Tuesday, March 7, 2017


The Italian language -for the first time in History- has reached in Italy the level to be spoken by nearly 2/3 of the Italian population in 2016. In real numbers this means than more than 60% of Italians use the Italian language when communicating in their family. And the percentage is higher if related only to young people who are 15 or less years old.

It is noteworthy to pinpoint that just 3% of Italy's population could speak the Italian standardized language properly when the nation unified in 1861: if the growth keeps maintaining the same increases, it is possible that all the Italians (excluding those who are members of language minorities, like the Germans in Alto Adige) will speak only their national language in 2061 after two centuries of unification.

Indeed the ISTAT (Italy's Institute of official statistics) has released data showing that from 1995 to 2012, the share of people using the Italian language as their main language or in combination with the dialect has steadily increased in every context: in the family, with friends and when dealing with strangers. From 1995 to 2012 the prevailing use of Italian in the family increased by about 10 percentage points (from 43.2% in 1995 to 53.1% in 2012), by 10.3 percentage points the proportion of those who use Italian language with friends (from 46.1% to 56.4%), and by 13.4 percentage points the use with strangers (from 71.4% in 1995 to 84.8% in 2012).

The sole use of dialect, especially within the family, declined quite significantly over time: between 1995 and 2012 the percentage of those who spoke dialect only in their families decreased from 23.7% to 9%; from 16.4% to 9% when speaking with friends and from 6.3% to 1.8% when speaking with strangers.

In 2012, 91.3% of the population aged 18-74 claimed to be Italian native speakers; 3% had two native languages ​​(including Italian) and 5.8% were not Italian native speakers. As a consequence of the presence of immigrants and linguistic minorities within the resident population, the share of those who spoke a mother tongue other than Italian was 8.8%.

With reference to the type of other known languages, 43.7% of the population (aged 18-74 years) spoke English, while another share of people spoke French (21.7%), German (4.8%), Spanish (4.5 %) or other languages (2.1%). For 5.1% of people resident in Italy (aged 18-74), Italian was spoken as a foreign language and not as mother tongue: therefore, Italian came third in the ranking of foreign language known, after English and French.

Presence of dialects and foreign languages in Italy in 1937, according to Clemente Merlo ("Lingue e dialetti d'Italia", Milano 1937): Tuscans (green), southern Italians (pink), northern Italians (yellow), Corsicans & Sardinian-Corsicans (light brown), Sardinians (brown), Occitans (red), Provencals (orange), Ladins (dark green), Germans (blue), Slavs (beige), Greeks (violet), Albanians (crimson), Istrorumanians (light blue), Catalans (light orange)      

Actually the Italian language is increasingly substituting the local dialects in the regions of northwestern Italy (around the original Italy's industrial triangle: Milan-Turin-Genoa), where in the main cities already 90% (and sometimes more) of the young population less than 21 years old speaks only the language of Dante.

A research done by the "Statale di Milano" university in 2015 has found that all the "Milanesi" less than 15 years old (meaning: born in our actual century) speak only Italian and just 5% of them can speak also the local dialect (but not fluently like heir grandfathers).

Death of the Italian dialects?

It’s often said that the dialects of Italy will be dead in 30 years.

Indeed, the hard or pure dialects are dying, as they are all over Europe, in Sweden, France, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

The hard dialects are often spoken only by the old now, and many old words have fallen out of use. The hard dialects often had a limited vocabulary restricted to whatever economic activity was typical of the area. A lot of the old dialects are now being written down in local dictionaries to preserve their heritage.

The dialects were of course killed by universal education, and this was a positive thing. All Italians should learn to speak some form of Standard Italian. In the old days when everyone spoke dialect, people had a hard time communicating with each other unless there was some form of regional koine that they could speak and all understand. It doesn’t make sense if you can only talk to people in a 20 mile or less radius.

A diglossia where hard dialects would exist alongside Standard Italian was never going to work. People are pretty much going to speak one or the other. As people learn Standard Italian, their local dialect will tend to become more Italianized. In other cases, the hard local dialect will tend to resemble more the local regional dialect.

For instance, in southern Campania, the region of Naples, in a part called Southern Cilento, there are still some Sicilianized dialects spoken, remnants from Sicilian immigrants who came in the 1500’s. These dialects are now dying, and the speech of the young tends to resemble more the Neapolitan Cilento speech of the surrounding area more.

In other cases, koines have developed.

There is a regional koine in Piedmont that everyone understands. There is a similar koine in West and East Lombard, the Western one based on the speech of Ticino. There is a Standard Sicilian, spoken by everyone and understood by all, and then there are regional dialects, which, if spoken in hard form, may not be intelligible with surrounding regions. A koine has also developed in Abruzze around Pesaro. There is “TV Venetian,” the Venetian used in regional TV, a homogenized form that has speakers of local dialects worried it is going to take them out.

Even where hard dialects still exist, the younger people continue to speak the local dialect, except that it is now a lot more Italianized and regionalized. A lot of the old words are gone, but quite a few are still left. So the dialects are not necessarily dead or dying, instead they are just changing.

In the places where the dialects are the farthest gone such as Lazio and Tuscany, the regional dialects are turning into “accents” which can be understood by any Standard Italian speaker.

The situation in Tuscany is complicated. Although the hard dialects are definitely going out, even the hard dialects may be intelligible to Standard Italian speakers since Standard Italian itself was based on the dialect of Florence, a city in Tuscany.
Florence was chosen as the national dialect around 1800 when Italian leaders decided on a language for all of Italy. But the truth is that the language of Dante had always been an Italian koine extending far beyond its borders, just as the language of Paris had long been the de facto Standard French (and it still is as Parisien).

This is not to say that there are not dialects in Tuscany. Neapolitan speakers say they hear old men from the Florence region on TV and the dialect is so hard that they want subtitles. And there is the issue of which Florentine was chosen as Standard Italian. A commenter said that the language that was chosen was the language of Dante, sort of a dialect frozen in time in the 1400’s. In that case, regional Tuscan could well have moved far beyond that.

Even in areas where dialects are said to be badly gone such as Liguria, local accents still exist. It is said that everyone in Genoa speaks with a pretty hard Ligurian accent. That is, it is Standard Italian spoken with a Genoese accent.

However there are two areas of Italy were the local dialects are used by the majority of people even in 2016: southern Italy and Veneto/Friuli-Venezia Giulia. It is noteworthy to pinpoint that these areas are those were autonomist organizations (like "Liga Veneta") are strongest.

Percentage of use of dialects & foreign languages in the regions of Italy in 1984 (for 2014 -after 30 years- it is possible to additionally calculate an approximate 20% decrease: dark blue is more than 50%, blue is 20-50% and light blue is 0-20%)

In Veneto (and in the nearby Trentino and Venezia Giulia) the original dialect is considered a language: the "Venetian language". This fact is hampering in the "TriVeneto" -mainly since the 1980s- the process of growth that the language of Dante is experiencing in all the other regions of Italy.

However all modern Venetian speakers are "diglossic" (meaning: they speak 2 languages indifferently) with Italian. The present situation raises questions about the venetian language's medium term survival. Despite recent steps to recognize it, Venetian language (or dialect, as many use to say) remains far below the threshold of inter-generational transfer with younger generations preferring standard Italian in many situations. The dilemma is further complicated by the ongoing large-scale arrival of immigrants, who only speak or learn standard Italian.