Language and Dialect

Italy is known as one of the richest countries in the world in terms of its many dialects.  Unified for only 150 years, Italy has been a crossroads of different peoples and cultures throughout its history.  Every region has its own unique dialect that differs from standard (Florentine) Italian in sounds and spelling, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect?  There is not one universally accepted definition.  Popular usage suggests that languages are written, standardized, and have a literature, while dialects are oral, do not have codified rules, and do not have a literature.  There are several objections to this distinction.  First, there is oral literature; the Iliad and the Odyssey probably originated as memorized poems.  Second, the term “dialect” in this context suggests that it is less sophisticated.  Yet there are dialects that are more grammatically complicated than languages.

There is a famous aphorism by Max Weinrich, a Yiddish linguist, who said, “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”  This suggests social and political distinctions.  Hong Kong claims that Chinese (Mandarin) and English are its official languages.  Cantonese, which is widely spoken there, is considered a dialect.  Linguists use the distinction of “mutual intelligibility.”  If you can understand speech without training, it’s a dialect of your own language.  If you can’t, it’s a distinct language.  In other words, if two kinds of speech are close enough so that speakers of each can have a conversation and understand each other, they are dialects of a single language.  By this criterion, Cantonese is a language as Mandarin speakers cannot understand it.  Yet speakers of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian can converse, each in their native tongues, without taking lessons.  Hence, these “languages” look more like dialects of one “language.”  But because they are spoken in distinct nations, they are called languages.

Let’s return to Italy where dialects are mostly spoken in villages and rural areas today.  They are more vibrant in certain regions, like the Veneto and Southern Italy.  Some regions, such as Sardinia and Friuli, have established their local dialects as an official language.  The farther you travel from Florence, the home of standard Italian, the more the dialect varies.  In the Roman dialect, for example, the definite article “il” becomes “er” and the articulated pronoun “in + il = nel” becomes “ner.”  While in standard Italian, most words end in a vowel, in Molise, these vowels are dropped.  In the Calabrese dialect, “o” becomes “u.”  In both many words are unrecognizable to the uninitiated.

Dialects have important uses in these regions.  They are used to express feelings.  And they are used in certain contexts.  For example, a person who orders coffee at a local bar or greets a friend on the street would appear cold if he used standard Italian.  If someone receives a telephone call in the presence of others, he might avoid dialect to convey that he cannot speak openly.

For the most part, the Italian language derives from Latin but is also influenced by northern and southern European countries.  Sicily, on the other hand, was more influenced by Greek and Arabic; hence “boys” became not “ragazzi” (standard Italian) but “carusi” from the Greek “kouri.”

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One Response to Language and Dialect

  1. I’ve been learning Italian for the past year and, stupidly, forgot how I might struggle to make myself understood in Venezia when I had been taught standard Italian (specifically by a Fiorentina). At times I felt like I was in a different world to what I had been learning.

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