The ‘Real’ Italian Language

ISDA Contributing Editor Tony Traficante breaks down the history of the mother tongue.

So You Want to Speak Italian!

“Which Italian?”

“Wadda ya mean which? The real Italian!”

“Well, now, which one is that?”

“The one they speak in Italy, but of course…”

Actually, there are a number of “real” Italian languages. For example, did you know the “dialect” you, your parents or grandparents may have spoken was real Italian… and still is! In fact, the so-called Italian “dialects” were the official languages of the separate Italian territories, before the unification. During the “Risorgimento” the “dialects” of the territories, became the “other” real Italian languages of an integrated Italy.

The Italian language originated long ago, and as far back as the 3rd century. It came from “Vulgar” Latin, the common (rather than the classical) version of Latin. Italian remains the closest language to Latin than any other language.

One of the first documents written in the vernacular Italian was a legal document called “Placate Cassinese.” Written about 960, it reads “Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini que ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti.” (I know that those lands, that here are registered, and everything that they contain, have been property of the Abbey of Saint Benedict for thirty years). It is a very famous document, still in existence, preserved and located in the Abbey of Montecasino.

The various dialects posed a significant challenge for the leaders of the unification of Italy. Even as the nation bound together geographically and politically, a united Italy lacked that singular element of a common language. So it was, that in 1861, Tuscan, the Florentine dialect, was chosen to be Italy’s national language. It seemed Tuscan was a logical choice, since Firenze, at the time, was the cultural and commercial center of the Italian peninsula — and Tuscan was the language of the famous Italian writers Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio.

But, it would be years before a universal Italian language would become part of the everyday public fabric. Not all Italians were keen to accept the “universal” language. Why? Because, Tuscan, essentially represented the language of the “literati” and it was mostly a written language. As a result, the regions continued using their local dialects.

Benito Mussolini, as some may believe, was not the “architect” of the universal Italian language. However, it was he who outlawed the use of dialects, in the public domain and forced the use of the standard Italian language. Mussolini, as head of the government, was said to have been embarrassed by the Italians of one region, who could not understand Italians of another. He, therefore, made it compulsory that all public schools, local, regional and central governments and media teach, accept and use only the standard Italian language.

Today, the majority of the Italian population speak the national “standard” language. However, many of the regional dialects continue in the home, among “paesani” and within the local towns.

There are about 20 different dialects





















Most are distinct and some are difficult to understand or recognized as Italian. There are linguists who consider some of the Italian dialects, to wit, “Furlan” in Friuli and “Sardu” of Sardinia as separate languages.

The Italian dialects may be slowly disappearing, at least among the younger generations. However, there will be those Italians, intensely proud of their origins, who will continue to use their dialect as long as there are others to share it. “Per loro…” for them the Italian dialects “sarà sempre la madrelingua.” They will always be the mother tongue.


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