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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local ‘dialects’

Are the Italians around you speaking a completely different language? Why are local dialects often so far removed from modern Italian? Here's what you need to know.

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy's many local 'dialects'
A man wearing a t-shirt reading ''100% Venetian''. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

It's the problem italian language learners have faced for as long as anyone can remember. You've diligently studied your Italian grammar, and carefully practiced your phrases ahead of your first visit to Italy, only to realise upon arrival that the Italians around you seem to be speaking a different language entirely.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most common Italian language mistakes you should avoid

Italy's dialects are far more than just heavily-accented Italian. They seem like totally different languages because, in fact, that's exactly what they are.

It's not quite correct to call them “dialects”, which are actually variants on a standard language. These are different languages which evolved separately from Latin – or, in some cases, other languages.

And even when they switch to Italian, speakers of these dialects or languages often speak with a heavy accent, much to the dismay of anyone still getting to grips with with basic Italian. Even in a big city like Florence or Rome, Italian spoken in a thick local accent can be hard to decipher – even for native Italian speakers from other areas.

As the map below shows, every region and often province has its own local language. Some have more than one, and each town may also have a variation.

Many of these are part of language “families” and some are more closely related to Italian, or to Latin, than others.

The map below classifies them further and also shows how languages in different regions are connected.

Map: Antonio Ciccolella/Wikimedia Commons

This might look complicated, but anyone who lives in a small italian town will no doubt still be thinking that a more detailed map is needed, as there are actually many more, smaller variations within these categories.

Do people in Italy really still speak all of these dialects?

The language we call Standard Italian derives from 13th-century Florentine. Until then, there had been no written rules, and the languages of what is now Italy had mainly evolved by being spoken.

When Italy was unified in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the population could actually speak the Italian language. All spoke their regional languages. Now, that figure is in the high 90s, though around five percent still speak only or predominantly in their regional language.

 
While you might imagine that these dialects or languages are mainly used by older people and are slowly dying out, that's not usually the case. 
 
While they'll also speak standard Italian, you'll find young Italians proudly speaking their local lingo everywhere from central Naples to the valleys of South Tyrol.
 
Some are far more widely used than others. In fact the most widely spoken is Neapolitan, with over five million speakers today.
 
The least widely-used is Croato. This dialect is used by an ethnic minority from a region corresponding to present-day Croatia and is spoken in the southern region of Molise. Today it only around 1,000 speakers.
 
In the southernmost parts of Italy, such as Salento and Calabria, Griko dialects are thought to derive from ancient Greek.
 
Meanwhile, Sardinian is classified as an “endangered” language by Unesco,  Like Italian, Sardinian has roots in Latin – in fact, some linguists argue that, of all the modern Romance languages, Sardinian is the closest to Latin – but it also displays much older influences. Today, particularly younger people on the island speak a mix of both languages, a sort of “Sarditalian”.
 
For more details, here are our guides to getting started with some of Italy's regional languages:

 

Member comments

  1. Theoretical language practice (from books and stsndard tapes) never neatly equates with the practising of the language in, well – practice. I spent a year in Naples as a result of being offered a transfer from Florence. Little did I know what was in store linguistically. Fortunately most people I came into professional contact with spoke fairly standard Italian but for me to practise even standard Italian with a Neapolitan speaking the same language, but heavily accented, was a challenge almost too far when added to the responsibilities of the job I had to do. But this is a fascinating and additional delight in many ways. The maps above are probably eye openers to many of us and make Italy even more intriguing.

  2. Interesting in that it missed the ‘Bresciano’ dialect obviously from Brescia area. I do speak a bit of it with my relatives.

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ITALIAN WORD OF THE DAY

Italian expression of the day: ‘Qualcosa non torna’

Does this phrase add up to you?

Italian expression of the day: 'Qualcosa non torna'

Ever get the feeling that things aren’t quite right, that perhaps you’re missing something, that something fishy might be going on?

In Italian you can express that with the phrase qualcosa non torna (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-TORR-na’).

Qualcosa you’ll probably recognise as meaning ‘something’, and non of course here means ‘doesn’t’, so the slight wild card for anglophones is the verb torna.

That’s because tornare means ‘to return’ in most contexts – but it can also mean to balance, to add up.

Ho calcolato le spese, il conto torna.
I added up the costs, the bill checks out.

I conti dell’azienda tornano.
The company’s accounts add up.

The Math Seems To Check Out! GIF - The House Will Ferrell The Math Seems To Check Out GIFs

The word can also refer more nebulously to something sounding or feeling right – or not.

Secondo me c’è qualche parte del mio discorso che ancora non torna.
I think there are parts of my speech that still aren’t quite right.

And when something doesn’t torna – that’s when you know things are off. It’s the kind of expression you’re likely to hear in detective shows or true crime podcasts. 

Qualcosa non torna nel loro racconto.
Something about their story’s off.

C’è solo una cosa che non torna.
There’s just one thing that doesn’t add up.

It’s similar to how we can talk in English about someone’s account of an event not ‘squaring’ with the facts, and in fact you can also use that metaphor in Italian – qualcosa non quadra (‘qual-KOH-zah-non-QUAHD-ra’) – to mean the same thing as qualcosa non torna.

Trash Italiano Simona Ventura GIF - Trash Italiano Simona Ventura Qualcosa Non Quadra GIFs

You can adjust either phrase slightly to say ‘things don’t add up’, in the plural: this time you’ll want le cose instead of qualcosa, and to conjugate the tornare or the quadrare in their plural forms.

Ci sono molte cose che non tornano in quest’affare.
There are a lot of things about this affair that don’t add up.

Le loro storie non quadrano.
Their stories don’t square.

You can also add pronouns into the phrase to talk about something seeming off ‘to you’ or anyone else.

La sua storia ti torna?
Does his story add up to you?

C’è qualcosa in tutto questo che non mi torna.
There’s something about all this that doesn’t seem right to me.

alfonso qualcosa non mi torna GIF by Isola dei Famosi

The next time something strange is afoot, you’ll know just how to talk about it in Italian. Montalbano, move aside…

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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