The Reality of Dialects in Italy

It’s often said that the dialects of Italy will be dead in 30 years. There is no way on Earth that that is true. On the other hand, the hard or pure dialects are dying, as they are all over Europe, in Sweden, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
The hard dialects are often spoken only by the old now, and many old words have fallen out of use. The hard dialects often had a limited vocabulary restricted to whatever economic activity was typical of the area. A lot of the old dialects are now being written down in local dictionaries to preserve their heritage.
The dialects were of course killed by universal education, and this was a positive thing. All Italians should learn to speak some form of Standard Italian. In the old days when everyone spoke dialect, people had a hard time communicating with each other unless there was some form of regional koine that they could speak and all understand. It doesn’t make sense if you can only talk to people in a 20 mile or less radius.
A diglossia where hard dialects would exist alongside Standard Italian was never going to work. People are pretty much going to speak one or the other. As people learn Standard Italian, their local dialect will tend to become more Italianized. In other cases, the hard local dialect will tend to resemble more the local regional dialect.
For instance, in southern Campania, the region of Naples, in a part called Southern Cilento, there are still some Sicilianized dialects spoken, remnants from Sicilian immigrants who came in the 1500’s. These dialects are now dying, and the speech of the young tends to resemble more the Neapolitan Cilento speech of the surrounding area more.
In other cases, koines have developed.
There is a regional koine in Piedmont that everyone understands. There is a similar koine in West and East Lombard, the Western one based on the speech of Ticino. There is a Standard Sicilian, spoken by everyone and understood by all, and then there are regional dialects, which, if spoken in hard form, may not be intelligible with surrounding regions. A koine has also developed in Abruzze around Pesaro. There is “TV Venetian,” the Venetian used in regional TV, a homogenized form that has speakers of local dialects worried it is going to take them out.
Even where hard dialects still exist, the younger people continue to speak the local dialect, except that it is now a lot more Italianized and regionalized. A lot of the old words are gone, but quite a few are still left. So the dialects are not necessarily dead or dying, instead they are just changing.
In the places where the dialects are the farthest gone such as Lazio and Tuscany, the regional dialects are turning into “accents” which can be understood by any Standard Italian speaker.
The situation in Tuscany is complicated. Although the hard dialects are definitely going out, even the hard dialects may be intelligible to Standard Italian speakers since Standard Italian itself was based on the dialect of Florence, a city in Tuscany.
Florence was chosen as the national dialect around 1800 when Italian leaders decided on a language for all of Italy. But the truth is that the language of Dante had always been an Italian koine extending far beyond its borders, just as the language of Paris had long been the de facto Standard French (and it still is as Parisien).
This is not to say that there are not dialects in Tuscany. Neapolitan speakers say they hear old men from the Florence region on TV and the dialect is so hard that they want subtitles. And there is the issue of which Florentine was chosen as Standard Italian. A commenter said that the language that was chosen was the language of Dante, sort of a dialect frozen in time in the 1400’s. In that case, regional Tuscan could well have moved far beyond that.
Even in areas where dialects are said to be badly gone such as Liguria, local accents still exist. It is said that everyone in Genoa speaks with a pretty hard Ligurian accent. That is, it is Standard Italian spoken with a Genoese accent.
Many younger Italians are capable of speaking in what is called “close,” “strict” or “tight” dialect. This means the hard form of the dialect. Speaking in this hard dialect, they often say that outsiders have a hard time understanding them. They can also speak in a looser form that is more readily intelligible. People adjust their speech to interlocutors.
We seem to be seeing a resurgence of interest in dialects among young people. Even if they can’t  speak them, many understand them. Most young people grew up with mothers, fathers or certainly grandparents who spoke in this or that dialect, and they learned at least to understand it from them. In addition, in many parts of Italy, dialects are still going strong, and many young people at least understand the local dialect even if they do not speak it.

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3 thoughts on “The Reality of Dialects in Italy”

  1. As an Italian from Napoli I used to be a huge proponent and defender of dialects, their usage, and their preservation, but after witnessing so much division, discord, separatism, and even heated hatred amongst my people I’ve come to the conclusion that the sooner the dialects are eliminated in Italy, the better. They have become far too big a barrier and obstacle to Italian unity. Politicians and regionalist organizations, usually dominated by socialists, are now trying to push Italy back to the way it was before 1870.

  2. I would probably also agree that the dialects will not completely disappear in 30 years, but there is definitely a movement toward practicing the standard Italian. And the use of dialects is becoming less prevalent, although there still are young people that know their dialects. But it is only natural that languages evolve and change over time. So I think you’ll see a unification of the Italian language. I think 30 years from now there will be less language in general and in a few hundred years we may evolve to a globe of 10 major languages. Television is playing a large part of that movement. Anyways, good post.
    Larry

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