persians] in the South).
The Big Language Picture
Of course, not all Italians speak regional Italian. Some people, particularly the elderly, speak primarily or exclusively in dialect. There are also other languages spoken within Italy, including Greek in Calabria and Croatian in Molise. But the vast majority of the population speaks an Italian that is colored by the dialect of the various regions. And as you can see, these regional Italians make for a fascinating, if not utterly confusing linguistic experience not only for students of Italian but also for Italians.