Languages of Italy: Northern and Central-Southern dialects

With an official language spoken by 60 million people, in Italy there are thirty-four native living languages and dialects, which are an evolution from the Vulgar Latin, and for this classified as Romance languages. As a matter of fact, while Italian language is used for law, business and education, many people still use their regional dialects in everyday conversations, usually at home between relatives, in urban neighbourhoods and villages. So, Italian language can be different from region to region.

  1. Geographical distinction

There are two major groups of Italian dialects, considering the Sardinian entirely another language. These two groups are separated by the Spezia-Rimini line, for the two cities from which it passes. This line follows for the most part the border between Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, cutting into Marche. Above the line there are the Northern dialects; below it, the Central-Southern dialects.


The Northern dialects in turn are divided into two main groups. The Gallo-Italic group, including the regions of Liguria, Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, as well as part of Trentino Alto-Adige. It is named for the Gauls which once inhabited this part of Italy, and who, it seems, left traces of their Celtic speech in the modern dialects. The other main group is the Venetic one, whose borders pretty much coincide with Veneto region.


The Central-Meridional dialects are divided into four groups. The Tuscan group corresponds to Tuscany region. The second group includes Latin-Umbrian-Marchegian dialects, which occupy the northern half of Lazio (including Rome), most of Umbria and some of the Marche. These two are also sometimes grouped together as the Central dialects. Then there are the Meridional dialects, of two major types. The Intermediate Meridional dialects occupy the bottom half of the peninsula, including the regions of southern Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Basilicata, and parts of Apulia. The tips of Calabria and Apulia, however, together with Sicily, delineate the Extreme Meridional dialects.

Within the political boundaries of Italy there are two other Romance languages. Ladino is spoken in the extreme north-east of Italy; a Friulian type in Friuli, and a Dolomitic type in the Dolomite mountains. Sardinian, spoken on the island of Sardinia, is divided into Logudorese-Campidanese and Sassarese-Gallurese.

Italian Dialects are also spoken outside of the political boundaries of Italy. The Istrian dialects are restricted to the southwestern portion of the peninsula of Istria in modern day Croatia. These, together with the Venetic dialects spoken just in the north, are of the Northern type. Corsican, on the French island of Corsica, belongs to the Central-Meridional group.


  1. Characteristics of the six most popular Italian dialects

Here are the six most popular Italian dialects:


  1. Milanese

Milanese is not actually classified as a form of Italian. Rather, it’s a dialect of the Gallo-Italic sub-group that is closely related to French and German. Similar to French and German, Milanese uses two additional vowels “ö” and “y” and subject pronouns are doubled in the second and third person. For example, the standard Italian phrase “Tu non sei” (You are not) is pronounced “ti te seet no” in Milanese. As in German and French, the front vowels ö and ü are present: fök (fuoco), kör (cuore), brüt (brutto).


  1. Venetian

Spoken in Venice and the surrounding areas by over two million people, Venetian derives from Latin and Greek. This Italian dialect is used mostly in informal contexts. One example of how it differs from standard Italian is that in Venetian the word “Farmacia” (pharmacy) is replaced with “Apoteca”. It falls under a different sub-group: the Venetic. Unlike Milanese, Venetian does not have the “gallic” vowels ö and ü and in this respect bears some resemblances to the Tuscan dialects. The verb xe serves in the third person for the standard è (is), and sono (are). Double consonants are to some extent singularized in Venetian: el galo (il gallo), el leto (il letto); note also the use of the masculine article el (il).


  1. Florentine

Florentine is the most standard Italian dialect. It uses nicknames of words: for example, the standard Italian word, “Formaggio” (cheese) is pronounced “Cacio” in Florentine. The Tuscan dialects, including Florentine, are the most conservative of the Italian dialects. An example of its conservatism is seen in the retention of the consonant cluster –nd– as in quando; in most dialects, this cluster is leveled to –nn-, e.g. quanno. This feature is also true of modern standard Italian, which is based on the literary Florentine that Dante and Petrarch wrote in. Nevertheless, there are some local peculiarities that differentiate Florentine from Standard Italian. The most striking is the so-called “gorgia Toscana”, the throaty aspiration of stops that is thought to have a root in Etruscan phonology. The gorgia has a sound like the Greek chi or German ch, similar to a raspy English h. Thus, we hear chasa for casa (house), ficho for fico (fig); a similar aspiration also occurs before medial t: andatho or andaho (andato), datho or daho (dato).


  1. Romanesco

In Romanesco, there are several deviations from standard Italian. For example, “il” turns into “er” and “gli” or “i” turns into “li”. What’s more, the letter “j” is pronounced as “i”, whereas in the other Italian dialects it’s not. Typically, the letter “j” will appear in between two vowels or at the beginning of a word followed by a vowel. Besides, there are some few deviations from standard Italian. Firstly, –nd– is commonly leveled to –nn-: thus, quanno (quando), monno (mondo).


  1. Neapolitan

In Neapolitan, a lot of vowels and endings are dropped. For example, the standard Italian “Piove” is written as “Chiove” in Neapolitan and “Ci vediamo dopo” is written as “Ce verimm’ aròppo”. Also, many traditional Italian songs are written in this dialect, including the popular song “O sole mio”.


  1. Sicilian

Sicilians talk with such a thick accent that people often mistake the dialect as a completely different foreign language! Sicilian doesn’t derive from standard Italian. Rather it has linguistic elements from Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, Spanish, and more. What’s unique about this Italian dialect is that plural endings of nouns end in “i”, no matter what the gender.

Italy wasn’t unified until 1861, which is part of the reason why its dialectical variations are so strong. As such, there’s a lot of discussion about whether Italian “dialects” are really dialects of Italian, or if they should be classified as an entirely separate language.

By Ilaria Cuppone


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