Dialects in Italy are not just regionally distinctive pronunciations of Italian. They are the popular speech of many for whom speaking the literary language as taught in school is a terrible struggle. Yet no inferiority should be imputed. Dialects have their own verb forms and vocabularies. Many have their own theatrical tradition, their own poets, and—most conspicuously—their own songs. Many Piedmontese leaders of newly united Italy, including the king, had to learn Italian as a foreign language.
   As the Romans colonized the Italian peninsula, they met Etruscans, Ligurians, Oscans, Illyrians, Phoenicians, and Greeks. (Magna Grecia included Greek colonies in the river valleys of the Italian south, leaving a clear impact on local culture, including speech.) Not surprisingly, the pronunciation of the Latin learned by these people varied significantly. After the collapse of Roman unity and the Germanic, Norman, and Arab invasions between the fifth and ninth centuries, the absence of a political center exacerbated the differences between North and South and further slowed the acceptance of a common speech.
   By the Middle Ages a gulf separated the use of Latin as a written language and neo-Latin vernaculars, which, while initially only spoken, came to be written as well between the 11th and 13th centuries. Conceiving all dialects of the Romance languages as derived from Latin helps one see how in Italy (as in France, Portugal, and Spain), one powerful or wealthy region was able to ensure the widened use of its particular Latin dialect. Thus, Castilian became the dialect that the rest of centralized Spain had to accept as the standard, just as Parisian became the standard for unitary France and Tuscan the Italian literary language, for this was the language of Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch in the region whose wealth derived from having invented banking and being the major insurer of European trade with the Near and Far East.
   In 1945, 50 percent of Italians spoke only a dialect. Before the advent of television, increased school attendance, and the leveling effect on language of commercial films, most Italians found communication between people from differing regions as difficult as between people from separate countries. A Neapolitan and a Milanese can now converse in Italian; 50 years ago, unless they shared a knowledge of French, Latin, or another language, comprehension was difficult.
   The vigor of dialects continues at the end of the 20th century, especially in remote areas and among older generations. Spontaneity and intimacy are easiest in the dialect used in the home, among friends, and in the family, and it clearly distinguishes outsiders from those who “belong.” Indeed, one’s identity seems to depend on ties to territory in the form of ties “to the parish, the club, the neighborhood, the dialect.” The global economy may require the loosening of such ties, but the price to be paid has yet to be calculated. Dialectologists distinguish Gallo-Italic dialects (Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, Emilian-Romagnol) from Venetian (Venetian, Trentino). In central Italy there are several Tuscan and central dialects (Umbrian, Marchigian, Roman) and southern dialects (Campanian, Abruzzese, Molisan, Calabrese, Pulian, Lucanian, and Sicilian). To these must be added the Ladino dialect spoken in Friuli (called Friulano in Italian or—in dialect—Furlans). Sardinian is closely related to Catalan, the dialect that Francisco Franco tried for decades to stamp out in Spain.
   See also Minorities.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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