Italy, as we know it today, became a united republic in 1861. At that time, the government adopted an official language for the new country: the Tuscan dialect, which had been used by the fathers of Italian literature (Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio and Petrarca). However, this doesn’t mean that the old dialects disappeared. In fact, quite the opposite. Recent studies reveal that 60% of Italians still use their own dialect, especially with family and friends. In some regions, like Sicily, Veneto, or Campania, the use of the dialect is actually more widespread than modern Italian, although both are used and understood to varying degrees.
How does this work? All Italian dialects have Latin as a common root, however, there can be significant differences between them, as in cocomero and anguria, which are two very different words for watermelon. These differences occur not only from one region to the other, but often from one city to the other. For example, a person from Rome has a different accent and jargon than someone just an hour’s train ride away in Naples. The bigger the distance between regions, the bigger the difference between their dialects and, often, the dialects absorb similarities to languages of nearby countries.
The word bouquet in the northern region of Piemonte, for example, is buchet, reflecting the proximity to France — and thus the French term bouquet — on the other side of the Alps. Calabria, at the opposite end of the peninsula, uses words that come from old Greek, like simitu for “border” from the Greek sématon, or catu for “bucket” from the Greek word kàdos (the words “border” and “bucket” in modern Italian are frontiera and secchio, respectively, to give you an idea of the difference).
Education, income and geography all influenced how Italians wrote or spoke, let alone understood, proper Italian. Surprisingly, it was television that helped standardize the language to become what you read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, not to mention what you see and hear on small and large screens alike. This is good news to foreign companies looking to enter the Italian market. However, standard Italian is now far from the Tuscan dialect of Dante, and different still from the accents you will hear on the streets of Rome, Milan or Florence.
And while no dialect is better than the other, nor is TV Italian the equivalent of an Oxford English, in practice Italy is — sadly — not immune to the laws of classism. Some accents, often from the more prosperous North, are perceived as more ‘Italian’ that the rest. But all in all, diversity is a beautiful thing.