When most of us think of the Italian language, Standard Italian comes to mind – “ciao bella, come stai?” and “buon giorno,” and so on. In fact, Toscano, or the Italian originally written by the medieval poet Dante and spoken in the Tuscan region for hundreds of years, is the closest relative to modern Italian.
However, like most countries in Europe (or around the globe for that matter), Italy has a large number of local or regional languages that are actively spoken.
Often erroneously referred to as dialects, most of these regional languages take root in Vulgar Latin (the nonstandard form of Latin spoken after the classical Roman Empire) and are thus considered Romance Languages.
These languages are not simply dialects of Standard Italian. Most of them are quite distinct. Instead, they developed long before the spread of the standard Italian language in the 20th century.
The Regional Languages of Italy
Of the numerous regional languages of Italy, several of them are considered minority languages and belong to the Indo-European family. Examples include: Cimbiran (Germanic) spoken along the Austrian border, Arbëresh (Albanian) spoken in the area around the heel of Italy, the Slavomolisano dialect of Serbo-Croatian (Slavic), from the region of Trieste, and Griko (Hellenic/Greek), also spoken in the heel.
Other more well-known examples of regional Italian include: Emiliano (Emilian) Siciliano (Sicilian), Napolitano (Neapolitan), Romano (Romanesco – from Rome), Sardo (Sardinian), and Veneto (Venetian), to name a few.
In addition to these minority languages, according to UNESCO, Italy has 31 languages classified in varying degrees of endangerment. The most widely spoken of the local languages is Romanesco (Central Italian - Rome) with 5,700,000 speakers and the least prevalent, Mocheno (Bavarian-Austrian), spoken in the Trentino/Alto Aldige region, with only 1,000 speakers.
The simplest way to classify these regional languages is by looking at their geographic roots. The local languages of Northern Italy have Celtic influences, while languages from Central Italy have Etruscan ties, and those from Southern Italy have Italic or Greek origins. Additionally, Sardinian has Punic or Carthaginian influences.
I am fluent in Standard Italian and have a Minor in Italian literature. As such, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Italy over the past 25 years and been fortunate to visit a majority of the country.
While I can understand parts of some of these regional languages, there are some where I haven’t a clue of what’s being said! To better understand how distinct these regional languages are compared to Standard Italian and even to one another, please consider the following idioms:
Sardinian (Sardo) – “S'abbilastru non si trattenet e cazziare musca.”
Italian – Le aquile non prendono mosche.
English – Eagles don’t catch flies – i.e. there are those that find certain tasks beneath them.
Genoese (Genovese) – “L'è mëgio ëse cöa de grigoa che cû de lion.”
Italian – È meglio essere la coda di una lucertola che il sedere di un leone.
English – It’s better to be a lizard’s tail than a lion’s derriere – i.e. it’s better to be a big part of something small than a small part of something big.
Venetian (Veneto) – “Cavei e goti no xe mai tropi.”
Italian – Non si può mai avere troppi capelli ni bicchieri di vino.
English – One can never have too much hair or [too many] glasses of wine.
Piedmontese (Piemontese) – “Tuti a s'cerio ii difet d'j aotri, e mai ii sô.”
Italian – Dimentica altri difetti che ti ricordano i tuoi.
English – Forget faults [of others] that remind you of your own – i.e. focus on people’s positive traits.
Sicilian (Siciliano) – “È tintu lu nudu, chiu tintu lu sulu, ma megghiu sulu chi mala accumpagnatu.”
Italian – Meglio stare da solo che in campagnia cattiva.
English – It’s better to be alone than in bad company.
Romanesco (Romano) – “L’amore nunn’è bbello si nun’è litigarello.”
Italian – L’amore non è bello se no è un po’ litigioso.
English – Love isn’t beautiful unless it’s a bit argumentative – i.e. love without a little excitement is boring.
Piacentino (Piacenza) – “Om catìv e vëin bon i düran poc.”
Italian – Un uomo cattivo e buon vino durano poco.
English – Bad men and good wine don’t last long – i.e. like a good bottle of wine, the wicked have a short life.
As you can see from the above, some of these dialects don’t even remotely resemble Standard Italian.
Like many languages in the world, these regional languages are becoming more and more scarce as the older generations pass on and the younger generations fail to take an interest.
My only hope is that somehow, some way, these important symbols of the diversity and ancient history of the Italian culture don’t fade away.