Have you ever wondered if Italian is the only language we speak here in Italy? And what do you know about our linguistic history?
I am not referring to Italians who are now studying foreign languages for work or as a hobby; I’m rather addressing the linguistic varieties that are long-established within the country.
Indeed, Italy has several languages that are regularly spoken in specific areas of its territory, besides the official language. Some of them are: French, German, Catalan, Franco-Provençal, Slovenian, Ladin, Griko and Albanian.
Besides those minorities, Italy is filled with a plethora of different dialects. Each one of us grew up learning both the local vernacular and standard Italian. What’s more, through cinema, television and songs we learned to largely understand many dialects of Italy and appreciate their incomparable potential for expressiveness and humour.
But not everybody reflects on the fact that Italian itself was essentially born from Florentine dialect, chosen among other vernaculars because of the literary prestige of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca.
The beautiful language that we define today as “standard Italian” is the relatively recent and artificial result of a long-running debate among intellectuals. Their final choice (meant to be a model for the elite first and the unified country later) fell on a hybrid and smoothed version of the vulgar tongue from Florence.
Yet, language is alive and always evolving, suffice it to think to how romance languages have naturally developed from Latin. That’s why the line between “correct” language and dialect is more blurred than we often think, which lead many people to question those hierarchies.
In Italy, the differences between dialects are so deep and historically rooted that some foreigners have a hard time fully grasping the level of fragmentation of our linguistic landscape.
The English word “dialect” itself is not an entirely accurate translation to the Italian term “dialetto”, cause the latter denotes so much more than the local accent we have while speaking the official language…
The process is actually reversed: Italian was imposed (mainly through public school, bureaucracy and the mass media) on people who spoke a great variety of languages.
I wrote “languages” cause a genuine Italian dialect truly deserves such a name, since it has its own spelling and grammar rules, its lexicon, its sayings, its literature, its intonation and sometimes even its specific body language.*
My point is, Italians may not be the best at studying foreign languages (a pattern that’s now changing), but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that they can use and understand at least two linguistic variants since childhood. That might not be the most useful of skills in today’s world, but it’s always been an immense source of inspiration for many great artists in all creative fields.
Indeed, all major Italian dialects have been a means for creating masterpieces and for enhancing the pathos or humour of unique performances.
Venetian was dignified by Carlo Goldoni’s comedies. Romagnol was celebrated in Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord”. Neapolitan gave an expression to the genius of Eduardo De Filippo, Antonio De Curtis (in art Totò) and Massimo Troisi. Roman dialect was an essential part of Anna Magnani’s exceptional acting and Trilussa’s poems. Sicilian had an important role in literature and theater, thanks to authors like Luigi Pirandello. Dialects from Lombardy, among others, were valorised by the great actor Dario Fo.
And the list could go on forever, including the Commedia dell’Arte, traditional songs, proverbs and much more…
Finally, since wordplay and regional differences are key components of Italian humour, I am leaving you with a caricatural performance by talented stand-up comedian Enrico Brignano. In the video you can find at this link, he mimics all the main dialects spoken in the Italian peninsula and islands (the dialectal acting starts at minute 1:33). Don’t worry if you can’t understand what he’s saying, indeed he’s acting in grammelot, which means he’s actually speaking nonsense but with the sounds of each dialect.
I hope that by watching this you’ll have fun and get an idea of the incredibly different ways of speaking we have in Italy and of our playfulness around this theme.
*Italian hand gestures and facial expressions often surprise or even repel foreigners, but there are deep historical reasons for such a body language, which I will explain in the next post.