The unexpected vitality of Italy’s dialects. New interest beyond prejudices

Italian dialects

Already in the 1960s they seemed destined to disappear, but this has not been the case. On the contrary, we are witnessing their rediscovery in the most diverse fields, thanks in part to linguistic atlases, grammars and dialect vocabularies.

The unexpected vitality of Italy's dialects.
The monument dedicated to the Milanese poet Carlo Porta on Verziere Street in his hometown

The Revival of Dialects: From Decline to Rediscovery

“In my opinion, the difference between the Italian language and dialect, is that the Italian language, it is better understood, it is softer and calmer, and it is also expressed with love; and on the other hand, dialect is said in a loud and misunderstood voice, with a shady tone, and also expressed with a bit of hatred. In truth, I think it is preferable to speak in Italian, because it is a language that expresses in my opinion so much love for others.” Who knows where that little girl or boy from Alberobello (BA) is today.

She was attending elementary school when she took part in a survey conducted since 1995 by dialectologist Giovanni Ruffino, professor of Italian Linguistics at the University of Palermo, president of the Center for Sicilian Philological and Linguistic Studies and a full academic of the Crusca. The question was, “What do you think is the difference between Italian language and dialect?” Ruffino posed it to 9,000 young people, from Trentino-Alto Adige to Sicily, and collected as many judgments and prejudices, which he then faithfully reported in the book “L’indialetto ha la faccia scura” (Sellerio, 2006).

In the years of the survey’s inception, according to Istat, 24 out of 100 Italians claimed to use “only or mostly dialect.” Twenty years later there are just 14 (data from the latest survey were published in late 2017 but refer to 2015) and “mostly those with low educational qualifications.” Dialect dies, one would think. Yet in the same graph there is another curve pointing upward. “Both Italian and dialect” reports the legend: in 1995 it was 28 percent, today it is 32 percent. So dialect endures, particularly in the Northeast and South. Carla Marcato is full professor of Italian Linguistics and Varieties and History of Italian at the University of Udine, a university of which she directed the International Center on Plurilinguism (Cip). For “il Mulino” he edited the volume “Dialect, Dialects and Italian”.

Predictions about the extinction of dialect from the cold data of Istat do not excite her. She is more interested in its “transformation,” its relationship with Italian and what she calls the complex and ever-changing “situation of the speaker.” “The most interesting data reported by Istat concern not so much the exclusive uses of dialect,” Marcato explains, “which show an expected decline, but rather the Italian-dialect alternations. Because these show how dialect, or dialects, are not exclusive but are there.” Compulsory schooling, greater exposure to the national language and its “prestige,” and increasing contacts with the outside world have made Italian more “available,” Marcato continues.

And prejudices are difficult adversaries to defeat: “Dialect is still considered by some as a language to be ashamed of.” Just as in the past. “The Italian language is spoken with parents and other neat and important people”-reported another young ‘interviewee’ from Genivolta (CR) to Ruffino’s survey-“while dialect is spoken on farms and by farmers. Alongside prejudice, however, Marcato notes how among educated people the “fear” of dialect has given way to interest. “Sometimes we encounter dialect where we would not expect it: in a newspaper article dealing with culture or sports. Where those who have skills and familiarity with writing in Italian switch to dialect out of curiosity, interest or simply for expressive reasons.”

The “dialect resurgence” is also found “in advertising, store, bar and restaurant signs, the Web, comics, song, local radio and television” (Ruffino). It is a coexistence that, for Professor Marcato, also makes dialect “a kind of reservoir from which to draw to enrich one’s language, to amuse, to have fun, to be different from others,” as is often noted in the linguistic uses of young people. A peer relationship. “From a strictly linguistic point of view,” Professor Ruffino clarified, “between language and dialect there is no difference in terms of the structure of the system and its functioning: both have their own phonetics, their own morphology, their own syntax, their own lexical repertoire. And “the difference between language and dialect can only be based on historical, cultural and social (or sociolinguistic) criteria.”

So dialect is (also) written. “A learned person whose name I will not mention recently said that the difference between dialect and Italian is that dialect is not written,” Marcato recalls. “This is not the case at all: I refer her to the written texts of Carlo Goldoni.” Or to those of Carlo Porta (1775-1821), whose “Poems” chosen and translated from Milanese dialect by poetess Patrizia Valduga was republished this year by publisher Einaudi. It is no coincidence that the “Great Italian Dictionary of Usage” once directed by Tullio De Mauro defines dialect as a “linguistic system.” Which cannot necessarily be “taught” as if it were embalmed, flattening the profound differences between our country’s dialects. “If I wanted to introduce dialect as school teaching,” Marcato reflects, “I would have to have a reference dialect. Which one? For example, what kind of Sicilian? Every country has its small or big difference.” So? “More than teaching the dialect as such one should teach to know and appreciate the local culture of which that dialect is a part. As if it were an asset and heritage of a given area. I will not teach a grammar that is meaningless but the knowledge of a communication tool related to the local culture. But teaching dialect as if it were a foreign language does not make much sense.”

“The ‘dialect resurgence’ is also found ‘in advertising, in store, bar and restaurant signs, on the Web, in comics, in song, in local radio and television’” – Giovanni Ruffino

And this also conditions the study being made of dialect. “Today the study of dialect in relation to Italian prevails, such as situations of use or perception of use. In the past,” Marcato continues, “descriptive studies prevailed: phonetics, transformations or historical facts. The tools available to those who wanted to learn about dialects are many: linguistic atlases, grammars and dialect vocabularies, and writings in dialect (many of them literary in nature). “Nineteenth-century vocabularies,” Marcato continues, “were compiled to improve knowledge of Italian through dialect (Milanese, for example, like Francesco Cherubini’s, or Piedmontese, Venetian, Neapolitan, Genoese). Which is not the dialect of today.”

“More than teaching the dialect as such, one should be taught to know and appreciate the local culture of which that dialect is a part.”- Carla Marcato

Those vocabularies are reprinted but also continuously compiled. “Currently, those who compose vocabularies do so more to record the words of their time, to document a state of affairs, to make memory of words. Avoiding, on the one hand, turning it into a “vague past” or, on the other, falling into the risk pointed out by Ruffino of a “folklorification that isolates the heritage of popular culture from its authentic communicative, socio-cultural and historical context.” Regional laws called to promote the valorization and protection of dialects should intervene with this attention. Even through supporting dialect works, events or songs. Given up for dead as early as the 1960s, dialect continues to survive, Marcato recalls. “But the death of a language is a natural fact and it can also happen to dialect. When it doesn’t know, and it doesn’t necessarily happen.” He was right after all, that young man from Terrasini (PA) who answered Professor Ruffino’s question, “For me the Italian language and dialect are very beautiful languages.”

The richness of Italian dialects and differences from standard Italian

Standard Italian is the nation’s official language, but the Italian peninsula has a wealth of unique dialects that reflect the diversity and lively historical.

Italy is a country known for its rich history, art, culture and linguistic diversity. While standard Italian is the nation’s official language, the Italian peninsula has a wealth of unique dialects that not only reflect the country’s historical and regional diversity, but also offer a glimpse into the vibrancy of Italian culture. Some dialects are so different that speakers of standard Italian may have difficulty understanding them. For example, Neapolitan spoken in Naples has a rich vocabulary and phonetic differences that distinguish it from the language spoken in Rome.

In this article we will take a peek into the intriguing world of Italian dialects, exploring their origins, distinctive features and some fascinating trivia.

Origins and Diversity - Influence on Italian Culture

Origins and Diversity – Influence on Italian Culture.

Italian dialects have their roots in ancient regional languages and Latin. Today there are about 34 main Italian dialects, each with its own vocabulary, pronunciation, grammatical nuances and meaning.

Italy’s history of city-states and regional divisions has contributed to the development of various dialects. Some of them have been influenced by northern European invasions and settlements; others have retained elements of their medieval origins and are known for their distinct and melodious sound. Not surprisingly, dialects have influenced the traditional folk music of the various regions, adding a unique flavor to their songs and celebrations.

Consider the picturesque island of Sicily, where the Sicilian dialect is still widely spoken. Sicilian not only differs from standard Italian, but also boasts a rich literary tradition. Famous authors such as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Pirandello chose to write their works in Sicilian, infusing their stories with the unique charm and flavor of the region.

Italian dialects have made significant contributions to the country’s cultural heritage. Literature, music and even theater have been strongly influenced by regional dialects.

The works of authors such as Dante Alighieri, who wrote “The Divine Comedy” in Tuscan dialect, have had a lasting impact on Italian literature.

In the field of music, Neapolitan dialect shines through in classic Neapolitan songs such as “O Sole Mio.” These songs have transcended regional boundaries and have become beloved pieces of Italian music, appreciated worldwide for their timeless melodies and heartfelt lyrics.

Threats and preservation

Threats and preservation

Although Italian dialects have a strong cultural presence, many of them face challenges in today’s globalized world. Standard Italian is increasingly dominant in media, education and business. This has led to a decline in the use of dialects among younger generations. Efforts are underway to preserve and promote these languages through language courses and cultural initiatives.

In the charming city of Alghero on the island of Sardinia, activities dedicated to the preservation of the local dialect, Algherese Catalan, are being carried out. Here street signs, festivals and even schools proudly embrace the dialect, ensuring its survival and role in preserving the city’s unique cultural identity.

Interesting facts

Interesting facts

  • The Sicilian dialect incorporates words from various languages, including Arabic due to centuries of Arab domination, adding an exotic touch to its vocabulary; it boasts a rich literary tradition, with famous authors such as Giovanni Verga and Luigi Pirandello writing in this regional language.
  • Sardinia is home to many unique dialects, reflecting the island’s complex history and diverse cultural influences.
  • Some dialects incorporate words from other languages, such as Arabic in Sicilian and French in the Piedmontese dialect.
  • The Italian dialect spoken in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, called Friulian, is known for its distinct and melodious sound.
  • In the Alpine regions of Italy, such as Trentino-Alto Adige, German dialects are spoken alongside Italian, demonstrating the country’s further linguistic diversity.
  • Piedmontese, a dialect of the northwestern region of Piedmont, has been influenced by French due to its proximity to the French border. This linguistic fusion adds a touch of sophistication to the dialect’s vocabulary.

Italian dialects are not just linguistic variations, but living testimonies to Italy’s history and cultural richness. They offer an interesting journey through the different regions of the country and provide insight into the unique identity of its people. The beauty of Italian dialects demands every effort to preserve and cherish these linguistic treasures for generations to come.

Whether you are a language enthusiast, traveler or simply curious about the world’s linguistic diversity, exploring Italian dialects is a delightful way to get in touch with the heart and soul of Italy. Next time you visit this enchanting country, don’t be surprised if you hear a few words of a local dialect-it’s all part of the charm that envelops Italy!

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