What makes someone Italian? Language, not birthplace, say most Italians

National identity can be a fluid thing, so what does it take to be considered as an Italian? A new survey shows that most Italians think knowing the language is important, but birthplace isn't.

What makes someone Italian? Language, not birthplace, say most Italians
Sorry, facepaint and a hat in the colours of the flag aren't quite enough to be considered 'truly Italian'. Photo: Nicolas Ducat/AFP

The study, published on Wednesday by Pew Research Centre, asked Italians which factors were “important for being truly Italian”.

Less than half of Italians – 42 percent – said that being born in Italy was “very important” to national identity.

However, this was still one of the highest figures among the 14 countries surveyed. In Europe, only Hungarians and Greeks – two countries which, like Italy, have borne the brunt of the ongoing migrant crisis – were more likely to say birthplace was an important factor in national identity, at 52 and 50 percent respectively. Fifty percent of respondents in Japan gave the same answer.

In Sweden, just eight percent agreed, and in Germany, Australia and the Netherlands the figure was below 20 percent as well.

The survey was conducted between April and May of last year with more than 14,000 respondents across 14 countries.

So what emerged as the key factor in becoming Italian? Luckily, it's something anyone can achieve: learning the language.

“Language far and away is seen as the most critical to national identity,” Pew researchers noted. The study showed that it was considered the most crucial factor in every single country surveyed.

Almost six in ten Italians agreed (59 percent), though this was the lowest score of any country, joint with Canada.

That compared to 84 percent in the Netherlands, 81 percent in Hungary and the UK, and 79 percent in Germany. 

Half of Italians thought that sharing national culture and traditions was a key factor, placing Italy in the middle of the pack. Hungarians prioritized national customs the most, with 68 percent labelling them a very important determiner of national identity, compared to just 26 percent of Swedes.

Prioritizing cultural traditions was linked to political allegiance. In Italy, supporters of the far-right Northern League were more likely to agree that following national traditions was important for being Italian, following a Europe-wide trend that those on the political right found this to be important.

The survey also looked at whether religion had any bearing on national identity. Overall, the majority of people disagreed, with Greece the only country where more than half held this view.

In Italy, 30 percent said that being Catholic was key to being Italian, but a strong generational divide emerged. That figure rose to 40 percent among the over-50's – the most of any demographic other than Greek over-50's.

READ MORE: Twelve signs you've cracked the Italian language

Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr/The Local

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Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.