The Italian language is a young language that fully developed from the Tuscan dialect after the unification of Italy in 1861. Its origins go back to the second millennium BC when the Latins settled in the region of Lazio. They founded Rome and became known as the “Romans.” The Romans were able to conquer contiguous territories throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle Est. Thereby, they spread the Latin language to the populations they subjugated under the Roman Empire. For this reason, Latin became the sole language for most of the European population. However in time, the latin language, especially the spoken language, underwent several changes because of external influences. For example, northern Italy was very much influenced by the Celts, while the south was influenced by the Greeks.
When the Roman Empire ended in 476 AD Latin began to change even more. In fact, until the early Middle Ages, spoken Latin was only used by the intellectual class and the rest of the population didn’t know it. They used only the local spoken version. At this time the modern Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Romanian and Italian, originated. Of all the major Romance Languages, Italian retained the closest resemblance to Latin but in time it broke down into many different dialects that became known as “vulgar”.
Our dialects are therefore the “grandparents” of modern Italian: more specifically, the Florentine dialect, gave birth to the “lingua italiana.” This is due to several economical and geographical reasons, not to mention that Florence happened to be the cradle of Italian literature, home to important writers such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. Because of this, the Florentine dialect started to became more known than the others.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the language spoken by educated Tuscans spread far enough to become the language of the new nation. The unification of Italy in 1861 had a profound impact not only on the political scene, but also caused a significant social, economical, and cultural transformation. With mandatory schooling, the literacy rate increased, and many speakers abandoned their native dialects in favor of the national language. Before unification, about 78% of the population was illiterate. The majority of the people communicated in their respective dialects, while only 3% of Italians spoke standard Italian.
Soon after World War II, in spite of the increasing availability of radio, television, newspapers, and the increasing level of education, only a third of the citizens spoke Italian, while the other two-thirds still continued to use their respective dialects. Today, Italy has reached linguistic unity and the overwhelming majority of its population speaks Italian. Dialects still remain alive and in some regions they are spoken at home, especially by older generations. Even those who speak the Italian language have a different accent, depending on their geographic origin. In fact, when Italians speak amongst themselves, in general they are able to understand which part of the country the other person comes from, according to their accent. Italians in the north, center, and south have a different pronunciation, and in addition, the vocabulary used could change from one region to another. These differences have been caused by the numerous invasions and occupations that occurred through the years. However, in modern society, these regional variations normally don’t represent a communication barrier among Italians. Today, the Italian language is spoken by more than 90% of the population that lives in Italy, and is among one of the most studied foreign languages in the world.
UNESCO brought to our attention that approximately 6,000 dialects are at risk of extinction worldwide. In Italy, the well-known Sicilian, Sardinian, and Neapolitan dialects are at risk, along with numerous other lesser-known local dialects. Dialects are part of the cultural heritage of mankind. Experts from the UN’s cultural agency, pointed out that numerous indigenous languages, bearers of ancient knowledge, could soon disappear. In order to protect them, UNSECO has created an interactive atlas with information on endangered dialect types, their geographic area of origin, and the number of their native speakers.
We are all very focused on the history and all that connects us to our origins and ancestry so let’s give the dialects their recognition and consider them part of our historical culture.
I’m from Ancona, in the Marche region, and in the local dialect I would say “spero un bel pò che stà lettura vè piaciuta” (“spero molto che questa lettura vi sia piaciuta” in Italian), I really hope you enjoyed this reading.