Italy has always been covered with a motley quilt of different languages, and thousands of dialects survive to this day. It's commonly pointed out that in the mountain valleys of the South, dialects could vary to such a degree that populations separated by as little as five kilometers couldn't understand each other.
Until the 1930s, literature was the only common linguistic thread. That is, the citizens of the newly formed nation could only communicate with each other through a Florentine dialect used by a Renaissance author, Dante Alighieri. Literary scholars estimate that 90 percent of the words in modern Italian can be found in Dante's works and those of his contemporaries.
Photo Gallery Italy Regional Dialects
Italy Regional Dialects Images
Later writers, such as Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed, may have thought up and written drafts in their native dialect”in Manzoni's case, the one from the lakes region”and then chosen Florentine for the finished product.
But literature was read only by a very slim minority in what was, until the mid-20th century, a mostly poor, agricultural country. Furthermore, books can only exert so much influence on how a language is actually spoken, and Italian in the 19th century was almost the Latin of its day: spoken by the educated class, used in the courts and for all other official business”but by and large ignored by the masses, who conversed in the vernacular.
That all changed when the radio came to town. The Fascists, in their push to create a national identity in the 1930s, were very fortunate in rising to power at a time when radio audiences were swelling and the first televisions were about to arrive in Italy. Radio brought Italian to previously impenetrable towns, and video threatened to kill off dialects altogether. Before the 1950s, some 80 percent of the peninsula's population could not speak Italian. Now, official figures say, only about 5 percent of the population does not speak Italian on a regular basis.
Statue of Dante in front of Santa Croce church in Florence That's not to say that only 5 percent of the population speaks in dialect. Millions of Italians still do, and consider themselves bilingual. Census data counts about 1.3 million people who speak Sardinian; 500, 000 who speak Friulian; 300, 000 who speak German in the region of Alto-Adige, and, in that same area, some 55, 000 who speak an ancient language called Ladino; about 300, 000 who use one of several French dialects in Piedmont and Val d'Aosta; 70, 000 Slovenian-speakers in the northeast; 18, 000 Catalan-speakers in Sardinia; 2,600 Croatian-speakers in Molise; and 20, 000 Ancient Greek-speakers in Calabria and Puglia, where another 100, 000 have retained Albaresh, the language of their Albanian ancestors who arrived in Italy in the 14th century. These languages were officially recognized by the state as protected in a 1999 law, following a European Union directive that aimed to preserve some of the continent's disappearing tongues, of which Italy probably has more than any other country in the EU.
Chances are, though, you won't run into a native Albaresh- or Ladino-speaker unless you go specifically to those enclaves. More often, you'll hear some of the more diffuse dialects, like Venetian, Milanese, Bergamasco, Genoese, Roman, Neapolitan, and Sicilian (to name some of the more recognizable ones), especially if you talk with older people. Remember that almost everyone in Italy over the age of 65 spoke something other than Italian at home when they were children. Television may have brought a common language to successive generations, but many younger people still speak with their elders in dialect. The so-called protected languages are even taught at school. In Alto-Adige, for example, students have their choice between a German-speaking school and an Italian-speaking one, and more often than not, they choose the former, because job opportunities are seen as greater in the Teutonic world than in points south.
Road sign in Italian and Albaresh Other idioms aren't so welcome in class. In one highly publicized case not so long ago, a high school principal near Vicenza in the Veneto fined his pupils a few cents for every word spoken in dialect. It's only natural in a country where people pride themselves on their hometowns that a little good-natured provinciality shines through. Even celebrities on television, the great linguistic equalizer, give some hint of their roots when they open their mouths, if not an overpowering accent that lends itself openly to caricature. Silvio Berlusconi's nasal Brianzolo and soccer star Francesco Totti's Roman drawl are just two of the easier targets. They don't try to hide it, as a matter of principle. The only exception might be southerners who moved to Turin or Milan for jobs, and who want to conceal their backgrounds for fear of being labeled a terrone (peasant), a form of intra-Italian racism that grew in the 1960s and still pervades the North. On the other side of the coin, finding a fellow Sicilian in a position of power might just be an islander's ticket to the top.
In general, you'll make more friends in Italy if you speak with an honest accent and use simple words, rather than try to churn out polished verse. High school principals and other scholarly types may speak the language of Dante, but average Italians will snicker under their breath when they hear the perfect tense too many times, or suffer through a pedantic insistence on the subjunctive clause. Both of these are so correct that they come off as awkward. Unfortunately, this kind of populist attitude won't get you very far with an Italian professor, and for all the bravado and braggadocio about learning Italian on the fly, there really is no substitute for a language class.