Do Italians really speak italian?
The truth behind Italian dialects and their usage
“Alright, you were born in Sicily. But do you really live there?” That’s what a Lebanese friend of mine once exclaimed when I told him where I came from. He thought only old people and sheep lived in Sicily. What a bucolic image!
There still are (and probably always will be) many stereotypes about Italy, the south of the country and the language(s) we speak in the Boot.
In this blog article I’d like to clarify some of these language stereotypes, and help you understand how our language varieties and dialects work and when they are used.
A young nation and language
Let me give you a very quick historical overview before we dive into the details. Italy is quite a young nation: its unification dates back to 1861 (160 years ago). Before our unification and actually also long after that, no one spoke Italian. Every area had its own language or dialect. It was only in the second half of the last century, thanks also to educational TV programmes, that a unitary language slowly started spreading across Italy, which eventually developed into the language we predominantly speak today.
So, what happened to dialects? Well, they didn’t disappear at all, even if recently they have slowly been in decline. The spread of a single language was a long and difficult process, as the “new” language was very different from the ones people used to speak.
Different dialects, different origins
Italian dialects have different origins and their structures and vocabularies were influenced by the cultures that ruled the relative regions over the centuries. For instance, Sicilian and southern dialects carry many Spanish and Arabic traces (the famous Sicilian wine and grape variety called Zibibbo takes its name from the Arabic word zibīb which means “dried grapes”), whereas in the Piedmont and other northern dialects, the French influence is much more prevalent (for instance, the Piedmontese word for “apple” is pum, from the French pomme).
It is now clear that Italian dialects are very different to each other, but if Italian is the official language of our country, which language do we really use and when?
It depends on the context!
Needless to say, we speak Italian when we communicate with people from a region different than ours, otherwise we wouldn’t understand each other! We also use “standard” Italian in all official situations: at school, on TV, in novels and so on. This doesn’t mean that you will never hear dialect words or expressions in these contexts (not in very serious ones, though), but they will probably be occasional and not long passages.
What about family and friends? Again, it depends on the context! In some areas and neighbourhoods (which are fewer and fewer) not everybody normally speaks Italian and the “standard” language is very rarely used. Nonetheless, dialects are often used in informal and relaxed situations also in other social contexts. Among friends, the most natural jokes come out in dialect!
Let’s clarify the word “standard” better; I’ve used this adjective here and there referring to the Italian language without any dialectal or regional influence. The truth is, there is no such thing as “standard” Italian (that’s why I keep on writing it in quotes): every one of us speaks with a different accent – that is often very easily recognisable – and we use regional words and expressions which are not strictly dialect, but that people from other Italian areas would rarely use, even if they do know them. For instance, “bad luck” is said differently depending on the region: sfiga, iella, scalogna and so on. All Italians understand these three words (called geo-synonyms), but depending on where they come from, they only use one of them!
In conclusion, if you need to communicate with an Italian audience for business or for personal reasons, dialects won’t usually get in your way!