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ITALIAN

Google honours Italian ‘child prodigy’

The world's biggest search engine has paid tribute to Italian mathematician and philosopher Maria Gaetana Agnesi to mark the 296th anniversary since her birth.

Google honours Italian 'child prodigy'
Italian mathematician and philosopher Maria Gaetana Agnesi has been honoured with a Google Doodle on what would have been her 296th birthday. Photo: Wikipedia

Agnesi, born to a wealthy Milan family on May 16th 1718, was the first woman in the West to be recognized as a mathematician and the second to ever be given a professorship at a university.

A “child prodigy”, she wrote her first book at the age of nine. She was also referred to as the “Seven Tongue Orator” for speaking Italian, French, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German and Latin by aged 11.

Friday’s Google Doodle features a picture of Agnesi with the “witch of Agnesi”, a curve studied by Agnesi in her first book.

Agnesi became a maths professor at the University of Bologna, where she was praised for her work by many, including Pope Benedict XIV, who wrote her a complimentary letter.

Her father, Pietro Agnesi, also professor at the University of Bologna, married twice after her mother’s death, leaving Agnesi the eldest of 23 siblings.

Later in life, Agnesi established a home for the sick and poor, and in 1783 she founded a home for the elderly, where she lived as the nuns of the institution did.

By the time she died in 1799, aged 80, she had given away all she owned, and was given a poor person’s burial.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local ‘dialects’

Are the Italians around you speaking a completely different language? Why are local dialects often so far removed from modern Italian? Here's what you need to know.

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy's many local 'dialects'
A man wearing a t-shirt reading ''100% Venetian''. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

It's the problem italian language learners have faced for as long as anyone can remember. You've diligently studied your Italian grammar, and carefully practiced your phrases ahead of your first visit to Italy, only to realise upon arrival that the Italians around you seem to be speaking a different language entirely.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most common Italian language mistakes you should avoid

Italy's dialects are far more than just heavily-accented Italian. They seem like totally different languages because, in fact, that's exactly what they are.

It's not quite correct to call them “dialects”, which are actually variants on a standard language. These are different languages which evolved separately from Latin – or, in some cases, other languages.

And even when they switch to Italian, speakers of these dialects or languages often speak with a heavy accent, much to the dismay of anyone still getting to grips with with basic Italian. Even in a big city like Florence or Rome, Italian spoken in a thick local accent can be hard to decipher – even for native Italian speakers from other areas.

As the map below shows, every region and often province has its own local language. Some have more than one, and each town may also have a variation.

Many of these are part of language “families” and some are more closely related to Italian, or to Latin, than others.

The map below classifies them further and also shows how languages in different regions are connected.

Map: Antonio Ciccolella/Wikimedia Commons

This might look complicated, but anyone who lives in a small italian town will no doubt still be thinking that a more detailed map is needed, as there are actually many more, smaller variations within these categories.

Do people in Italy really still speak all of these dialects?

The language we call Standard Italian derives from 13th-century Florentine. Until then, there had been no written rules, and the languages of what is now Italy had mainly evolved by being spoken.

When Italy was unified in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the population could actually speak the Italian language. All spoke their regional languages. Now, that figure is in the high 90s, though around five percent still speak only or predominantly in their regional language.

 
While you might imagine that these dialects or languages are mainly used by older people and are slowly dying out, that's not usually the case. 
 
While they'll also speak standard Italian, you'll find young Italians proudly speaking their local lingo everywhere from central Naples to the valleys of South Tyrol.
 
Some are far more widely used than others. In fact the most widely spoken is Neapolitan, with over five million speakers today.
 
The least widely-used is Croato. This dialect is used by an ethnic minority from a region corresponding to present-day Croatia and is spoken in the southern region of Molise. Today it only around 1,000 speakers.
 
In the southernmost parts of Italy, such as Salento and Calabria, Griko dialects are thought to derive from ancient Greek.
 
Meanwhile, Sardinian is classified as an “endangered” language by Unesco,  Like Italian, Sardinian has roots in Latin – in fact, some linguists argue that, of all the modern Romance languages, Sardinian is the closest to Latin – but it also displays much older influences. Today, particularly younger people on the island speak a mix of both languages, a sort of “Sarditalian”.
 
For more details, here are our guides to getting started with some of Italy's regional languages:

 

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