What makes someone Italian? Language, not birthplace, say most Italians

National identity can be a fluid thing, so what does it take to be considered as an Italian? A new survey shows that most Italians think knowing the language is important, but birthplace isn't.

What makes someone Italian? Language, not birthplace, say most Italians
Sorry, facepaint and a hat in the colours of the flag aren't quite enough to be considered 'truly Italian'. Photo: Nicolas Ducat/AFP

The study, published on Wednesday by Pew Research Centre, asked Italians which factors were “important for being truly Italian”.

Less than half of Italians – 42 percent – said that being born in Italy was “very important” to national identity.

However, this was still one of the highest figures among the 14 countries surveyed. In Europe, only Hungarians and Greeks – two countries which, like Italy, have borne the brunt of the ongoing migrant crisis – were more likely to say birthplace was an important factor in national identity, at 52 and 50 percent respectively. Fifty percent of respondents in Japan gave the same answer.

In Sweden, just eight percent agreed, and in Germany, Australia and the Netherlands the figure was below 20 percent as well.

The survey was conducted between April and May of last year with more than 14,000 respondents across 14 countries.

So what emerged as the key factor in becoming Italian? Luckily, it's something anyone can achieve: learning the language.

“Language far and away is seen as the most critical to national identity,” Pew researchers noted. The study showed that it was considered the most crucial factor in every single country surveyed.

Almost six in ten Italians agreed (59 percent), though this was the lowest score of any country, joint with Canada.

That compared to 84 percent in the Netherlands, 81 percent in Hungary and the UK, and 79 percent in Germany. 

Half of Italians thought that sharing national culture and traditions was a key factor, placing Italy in the middle of the pack. Hungarians prioritized national customs the most, with 68 percent labelling them a very important determiner of national identity, compared to just 26 percent of Swedes.

Prioritizing cultural traditions was linked to political allegiance. In Italy, supporters of the far-right Northern League were more likely to agree that following national traditions was important for being Italian, following a Europe-wide trend that those on the political right found this to be important.

The survey also looked at whether religion had any bearing on national identity. Overall, the majority of people disagreed, with Greece the only country where more than half held this view.

In Italy, 30 percent said that being Catholic was key to being Italian, but a strong generational divide emerged. That figure rose to 40 percent among the over-50's – the most of any demographic other than Greek over-50's.

READ MORE: Twelve signs you've cracked the Italian language

Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr/The Local

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

From making sense of Italian grammar to understanding what's seen as 'authentic' Italian food, our weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

*If you signed up for La Bella Vita newsletter but did not receive it this week please email [email protected]

Everyone in Italy is talking about Italian food this week. Not unusual, I know. But this time, it’s mainly because the government has announced plans to put Italian food forward for Unesco intangible cultural heritage status. This led many people to ask exactly which dishes would be included in the bid – and how exactly do you define ‘Italian food’, anyway?

One highly influential and controversial contribution to this debate came in the form of an interview published in the Financial Times with Italian food historian Alberto Grandi, who “has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food”. In it, Grandi made bold claims including that panettone and tiramisù were postwar inventions which relied on industrial processes or ingredients; carbonara is more American than Italian; and pizza was unknown in most parts of Italy before the 1970s.

It’s safe to say these ideas didn’t go down well at all with most Italians. In the below article, reporter Silvia Marchetti explains why the interview caused such a big public outcry and why she believes such claims ignore “millennia of rich food heritage”.

Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

Whatever you think of Grandi’s argument that the popular idea of Italian cuisine today is based chiefly on postwar advertising and political propaganda, there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on: there really are an awful lot of misconceptions out there about what constitutes traditional or authentic Italian cuisine.

Here are a few such ideas that you’ve probably encountered, and a look at why they can be safely discarded:

Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

Neapolitan pizza. Is there any truth to claims that pizza was unknown in most of Italy until the 1970s? Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

And if you’re in Italy at the moment, have you noticed that things feel a little different lately?

Not only are the days brighter, but once the temperatures rise over 15C towns and cities seem to burst back to life after being (slightly) quieter over winter. Aperitivo hour moves outside, there are more motorini zipping up and down the streets, and there’s a spring-cleaning frenzy as homes are cleaned from top to bottom and wardrobes overhauled in preparation for la bella stagione.

Here are some of the sure-fire signs that spring has arrived in Italy:

Eight signs that spring has arrived in Italy

Easter is coming up and it is of course a very important celebration in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, marked across the country by countless processions and events, plenty of good food, and hopefully some good weather too. Here’s a rundown of everything to expect during an Italian Easter:

The essential guide to Easter in Italy

One thing that makes Italian such a beautiful – and complicated – language is the large number of different suffixes which tack on to the ending of words and change their meaning. A common type is the diminutive suffix, which is the type of word ending that makes a thing smaller, or maybe cuter (think gattino, libricino, or fiorellino).

But as pretty as they sound, these endings don’t always seem to have much logic behind them. Here’s what you need to know about ‘shrinking’ Italian words.

Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

Remember if you’d like to have this weekly newsletter sent straight to your inbox you can sign up for it via Newsletter preferences in “My Account”.

Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]