The Languages of Italy: Historical Roots and Modern Usage

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Italy’s Linguistic Heritage A Comprehensive Guide

The languages of Italy form one of the richest and most varied linguistic heritages within the European landscape. Excluding foreign languages associated with modern migration flows, the languages commonly spoken are exclusively Indo-European, predominantly belonging to the Romance family. Additionally, there are Albanian, Germanic, Greek, and Slavic varieties present.

Italian Language

The official language of the Republic of Italy, Italian, historically descends from the literary variant of Tuscan vernacular. Its use in literature began with the so-called “Three Crowns” (Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio) around the 13th century, evolving historically into modern Italian. This language, except for some areas of later Italianization, was officially adopted as a prestigious linguistic code among various pre-unification states starting from the 16th century.

Despite being used in literature and administration primarily in written form and thus coexisting in diglossia with different local vernaculars in spoken language, at the time of the political unification of most of Italy in the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1860, Italian was spoken by a minority of the population. It was mainly used by the educated classes but spread among the general populace through compulsory education and the more recent influence of television. Until the enactment of Law 482/99, the advent of television saw the exclusion of dialects and minority languages, except as provided by international agreements signed by Italy after World War II in favor of the German-speaking minority in Bolzano province, the Slovenian minority in Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and the French-speaking minority in the Aosta Valley.

Related articles: Prehistoric Populations of Italy; Italianization of the Language Under Fascist Rule; What is the most common last name in each region of Italy?

Map of Italian Languages and Dialect Groups, source, author: Antonio Ciccolella

Erosion and Protection of Local Languages

The wide availability of mass media in Italian and population mobility, coupled with a lack of political will to recognize even minimal cultural value in “dialects,” accelerated the process of linguistic erosion and minoritization. This led to a significant reduction in the use of local idioms, many of which are now considered endangered, mainly due to the advance of the Italian language even in strictly social and relational spheres.

Legislation provides for the protection of linguistic minorities, primarily through Article 6 of the Constitution (“The Republic safeguards linguistic minorities with appropriate norms.”) and Law 482/1999 (“… the Republic safeguards the language and culture of the Albanian, Catalan, Germanic, Greek, Slovenian, and Croatian populations and those speaking French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, Occitan, and Sardinian”). The same law mandates that RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) broadcast in the languages of the twelve recognized linguistic minorities.

According to Tullio De Mauro, the multilingualism “Italian plus dialects or one of the thirteen minority languages” (he included Romani, later excluded from Art. 2 of Law 482/1999 due to lack of territoriality) plays a positive role. He noted that “students who constantly and only speak Italian have less brilliant scores than those who also have some relationship with the dialectal reality.”

Territorial Languages in Italy

The linguistic landscape of Italy is one of the most diverse in Europe. Aside from foreign languages associated with modern immigration, the languages commonly spoken in Italy are exclusively Indo-European, primarily from the Romance family, with notable Albanian, Germanic, Greek, and Slavic varieties. The official language of the Italian Republic is Italian, which historically evolved from the literary variant of the Tuscan vernacular. While Italian has become the predominant language, many regional and minority languages continue to be spoken across the country, each with its own unique characteristics and cultural significance.

Table of Territorial Languages in Italy

Non-territorial Languages

There are also “non-territorial languages” spoken in Italy but not confined to a specific area, such as the languages of the Romani and Sinti nomads and Italian Sign Language (LIS). The latter is spoken by the deaf community throughout Italy, having cultural roots, grammar, movement, and morphology unique to space-time movement. The Italian deaf population, composed of about 3,524,906 individuals, uses LIS and communication assistants and interpreters. LIS is recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified in Italy in 2009. Often, these languages find protection only in regional legislation, such as in Sicily (L.R. 23/2011), Piedmont (L.R. 31/2012), Basilicata (LR 30/2017), Lombardy (LR 20/2016), and Lazio (LR 6/2015). Additionally, there is the Malossi method, a tactile language used by deaf-blind people and their assistants in various parts of Italy.

Romance Languages & Dialects in Italy

Most of the Romance languages and their varieties spoken within Italian borders, excluding Italian and regional Italians, are referred to in Italian specialist literature as Italo-Romance dialects. These dialects coexist with Italian as the roof language. Italo-Romance dialects are described as sister languages of Italian, being primary Romance dialects that developed independently from Latin and must be distinguished from regional Italians, which are local varieties of Italian and considered secondary Romance dialects.

Rhaeto-Romance Languages

This group, identified collectively for the first time by Graziadio Isaia Ascoli, was long considered a subgroup of Italo-Romance. However, it is now generally regarded as an autonomous system within the Romance languages. Recognized languages in this group include Romansh (spoken in Switzerland’s Grisons canton), Ladin, and Friulian. Collectively, these three languages constitute the entire group.

Friulian Language

Friulian is spoken in the provinces of Gorizia, Pordenone, Udine, and some municipalities in Venice. In addition to state protection, it is officially recognized by the Friuli Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region as “the language of the regional community.”

Ladin Language

Ladin is spoken in the Dolomite area (Ladinia). It is a co-official language in the autonomous province of Bolzano, recognized in the autonomous province of Trento, and recently protected in the Ladin-speaking municipalities of Belluno province. Ladin linguistic influences are also present in Nones, spoken in Val di Non in the autonomous province of Trento, to the extent that some linguists consider this dialect part of the Ladin linguistic group.

Northern Languages

Also known as “Alto-Italian,” the Gallo-Italian and Veneto groups were considered Eastern Romance in the early 20th century but are now generally regarded as Western Romance. The existence of a Lombard-Venetian koine, a common language that reached a certain level of consolidation in the Middle Ages before being overshadowed by Tuscan, has been hypothesized. The Lombard-Venetian koine competed with Tuscan for the role of the literary language.

Gallo-Italian Group

The Gallo-Italian group shares affinities with Western Romance languages but differs in some traits shared with Italo-Romance languages. These differences include the absence of the sigmatic plural (ending in -s), the absence of s as verbal endings (except in western Piedmontese in the second-person singular of auxiliary verbs and the future tense), the simplification of consonant clusters (e.g., “piassa” for “piazza”), and the weakening of unstressed syllables.

Veneto Group

The Veneto group generally shows fewer innovations from Latin compared to Gallo-Italian dialects. The main variants include Central or Southern Veneto (Padua, Vicenza, Rovigo), Lagoon Veneto (Venice Lagoon), Eastern Veneto (Trieste, Venezia Giulia, Istria, and Fiume), Western Veneto (Verona, Trento), Central-Northern Veneto (Treviso), Northern Veneto (Belluno), Dalmatian Veneto (Dalmatia), and the dialects of valleys and foothills, such as Feltrino. The most noticeable feature is the syllabic structure that does not tolerate geminate consonants in any position.

Tuscan

The Tuscan group includes the Tuscan varieties and those more or less related spoken in Corsica and northern Sardinia. Despite not being a language belonging to Western Latin language, it has many characteristics typical of the Alto-Italian area. Literary Italian is considered another variant (although heavily influenced by other Italo-Romance idioms) of the Tuscan dialect. Northern Corsican or Cismonte, particularly the dialect spoken in the historical region of Capo Corso, is akin to Western Tuscan but differs in some lexical forms and endings in /u/.

Gallurese and Sassarese

Gallurese, spoken in northeastern Sardinia, shows significant influences from the Sardinian language at the morphological and syntactic levels but is closely related to Southern Corsican or Pumonte, specifically the Sartene dialect, which is practically identical in the La Maddalena archipelago. Sassarese shares a similar origin to Corsican but is distinct from it. It originated from the merchant populations of different origins (Sardinian, Corsican, Tuscan, and Ligurian) who gave impetus to the nascent city of Sassari in the 12th century, creating a mercantile dialect that extended to several nearby towns over the centuries, undergoing profound influence from Logudorese Sardinian, Catalan, and Spanish.

Gallo-Tuscan Dialects

Along the Apennine ridge between Tuscany and Emilia (Sambuca Pistoiese, Fiumalbo, Garfagnana, and other localities), older people still use transitional dialects between the Tuscan and Gallo-Italian systems, known as Gallo-Tuscan dialects. These dialects are of great interest to linguists because they form a transitional linguistic system between Eastern and Western European Latin and between Alto-Italian and Tosco-Meridional dialects.

Central Languages and Dialects

Central languages include all dialects spoken in most of Lazio (excluding the southern regions, where dialects belong to the southern intermediate group), Umbria, the southernmost areas of Grosseto province (in Tuscany), and the provinces of Ancona, Macerata, and Fermo in the Marche.

Medial Group

The Italian Medial group is the most challenging to classify. The dialects have influenced each other considerably and non-linearly. The following idioms or subgroups are distinguished:

  • Umbrian Dialects: Difficult to systematize as they lack a koiné. Generally categorized by geographic area despite significant differences within the same area.
  • Central Marchigiano Dialects: Dialectal fragmentation is even more pronounced in the Marche than in Umbria. Central Marchigiano dialects belong to the Medial group, while others belong to different groups: Gallo-Italian Marchigiano (Pesaro and Urbino province and part of Ancona province) and Southern Marchigiano (Ascoli Piceno province).
  • Tuscia Viterbese Dialects: Influenced by southern Tuscan dialects and median dialects.
  • Cicolano-Aquilano-Reatino Dialects: Show influences from the Southern group.
  • Central-Northern Lazio Dialect: Influenced by some Southern dialects.

Romanesco

The Romanesco dialect, primarily spoken in Rome and to a lesser extent west of the capital (along the coastal strip from Civitavecchia to Anzio), underwent significant Tuscan influence in many Roman environments (particularly linked to the Curia) in the 16th and 17th centuries. Therefore, it is very different from the ancient dialect of Rome, which was subject to southern and eastern influences. Many linguists consider this dialect independent and separate from the remaining median dialects.

Southern Languages

Southern Italian dialects, or intermediate southern dialects, form a section of the broader central-southern dialect group, as classified by Giovan Battista Pellegrini. They span eight Italian regions, including the entirety of Campania, Molise, and Basilicata. These dialects form a continuum from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas, with boundaries extending from the Aso River in the north to the Coscile River in the south. Notable characteristics include the treatment of unstressed final vowels, which change to a schwa sound (/ə/), unlike the dialects of Salento and southern Calabria.

Neapolitan, a prominent dialect within this group, evolved from a cluster of ancient Italo-Southern dialects of the Campania region and was historically referred to as the Pugliese vernacular. Neapolitan has played a significant role in shaping the linguistic and cultural heritage of the region and remains widely spoken.

The primary subgroups are Abruzzese and southern Marchigiano, Molisano, central-northern Pugliese, Campano, and Lucano-Calabrese. These dialects feature phonological and morphological complexities, such as metaphony and consonantal assimilation, that differentiate them from other Italian dialects.

Extreme Southern Group

The extreme southern group includes Sicilian, Central-Southern Calabrian, and Salentino dialects. The phonetic characteristic common to the Sicilian group is the outcome of final vowels presenting a strongly characterized territorial constant absent in other Italian languages and dialects:

  • From final Latin -A > -a
  • From final Latin -E, -I > -i
  • From pre-Roman final -O, -Ọ > -u
  • From Latin -LL- or other > -ḍḍ- (transcribed in the literature as ḍḍ, dd, ddh, or ddr). In some areas of Calabria, the sound can be a single d or j (read as a semivowel i or the French j depending on the location).

Sardinian Language

The Sardinian language comprises a continuum of internally comprehensible dialects, usually grouped into two orthographic norms: Logudorese in the central-northern zone and Campidanese in the central-southern zone. Sardinian is co-official (alongside Italian) in the Autonomous Region of Sardinia and is officially recognized by the Republic as one of the twelve historically spoken linguistic minorities. Sardinian is considered extremely conservative, having deviated the least from Latin. Most scholars believe that the Sardinian group should be considered autonomous within the Romance languages. Sardinian is seen as the only living representative of a “southern” Romance linguistic system, along with the extinct Corsican dialects before the island’s Tuscanization and the extinct Latin dialect of North Africa.

Non-Romance Languages

Albanian Dialects

In numerous centers in southern Italy (both continental and insular), there are historical linguistic islands where Albanian (arbërisht) is spoken. Spoken in 50 communities across seven Italian regions by descendants of Albanian refugees since the 15th century, and once widespread in 50 other communities, their speech is primarily the Tosco variant of Albanian spoken in southern Albania and the Epirus region (Ciamuria).

These communities are spread across Abruzzo, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Molise, Calabria, and Sicily. The most numerous Albanian-speaking communities are in Calabria (Cosenza, Catanzaro, Crotone provinces) and Sicily (Palermo province). It is estimated that there are about 100,000 Albanian-speaking people.

Germanic Dialects

In addition to the autonomous province of Bolzano, where Italian-German bilingualism is practiced, several German-speaking linguistic islands exist throughout the Triveneto region in the pre-Alpine and Alpine areas.

Cimbrian Language

Cimbrian is a Bavarian dialect brought by a group of German migrants who settled in the areas between Trento, Verona (Thirteen Communities), and Vicenza (Seven Communities) in the Middle Ages. Encroached upon by the Veneto dialects, Cimbrian has been in decline for centuries and is currently spoken by only a few hundred people. The most vibrant community is in Luserna (Lusern, TN), while the speakers in Giazza (Ljetzan, VR) and Roana (Robaan, VI) have dwindled to a few dozen. The Cimbrian island of Cansiglio (Belluno and Treviso provinces), founded in the early 19th century by a group of Roanese, has practically disappeared.

Mòcheno Language

Mòcheno is still spoken in the villages of Val Fersina (a side valley of Valsugana) and has origins similar to Cimbrian, deriving from an ancient settlement of German colonists.

German-speaking islands are also found in Carnia (Sauris, Zahre, Timau, Tischlbong, and Sappada, Plodn), with a similar origin. Finally, German is widespread in much of Val Canale (Kanaltal), near the Austrian border.

Walser Dialects

In Piedmont and the Aosta Valley, Alemannic-speaking communities (Walser dialects) are present in some municipalities and are related to those in the nearby Swiss canton of Valais.

Greek Dialects

In some centers in southern Italy, there are linguistic islands where ancient Greek is spoken. Specifically, Greek-speaking or Grecanic communities are present in Salento and Calabria. In January 2012, the Municipality and Province of Messina officially recognized the modern Greek and Grecanic language of Calabria.

Romani Dialects

Romani is spoken by the Sinti and Roma in Italy in various dialectal forms influenced by the languages of the countries they passed through in the past, as well as by the regional Italian dialects they have come into contact with. Romani has, in turn, influenced the professional jargon of some trades.

Slavic Dialects

In Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a community speaks Slovenian in the border areas of Trieste, Gorizia, and Udine provinces. Additionally, in the Udine province, there is a Slovenian-speaking community in Val di Resia, speaking a dialect that some scholars consider a distinct variant of Slovenian: Resian. Resian, very similar to the Slovenian dialects of nearby Carinthia (Austria), is internationally regarded as a Slovenian dialect. The municipality of Resia has declared itself a Slovenian language community under Law 482/99, annually receiving funds for protection as a “Slovenian linguistic minority.”

In Molise, some centers still have communities speaking an ancient Slavic dialect (“na-našu”) from the Dalmatian hinterland. These communities descend from Slavs who arrived in Italy between the 15th and 16th centuries to escape the Ottoman advance in the Balkans and settled in Acquaviva Collecroce (Kruč), San Felice del Molise (Sti Filić), and Montemitro (Mundimitar) in the current Campobasso province. This dialect is spoken by just over two thousand people.

Linguistic Prejudices

After national unification, there was a phenomenon of stigmatization of local languages in Italy, deemed destabilizing and harmful. The prestige of written Italian, and subsequently spoken by the cultural and political elites, changed the population’s linguistic habits, although local languages were not banned. However, in schools, they were always disapproved of in favor of Italian, which was, for many children, a completely foreign and incomprehensible language. This led to the erroneous belief that “dialects” were a corruption of the national language, poorly taught by teachers who often had a limited knowledge of it and thus tolerated deviations from the theoretical norm.

Prejudices and derogatory opinions about the value of local varieties, echoed by cultural policies, were particularly prevalent during the Fascist regime, which even persecuted alloglottic minorities. Schools later continued the harsh battle against these idioms, deemed the main obstacle to learning correct Italian. This general institutional “dialectophobia” persisted well beyond the mid-20th century, with some pointing to 1962, the year the unified middle school was established, as a symbolic end date, although anti-dialectal attitudes persisted even afterward.

Cultural Value of Dialects

Italy’s dialects, rich in a rooted verbal and literary tradition, have inspired many theatrical works that have become part of a specific genre called dialect theater. In recent times, there has been an effort to study and fully recover the historical significance and cultural meaning of local dialects to prevent them from becoming dead languages, highlighting their role in regional identity and heritage.

According to Istat, in 2015, 45.9% of Italians spoke exclusively or predominantly Italian, 32.2% alternated it with a dialect or local language, 14% expressed themselves exclusively in the local language, while the rest used another language. Linguist Tullio De Mauro, in an interview with La Repubblica on September 29, 2014, stated that the alternating use of Italian and dialect (referring to Italy’s dialects, not dialects of Italian) reached

44.1%, and those who only used Italian were 45.5%.

Legal Status

Official Language

In the Italian Republic, the official language is Italian. Beyond customary use, recognition can be indirectly inferred from the fact that the Constitution is written only in Italian, while explicit recognition is found in the Trentino-Alto Adige statute, a constitutional law of the Republic.

Linguistic Minorities

The Constitution provides for the protection of linguistic minorities in Article 6, recognizing their linguistic rights. For two minorities, in particular, of the twelve, the protection of language and culture is explicitly stated in the autonomy statutes of Trentino-Alto Adige and the Aosta Valley.

Following a lengthy legislative process, Law 482/1999 finally implemented Article 6 of the Constitution, recognizing the protection of the language and culture of twelve autochthonous populations historically speaking languages other than Italian. The Republic also signed and ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 1997 and signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages on June 27, 2000, but has not ratified it, so it does not apply in the Republic’s territory.

Regional Legislation

Various Italian regions have enacted additional regional laws over the years to recognize and protect various idioms. For example:

  • Piedmont: Recognized Piedmontese, Occitan, Franco-Provençal, and Walser.
  • Friuli-Venezia Giulia: Recognized Friulian, Slovenian, and German, among others.
  • Sardinia: Recognized Sardinian, Catalan of Alghero, Gallurese, Sassarese, and Ligurian Tabarchino.
  • Veneto: Recognized Veneto.
  • Sicily: Recognized Sicilian.
  • Puglia: Recognized Salentine Greek, Arbëreshë, and Franco-Provençal.
  • Lombardy: Recognized Lombard.

All idioms other than the languages spoken by the “historical linguistic minorities” recognized and protected under Article 6 of the Italian Constitution, listed in Article 2 of Law 482/99, can only be culturally valued under Article 9 of the Italian Constitution as intangible regional cultural heritage.

Featured image: Wikimedia

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