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6 Most Popular Italian Dialects: a Mosaic of Linguistic Expression

Embarking on the journey of learning Italian goes beyond just acquiring language skills; it's a captivating exploration into the intricate tapestry of linguistic diversity.

At its core, Italian finds its roots primarily in "vulgar" Latin, the colloquial language among the citizens of ancient Rome, distinguishing it from the more formal literary Latin. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the evolution of the Italian language unfolded through a myriad of regional dialects, shaping a linguistic panorama as diverse as the regions themselves.

While modern Italy has achieved linguistic unity, with over 60 million inhabitants speaking Italian, the legacy of dialects endures. Conversations among Italians reveal distinct regional accents, allowing them to discern the speaker's origins. Pronunciations differ between the north, center and south, with additional nuances in vocabulary – a result of historical invasions and occupations by various foreign governments.

Italian encompasses several dialect groups, each with its unique characteristics. These include Northern Italian, also known as Gallo-Italian; Venetian, predominantly spoken in northeastern Italy; Tuscan, which extends to Corsican; and three interconnected groups from southern and eastern Italy. These comprise the dialects of the Marche, Umbria, and Rome; those of Abruzzi, Puglia, Naples, Campania, and Lucania; and finally, those of Calabria, Otranto, and Sicily.

Gallo-Italian group

The Gallo-Italic dialects draw their name from the Gauls, former inhabitants of northern Italy who left traces of their Celtic language. Noted for similarities to Western Romance languages, these dialects exhibit features like dropping unstressed final vowels and diphthongisation of stressed vowels, creating a unique linguistic expression. For example, Lombard has òm for "man," füm for "smoke," nef for "snow," fil for "wire," and röda for "wheel" (compare to Italian: uomo, fumo, neve, filo, ruota). Stressed closed /é/ and sometimes /ó/ in open syllables may diphthongize to /ei/ and /ou/, similar to Old French. For instance, Piedmontese has beive (Italian: bere, "to drink"), teila (Italian: tela, "cloth"), and meis (Italian: mese, "month").


Venetian group

Spoken in Venice and the surrounding areas, Venetian derives from Latin and Greek. As with every Italian dialect, Venetian is used mostly in informal contexts. One example of how it differs from standard Italian is that in Venetian the word “farmacia” (pharmacy) is replaced with apoteca, drawing directly from greek. The verb xe serves in the third person for the standard è (in English is), and the plural sono (are). Double consonants are to some extent singularised in Venetian: el galo (il gallo), el leto (il letto); note also the use of the masculine article el (il).


Tuscan group

The most conservative of Italian dialects, Tuscan, particularly the Florentine dialect, gained exposure through literary works by Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. Nevertheless, there are some local peculiarities that differentiate Florentine from Standard Italian. The most distinctive is the so-called “gorgia Toscana”, the throaty aspiration of the voiceless stops /k/ /t/ and /p/ that is thought to have a root in Etruscan phonology. Thus, we hear chasa for casa (house), ficho for fico (fig); a similar aspiration also occurs before medial t: andatho or andaho (andato), datho or daho (dato). Florentine also oftern uses alternative names for objects: for example, the word cacio in Florentine is preferred over the standard Italian formaggio.

Old Italians

Marche, Umbria, and Rome

Let's take a glimpse into the language used in Rome, a good representative for this group.

Before Rome became the capital city of Italy, Romanesco was spoken only inside the walls of the city, while the neighbouring towns had their unique expressions. Nowadays, these local dialects have been replaced with variants of Romanesco, expanding its linguistic realm beyond its initial confines. Rich in vivid expressions and influenced by the Tuscan language, Romanesco exhibits distinctive deviations from the standard Italian norm. In terms of pronunciation, for example, the article "il" undergoes a metamorphosis into er, while "gli" or "i" gracefully transform into li. Moreover, the amalgamation of "-nd-" gracefully transitions into the -nn-. Thus, quanno replaces "quando," and monno embraces the essence of "mondo". The typical standard Italian prominent geminate "r" with its distinctive "rolled r" fades away: for instance, "azzurro" metamorphoses into azzuro.


Abruzzo, Puglia, Naples, Campania, and Lucania

To touch this linguistic group, we invite you on a journey to the Naples metropolitan area and Campania, the birthplace of the renowned Neapolitan language. Without official status within Italy, this language finds today a place in the curriculum at the University of Naples Federico II, specifically in the courses on Campanian Dialectology offered by the Faculty of Sociology. There are even ongoing efforts at the national level to recognise Neapolitan as an official minority language in Italy.

The most notable phonological distinction lies in the Neapolitan tendency to weaken unstressed vowels into a schwa sound (similar to the "a" in "about" or the "u" in "upon"). However, it's worth noting that one can also adopt a "Neapolitan accent" when speaking standard Italian, characterised by pronouncing unstressed vowels as schwa or rendering the letter 's' as "sh" rather than “s" when followed by a consonant. For example, the Italian word "aspetta" (wait) is in Naples pronounced as ashpetta.


Calabria, Otranto, and Sicily

Finally, for this group, let’s travel to Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, where a mosaic of influences has shaped its language and culture. Eastern words, introduced by Arab traders who engaged extensively with maritime cities and settled in Sicily, have left a significant mark on Sicilian and the Italian language as a whole, especially in nautical, economic, and scientific realms. Examples include the Italian words magazzino (warehouse), dogana (customs), darsena (dock), arsenale (arsenal), algebra, zero, alambicco (almond), sciroppo (syrup), arancio (orange), albicocco (apricot), carciofo (artichoke), zafferano (saffron).

In the 13th century, Sicilian blossomed into a poetic language, exerting influence on Tuscan writers such as Dante and Petrarch and thus on the Italian language as a whole. The Sicilian dialect, spoken with a robust accent, often leads outsiders to mistake it for an entirely different foreign language. Among examples of its pronunciation differences, the omission of the first letter "i" in words like mpurtanti (important), ntirissanti (interesting) and mmàggini (image).


Towards linguistic unity

In 1612, the Accademia della Crusca, the enduring authority on the Italian language, published its first Dictionary based on the language of 14th-century Florentine writers such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. This work introduced numerous new words and borrowed scientific and legal terms from Latin, reflecting linguistic evolution.

The 17th century witnessed the desire to captivate readers, resulting in the invention of many metaphors and new words. The mixture of elegant, everyday, dialectal, foreign, and technical vocabulary occurred, influenced by the dominance of French Enlightened culture. However, the Italian language remained relegated to literature, in a peninsula dominated by regional languages.

The political union in the form of the Italian Kingdom in 1861 initiated linguistic unification, although widespread illiteracy persisted until the end of the 19th century. Italian, once an exclusive literary medium, continued nevertheless to coexist with dialects. After the end of WWII, with the rise of media and education, Italian gained prominence, though a third of the population still clung to dialects. 

In contemporary society, Italian is spoken by over 90% of the population residing in Italy and stands as one of the most widely studied foreign languages in the world! However, each dialect group in Italy maintains its exclusive charm. 

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