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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:

 

Member comments

  1. Theoretical language practice (from books and stsndard tapes) never neatly equates with the practising of the language in, well – practice. I spent a year in Naples as a result of being offered a transfer from Florence. Little did I know what was in store linguistically. Fortunately most people I came into professional contact with spoke fairly standard Italian but for me to practise even standard Italian with a Neapolitan speaking the same language, but heavily accented, was a challenge almost too far when added to the responsibilities of the job I had to do. But this is a fascinating and additional delight in many ways. The maps above are probably eye openers to many of us and make Italy even more intriguing.

  2. Interesting in that it missed the ‘Bresciano’ dialect obviously from Brescia area. I do speak a bit of it with my relatives.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian word of the day: ‘Spaghettata’

If you like your spaghetti, you'll love the 'spaghettata'.

Italian word of the day: 'Spaghettata'

You may have twirled and chomped your way through enough spaghetti to be ranked up there with the best of them – but if you’ve never lived in Italy, you’ve probably never experienced the spaghettata (‘spag-ett-TAH-tah’).

Garfield Spaghetti GIF - Garfield Spaghetti Pasta GIFs

Is it a party? Is it a meal? The best way we can describe it is as a fun, relaxed spaghetti feast eaten at home with friends.

Informal and often impromptu, a spaghettata typically lasts for several hours involves copious amounts of wine..

Ci ha invitati a casa sua per una spaghettata.
She’s invited us to her place for a spaghettata.

Whereas a traditional Italian meal would have pasta as a first course (primo), followed by a meat or fish secondo, the spaghettata is a meal unto itself.

Pasta is all that’s on the menu, and if you’re coming back for seconds or thirds, pasta is what you’ll get.

party spaghetti GIF by Isola dei Famosi

Because of its humble, cobbled-together nature, a typical spaghettata can be made with the kind of basic ingredients you might find in any Italian kitchen, such as garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes.

If you have Italian friends who are keen to show off their culinary skills, it can be a little more involved and they might want to show off a local or family recipe. In these cases, it can become more like a dinner party – but with multiple helpings of pasta, instead of multiple courses.

You can also expect to see regional or city-based variations on the spaghetti dishes involved. In Bari, for example, you might be invited to someone’s house so they can show off their recipe for spaghetti allassassina: lightly scorched, toasted spaghetti with tomato sauce.

One of the best things about the spaghettata, though, is the lack of rules; the meal’s improvisational origins mean really anything goes, provided you can source it at the last minute or dig it out of your pantry to feed a hungry crowd.

A meal also doesn’t need to be put on at any particular time of day to be a spaghettata: it might be a lunchtime affair, or it might happen on those long, lazy summer evenings and nights – in which case it becomes a spaghettata di mezzanotte (‘midnight spaghettata‘).

Facciamo una bella spaghettata di mezzanotte!
Let’s have a nice late night spaghettata!

While you’d normally have your spaghettata in the company of others, it can occasionally be used to describe a dish you whip up for yourself at the last minute – particularly if you come home after a night out and suddenly realise you’re a bit peckish.

Oddly enough, spaghettata di gelato (‘ice cream spaghettata’) is what Italians call the German dish spaghettieis.

That isn’t a meal consisting entirely of gelato (if only…), but a dessert deliberately designed to look like a plate of pasta, with vanilla ice cream ‘spaghetti’ and red or green ‘sauces’ made of things like berries or pistachio.

Celebration Will GIF

You might think that given how alert Italians often are to the desecration of their culinary traditions, this would have sparked some discontent – but the dish appears to be quite popular in Italy, with numerous Italian websites offering recipes for the dessert (often simply known as spaghetti di gelato).

Maybe it’s that no one can resist a little novelty ice cream – or maybe the laid back associations of the spaghettata simply encourage everyone to be a bit more scialla.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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