Cultural Differences: Italian Linguistic Diversity


Many people do not know how culturally diverse Italy actually is. By that, I do not mean that there cultures from all around the world living there in large numbers, but rather than Italian culture itself is a misnomer. It has only been 150 years since the country was unified, and the differences between the different regions are still staggering. Even when it comes to food, there is not a single dish that is native to the entire country, not even the most globally famous like pasta or pizza. This cultural diversity is most evident in the various languages, dialects and sub-dialects spoken to this day, which have been studied and put together in this language map.

 

While this map is in Italian, you can see from a mere glance that there are so many different languages and dialects spoken that they had to repeat color palates and add labels simply to represent them all. Not only do you have the various regional dialects, some of which on their own reasonably qualify as completely separate languages (Sardinian, for instance, is said by many to be closer to Catalan than it is to Italian), but you also see a big pink chunk of German, spots of orange Slovenian, yellow Occitan, pale yellow Croatian and red Albanian scattered throughout the country. For a country of its size, the language variation is impressive.

This map partially represents why Italy is a country so divided, despite its political unification 150 years ago. A person from Sicily can seem as foreign to a Venetian as a person from a completely different country, and often that can also bring with it hostility, wariness, or simple frank curiosity. This also means that, when visiting Italy, there is no one place you can go to “truly experience Italy”, because there is no such thing as a unique Italian experience. Venice is a completely different world from Trentino, from Tuscany, from Rome, from Puglia, or Sicily. I was just as much a tourist in Taormina as I was in Barcellona, because political unity means nothing in the face of culture.

I tell you this partially because I find it interesting, but also to visually represent the complexity of Italian culture. While I love to give people holiday tips and travel advice, know that I can be as completely ignorant of parts of my own country as anyone else who has never visited it. On the other hand, I kind of like being able to be a tourist in my own country, and I hope to have the opportunity to visit more of it.

Right now, Puglia is on the top of my list of priorities. But that’s only because I’ve already visited Sicily, and it was glorious.

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Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I’m guessing all Italian kids have to learn the Standard Dialect/Language in school? Is there a class component to the spoken language? Growing up in Northern England, people who aspired to the middle class tended to speak more like Southerners. Of course, by then (sixties) the dialects (as opposed to accents*) could only be found in the countryside, apart from a few local phrases.

    *Raising the question; when does a dialect converge enough with the Standardized language to become a mere accent?

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Your question about accents and dialects is one that addresses also your first question. So, this will get a little complicated in Italian history.
      Usually, when we speak of accents, we speak of an original starting language, and then a progressive diversion from that language which, if the populations are isolated enough from one another, can evolve into a different dialect, and eventually a different language. The evolution analogy is particularly apt, because one sees a similar thing in the evolution of organisms: what qualifies as mere genetic variability within a species, or a different race/strain/breed, or a different species? Despite what they taught you in high school biology class, that question is actually not clear cut in biology, either.
      Getting back to Italian: as a country divided for so long, there was never originally one initial Italian language from which the other dialects sprung, but rather one of the Tuscan dialects was chosen as the new Italian standard when Italy was unified, because it was the Italian of Dante. That is the one taught in schools, but it is almost never spoken at home in regions far from Tuscany. For example, when I visited a friend of mine in a town in Veneto, her parents would not speak to me in “Italian”, but rather they spoke to her in dialect and she translated for me. This is because they were not academic, and thus they had not spoken official Italian since they were in school decades ago, and so they were embarrassed to try, the way that some people are embarrassed to speak to a French person in French when they haven’t spoken it since their school days 40-odd years previously. This history of Italian dialects is the reason why that map looks the way it does. They have qualified subdialects of one dialect, which is represented by the color palates, but it is not historically accurate to classify them as accents spreading out from what is now official Italian, as it was so arbitrarily chosen.
      As to where to draw the line between an accent, a subdialect, a dialect, and a language? This I cannot answer, as this is not my area of expertise. My expertise is in biology, and even there explaining the difference between genetic variability, a strain, a race, a breed, and a species would take hours and much heated debate. The evolution of language is fascinating, and the way that the Italian dialects have sprung up and mixed with other influences based on the history of the region has taken many years of research to unpack. What I can tell you is that the map is not exaggerating the differences between the dialects. I, as an official Italian speaker raised in an area with a very similar subdialect, have an easier time understanding Spanish than I do Neopolitan, Sardinian, or Venetian. As a biologist, I want to see an algorithm that can process languages and spit out a cladogram of them all!

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I forgot to answer the class component question: yes and no. Italian is a complicated language grammatically, so speaking Italian correctly is a sign of being well educated. However, there are many aristocratic families that speak dialect in the home. As far as education and reading books is a sign of class then yes, there is a class component, but not the way that it is in England, as there were aristocrats from many different regions who spoke many different dialects. To that effect, there is also a lot of fancy Italian literature that is written in dialect. It was a regional thing, not a peasant thing.

  2. grahamjones says

    The Reith lecture I heard this morning seems relevant. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07zz5mf)

    “….illustrating his argument through the life story of the writer who took the pen name Italo Svevo – meaning literally Italian Swabian. He was born a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became a citizen of the new republic of Italy, all without leaving his home city of Trieste. ”

    I read Confessions of Zeno ages ago.

    And people do use algorithms like phylogenetic analysis for language. I work on phylogenetic analysis, currently on introgression…

  3. Ivo says

    I love this map. I had never before seen the full complex picture, although I have encountered many of these languages and dialects during my travels throughout Italy. (I still remember my astonishment when running into Albanese-Italian bilingual street signs in Calabria.)

    I myself am an Italian native speaker who grew up outside of this map, namely, in the “Republic and Canton of Ticino”: that’s the dark-grey triangle of Switzerland at the top of the map poking down into Italy and pointing towards Milan. Until the age of four I only spoke “dialect” (which according to the map should corresponds to Alpine Lombard, Lo4), because that’s what my parents spoke at home and with their families. Once in kindergarten I quickly switched to standard Italian as it was predominant in my town.

    In my region, in fact, “dialect” is rapidly being replaced by standard Italian, which is the only official language. Indeed until the generation of my parents, our dialect was still widely perceived as being a lowly tongue used by semi-illiterate people from the mountains, appropriate for use at home and at the pub but to be avoided in more civilised contexts. When I was a child, my family’s older people used to speak to me in (pretty flawless) Italian, but slipping in some dialect words for convenience and repeatedly apologising for their poor grasp of proper Italian! Nowadays there is a more protective attitude towards our tongue, but it is perhaps too late to save it.

    I second Crys: I understand Spanish (which I’ve never studied!) much better than I do Napolitan, Sicilian, Ligurian, Sardinian… Quite recently I was surprised to learn that my dialect can be utterly incomprehensible even to people from Milan. To be clear: we’re talking about the difference between the two shades of green of Lo4 and Lo1! Equally fascinating, the continuum of my dialect varies quite sharply with the territory, with some versions from the upper valleys sounding more like German or French than anything resembling Italian. Not so surprising, since (some sort of) German, French or Ladin are spoken in adjacent valleys. As family legend wants it, when I was little and my cousin from Geneva was visiting, we would communicate without too much trouble each using our own tongue, she French and I dialect.

    Here’s a fun comparison:

    “Al giorno d’oggi, non ce più abbastanza gente che parli ancora dialetto” (Italian)
    “Al dì d’incöö, a g’è mia asee gent che i parla amò dialètt” (Lombard, my variant and my spelling)
    “Aujourd’hui, il n’y pas assez de monde qui parle encore dialect” (French)

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