Before Italy was unified as the country we all know (and love) today, it was made up of a bunch of autonomous domains, many of which maintain their cultural identity above any collective Italian identity to this day. You can see the result of this in your travels as you move from one region to another and, for instance, the cuisine changes completely. The loyalty to one’s region is so strong that if you try to tell someone from one region that their food is inferior to the neighboring region and you might have quite a battle on your hands!
Something you might have thought was the same throughout Italy, however, is the language. If someone asked you, “What language do they speak in Italy?” what would you say? If you answered “Italian,” you’d be mostly right. Yes, Italians throughout the country can speak Italian, but the language most of us know as “Italian” is actually a dialect. It all goes back to Dante.
To wit, from our friends at Wikipedia:
Italian was first formalized in the first years of the 14th century through the works of Dante Alighieri, who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan in his epic poems known collectively as the Commedia … . Dante’s much-loved works were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the “canonical standard” that others could all understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language.
As I always tell my Italian students when they become frustrated with some rule or exception to a rule, “Blame Dante.”
But I digress.
The point here is that what we all think of as the Italian language is really just a regional dialect, and people from regions other than Tuscany are quite likely to speak something other than Italian at home. It’s for this reason that people are unhappy with the Italian government’s recent decision to make Italian the official language of Italy. There’s a little bit more about the dialects here, too.
So, while all these years of Italian study aren’t a waste, if you’re in Italy long enough and get far enough away from the tourist sites, you’re likely to think you’ve crossed a border. And in some ways, you have.
Photo by: Johan Klovsjö