Analysis: Why are Italy’s disappearing dialects so important?

Analysis: Why are Italy's disappearing dialects so important?
Photo: OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP
From Romanesco to Arberesch, Italy's many local dialects are as culturally important as food or art, says Silvia Marchetti.

My grandparents have nostalgic memories of the days when Romans spoke their true vernacular tongue, called Romanesco – which has nothing to do with the vulgar slang tourists pick up while wandering the capital. That’s Romanaccio, with the final ‘accio’ indicating something denigratory. 

Romanesco was the lyrical language of great poets such as Trilussa and Gioacchino Belli, whose statue rises on the Lungotevere. It was colorful, warm and cheerful. Hardly anyone still speaks it in Rome and those who do are the elders. 

Dialects are slowly disappearing and once they’re gone a huge part of Italy’s cultural, social and human heritage will be lost. Recent statistics suggest only 14% of Italians speak in dialect today.

Among the factors killing dialects is simply the passage of time. Old people are the holders of linguistic nuances so when they pass away this knowledge dies with them. Youth who flee in search of a brighter future elsewhere often end up forgetting their native speech or they ditch it because it is not considered ‘cool’ in the city. 

In the past dialects were a social barrier dividing poor families from rich ones. Southerners migrating to the north to work would hide their local tongue and accent over fear of discrimination. Their descendants have now lost it. 

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

Even though the disintegration of dialects started with the birth of the Italian state in 1860, which created a national standard language, mass emigration and industrialization followed by globalization have dealt further blows. 

The use of computers and technology, dominated by the English language, has pushed youth to embrace new terms and strive to learn English rather than to cherish their local idioms – and often be looked down upon by friends in the city. 

According to UNESCO there are roughly 30 Italian ‘languages’ at risk of extinction. These include Toitschu, spoken by just 200 people in a hamlet in Valle D’Aosta, and Guardiolo, spoken by Waldenses descendants in the Calabrian town of Guardia Piemontese. 

But there are many places where dialects survive and are a source of territorial pride and belonging. 

Due to changes in boundaries or following past invasions, it’s easy to come across communities that speak Albanian, Greek, Latin, French and German-sounding dialects. It’s a real throwback luring tourists. Road signs and street names are written in two languages, old traditions, customs and foods live on.

In Italy there are 12 ‘sub-languages’ spoken by linguistic minorities living on islands, in regions bordering with other countries or in remote rural villages. These are protected by the state and each include variants.

In South Tyrol, once a part of Austria, the majority of people speak different German dialects. In Molise and Basilicata locals speak Greek-ish and an Albanian-sounding idiom called Arberesch. 

Some southern cities are anchored to their dialects. Take Naples or Bari Vecchia (the old district) where the colorful slang is part of the scenery. Islands are where, due to their isolation, everyone speaks in dialects. Have a trip across Sicily or Sardinia and your Italian will be of no help.

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There are other niche cases showing how the more local you gol, the richer the language still is – even between nearby ‘rival’ towns. 

During my latest trip to Lombardy’s Iseo Lake I walked from the village of Paratico to Sarnico and once I stepped across the dividing bridge, the tongue changed. 

To say “over there” Paratico inhabitants have “zo de là”, those of Sarnico “fo gliò”. In the nearby village of Sulzano signs greet foreigners in local speech: “Welcome to Sòlsa“. Another example: in San Polo di Piave, a fraction of Treviso in Veneto region, furrows are “culiere”; in adjacent Villorba it’s “cuncuoi”. 

It’s a matter of territorial fanaticism, depending on how much people still feel the pull of their roots and the need to be ‘different’. 

Symbolic dialect phrases sometimes survive also in top cities. Venetians like to exchange greetings across canals with “Viva San Marco” or “VSM” (Long Live St.Mark, the patron) instead of with a simple Ciao.

Dialects are often supported by local political parties. When the League was a northern group against Rome it endorsed the Lumbard dialect and held pagan-like rituals during which politicians would drink the Po River’s waters to boost their energy. Now that the League is a nationwide party within the ruling coalition it has dropped language propaganda. 

Bar those regions and areas where the state protects and promotes bilingualism, the survival of dialects in the rest of Italy solely relies on the passion of scholars and volunteers who organize evening courses and events. These are flourishing in Piedmont and Puglia.

They write poems in dialect, organize theatre performances and bands translate English songs into hilarious dialect versions. And it’s not just pensioners and academics attending, there are curious young people and also tourists interested in discovering old tongues. 

Local authorities could do more to fund the teaching of dialects at school. Many Sardinian schools have introduced Sardo lessons just because their special regional statute allows different education programs. 

But it should be the norm across the country: alongside learning English and following religion courses, kids should be given the choice of a dialect, preferably that spoken in their city or region. 

Learning Romanesco at school would be a great way, in fact, of also doing some history and literature in a fun way. As a distinctive trait of Italian culture and symbols of territorial differences, dialects are just as important as food and art. 


Member comments

  1. I live in the United States and have been taking an online class in the Neapolitan language for the last five weeks. The instructor, a young man from Naples who is now living in New York City, is wonderful and very enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge of the language, music, and culture of his beloved city.

    The class has been a joy for me for many reasons but mainly because I’m hearing a version of the language my grandparents, parents, and aunts & uncles spoke when I was growing up. My grandparents emigrated to the US from southern Lazio around 1920 and for years, I thought that their dialect was that of Rome and couldn’t figure out why the Roman dialect didn’t sound familiar to me.

    I think that it’s important to keep these beautiful languages of Italy alive. Perhaps more Italian cultural institutions in the United States and abroad will see the value in doing so and offer courses in the dialects and regional histories. Thank you for writing an interesting article on this important topic.

  2. Well done overview. Thorough and engaging. I live in rural Piemonte and I find Piemontese dialect fairly common in my community. But, interesting to read about other linguistic areas.

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