The dialects of modern Italian all have their roots in the spoken form of Latin, called Vulgar, in use throughout the Roman Empire. In Roman times, the Italian peninsula had already witnessed an extraordinary linguistic diversity with inhabitants speaking Latin – the official language of the State – as well as Etrurian and Greek in some colonies. Throughout history, Italy has also been invaded by many peoples like German tribes and Normans from Central Europe in the Middle Ages, Arabs – especially in Sicily – Spaniards, French to name but a few. This led to the creation of a diverse mosaic of modes of speech that slowly developed on their own until they could almost be called separate languages. What’s fascinating is that many dialects are, in fact, unintelligible with each other.
Italy as we know it today was not born until 1861, when the Regno d’Italia was formed. Apparently, a unified country needed a unique language. This was not an easy task at all, since Italians had been speaking their local dialects for centuries. This process was long and time-consuming and compulsory education as well as the television had a massive role in helping people to “learn Italian” as they contributed to spreading the language across the peninsula. But people were still too attached to their local dialects, as they were their only “linguistic instrument”, the only linguistic reality they knew and what gave them a sense of identity, especially among their peers and in family contexts.
Many people wrongly believe that dialects are bad versions of standard Italian but that could not be further from the truth. They are real languages with their own grammar and stylistic peculiarities. Even if nowadays their vigour has decreased, almost every Italian still knows their regional dialect at least as a passive language, meaning that they understand it even if they are not able to speak it. My grandmother, for example, still speaks Sicilian to me even if I reply in Italian.
Thanks to my linguistic studies I get very excited every time I find a Sicilian word that I can trace back to a French, English, Spanish or Arabic equivalent. Did you know that the Sicilian word for umbrella is paracqua and that umbrellas in Spanish are called paraguas? Sicilians call work travaggliu. Doesn’t it remind you of the French travail? Another French word we use is “sit down” (assieds-toi) which becomes “assiettati”, or “go away” (va t’en) which becomes “vatinni”.
We could go on forever!