Sunday, March 6, 2022


Like some other European countries, during the first half of the XX century Italy occupied a number of territories around the world, though most of these colonies were located in Africa. In those where the Italian presence has been longer and more pervading, Italian language was still spoken (until the brginning of the XXI century) as a second language (e.g. in the Dodecanese, now part of Greece) or in a corrupt form (Simplified Italian of Ethiopia & Pidgin Italian of Eritrea and Somalia; for further information read this essay of Bernini:

The "Asmara Caffe" on Harnet Avenue of Asmara (Eritrea) is famous for Italian-style cappuccino and pastries. It has the italian word "caffe", that means 'coffee'

Nevertheless, given that many years have passed since Italy’s colonizing mission, today the number of speakers of Italian is steadily decreasing. However it is also noted that many loanwords still remain, phonetically adapted and incorporated in languages such as Libyan Arabic, Eritrean, Amharic, Oromo, Gawwada, Saho, Tigrinya and Somali (among others). The goal of this research is to give an overall view of the main of these languages and their "pidgins" linked to the italian language.

As we know, the Kingdom pf Italy -after the unification of Italy- started a process of colonization in Africa (and secundarily in China) that was able to create an empire when Ethiopia was conquered in 1936. So, in 1913, when Ethiopia had not yet been taken, Italy controlled about 4% of the total colonial areas occupied by Europeans. To give an idea of the Italian situation, just think that Great Britain - at the time the European power that held the primacy of colonized lands - at that time was in possession of 60% of the total. That means that the italian empire was the last of the european empires and its linguistic heritage was not huge, but noteworthy.

The colonies where more the italian was "loanworded" are Libya, Eritrea and Somalia. But there was also a relatively strong influence in Ethiopia. Also it is noteworthy to pinpoint that in Greece the italian was very important in the italian dodecanese islands (like Rodi) and also in Corfu (where there it is an historical venetian-speaking community since the Middle Ages: read

As has been observed, the effects of Italian colonization in the linguistic field have not yet been fully studied. Even the immense work done by Abdu (Abdu, Hussein Ramadan, “Italian loanwords in colloquial Libyan Arabic as spoken in the Tripoli region”) is incomplete: suffice it to note that it is based entirely on the dialect spoken in Tripoli (Libya), which will inevitably be different even only from that of Benghazi, without mentioning the Libyan hinterland. Not to mention the fact that studies of this type are still to come for Assab, Massawa, Addis Ababa and Mogadishu.

However, with the data collected with the few researches it is possible to try to draw some conclusions. First of all, it is confirmed that the linguistic history of the Dodecanese has followed paths that are quite different from that of Africa. In these small islands, Italian has been taught in a customary way and learned by the population, who in some cases still speak it (also for reasons of convenience due to tourism or personal pride).

On the African side, on the other hand, we distinguish the "pidgin" that came to be created in the "Horn of Africa", which has not been documented very well in more recent times and whose traces seem to have been lost, only to receive confirmation of its vivacity. An in-depth study should absolutely be devoted to this topic, by doing research directly on site and trying to interview as many native speakers as possible to gather new and updated data.

As for the borrowings in the languages of the former colonies, we have seen how many of the words - above all those relating to certain areas, such as mechanics, are almost identical. This is partly due to loans that have taken place over the years between the native language themselves, but also from the fact that these terms of Italian origin have found an "empty space" to fill. Also with regard to loans, an in-depth study is urgently needed for each language (as well as for those that remain excluded, primarily the Ethiopian "Tigre'"), which verifies the updating of the lists reported here and possibly expands them. We have noticed how in many cases Italian loanwords are productive and have led to the creation of new verbs and idioms: it could be interesting to deepen this aspect.

Of all the languages in the Italian empire, the one that would perhaps deserve more attention in the future is "Somali". Given the prolonged Italian presence (from before 1880 to 1960), which began with colonial rule, continued with the Italian trust administration first and then with university collaborations at the time of the regime, the Italian-Italian lexicon - especially in the technical-scientific field - is present with very recent loans, often created at the desk during the compilation of technical-scientific manuals, in the context of “Somalisation” campaigns of the specialized lexicon.

In short, there are still many traces of the Italian colonial experience in Africans and their languages.

Finally, it is important to remember that the italian language left some loanlords also in countries (not classified as "colony" because european) temporarily occupied by the kingdom of Italy, like Albania (that was united to Italy from 1939 to 1943) and Slovenia (the "Provincia di Lubiana" was a province of Italy from 1941 to 1943).

A pidgin: the simplified Italian of Ethiopia

During the entire period of Italian stay, the locals found themselves in the situation of having to communicate with the occupants in a typically colonial context. The Italian used was limited to the vehicular language of daily relations between servant and master, especially in the workplace (even if not alone. Certainly, however, the two interlocutors were always on two different levels, one subordinate to the other). This is, in fact, the typical context in which a pidgin is created.

The pidginized variety of a language is in fact formed when there is a reduced linguistic input provided by native speakers (the limited teaching of Italian to the population, in this case), when there is no shared language and the cultural and social distance between the speakers is considerable, but nevertheless there is a need to communicate. The lexical material available is re-analyzed and restructured in such a profound way that a pidgin may even no longer be understandable to the native speaker of L1 (or first used language, but this is not the case here), even if the language on which it is based it is usually easily identifiable and is defined lexicalizing language.

If a pidgin consolidates itself and is learned as a mother tongue by the new generation of speakers, then one can speak of Creole. In the case of the Horn of Africa, this seems to have happened for at least one generation, and then regressed. Judging from the literature, after having been used for a certain period even by non-Italians to communicate inter-ethnic contacts, this pidgin would seem to have disappeared today, given that it is no longer mentioned, but from other sources (like professor Andrea Tarantola) we learn that "the Italian pidgin is alive and variable in diachrony and synchrony".

Indeed it is noteworthy to pinpoint that this pidgin was very important in the capital of Ethiopia (for furter information read

The Phonology of the simplified Italian of Ethiopia is characterized by interference from Tigrinya and Amharic, the two Semitic languages spoken respectively in southern Eritrea and central-northern Ethiopia by the majority of the population

The following are possible percentages of the 1940 use of pidgin by the native population (of course togheter with their own language) in the italian colonies of Africa:

The following are possible percentages of the 1940 use of pidgin by the native population (together with their own language) in the italian colonies of Africa. The percentages have a five percent increase or reduction value, according to historian E. Aiello:


Colony............percentage of natives speaking Pidgin.............................only in the capital area

Eritrea................................64%................................................................95% (Asmara)

Libya..................................51%................................................................91% (Tripoli)

Somalia..............................42%................................................................84% (Mogadiscio)

Ethiopia..............................10%...............................................................26% (Addis Abeba)


The following are excerpts from the essays written by Bruno D'Ambrosio about the italian Pidgin created in Eritrea, Somalia and Libya and that were partially published on Wikipedia:

Eritrean Pidgin Italian

Eritrean Pidgin Italian (or Italian Eritrean, as is often called) was a pidgin language used in Italian Eritrea (and until the 1970s in the Asmara region) when Eritrea was a colony of Italy.

This pidgin started to be created at the end of the 19th century and was fully developed in the 1930s. It had similarities with the Mediterranean Lingua Franca. Michael Parkvall wrote that: "Indeed Lingua Franca also seems to have affected other languages. Eritrean Pidgin Italian, for instance, displayed some remarkable similarities with it, in particular the use of Italian participles as past or perfective markers. It seems reasonable to assume that these similarities have been transmitted through Italian "foreigner talk" stereotypes" (Mikael Parkvall. "Foreword to A Glossary of Lingua Franca". Editor Alan D. Corré. Milwaukee-United States, 2005).

In 1940 nearly all the local native population of Asmara (the capital of Eritrea) spoke the Eritrean Pidgin Italian when communicating with the Italian colonists. Until the late 1970s this pidgin was still in use by some native Eritreans, but currently it is considered extinguished (even if a few old Eritreans still understand it in Asmara).

About the Italian Eritrean Habte-Mariam wrote that: “[…] at the initial stage of their contact […] It seems likely that the Italians simplified the grammar of the language they used with underlings at this stage, but they did not borrow vocabulary and grammatical forms from Amharic and Tigrinya, since it does not show up in the 'simplified Italian' used today”. Habte wrote that it was used not only between native Eritreans and Italians, but also between different tribes in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The linguists G. Gilbert & Lionel Bender called this pidgin a "Simplified Italian of Eritrea" and wrote that:
"Simplified Italian of Eritrea" is definitely a pidgin; it is described by Habte as a “relatively variable form of Italian” (1976:179). Habte’s account of its sociolinguistic setting (1976: 170-4) and what we know of recent Eritrean history make it quite clear that it is not likely to become a creole, and in fact seems likely to die out within the next generation or two.

For them the Simplified Italian of Eritrea "has basic SVO order; unmarked form is used for nonspecific; stare and ce (from Italian) as locatives".

Finally it is noteworthy to pinpoint what wrote G. Montesano in his essay "La lingua italiana in Eritrea":

"The effect of Italian colonisation: unlike England, France, Spain and Portugal, Italy‟s colonial period lasted only a brief amount of time: a little less than seven decades. The influences brought about by Italian colonisation are particularly pronounced in Eritrea, where several linguistic phenomena occurred. In some cases, Italian words were grafted onto the local Tigrigna language in order to refer to modern creations; in others, a standardised form of Italian arose out of the multitudinous dialects spoken by Italian settlers from different regions" (read for further info:

Somali Pidgin Italian

The pidgin spoken in Italian Somalia was important in the capital Mogadiscio and in some minor cities (like in the Merca/Villabruzzi). For further information about "Mogadiscio italiana" read

The italian language was undertood by nearly all the native inhabitants of Mogadishu in 1941, while half of them was able to speak in Italian using the Somali Pidgin Italian.

During the United Nations Trusteeship period from 1949 until 1960, Italian along with Somali were used at an official level internally, whilst the UN's main working language of English was the language used during diplomatic, international and occasionally for economic correspondence. After 1960 independence, the Italian remained official for another nine years. Italian was later declared an official language again by the Transitional Federal Government along with English in 2004. But, in 2012, they were later removed by the establishments of the Provisional Constitution by the Federal Government of Somalia leaving Somali and Arabic as the only official languages.

Italian is a legacy of the Italian colonial period of Somalia when it was part of the Italian Empire. Italian -of course- was the mother tongue of the Italian settlers of Somalia.

The Somalian school system in the colonial era before World War II was in Italian language and limited mainly to primary schools and a few middle schools (like the "Scuola Regina Elena": see photo below, done in the late 1930s).
But in the capital Mogadishu of "Italian Somalia" there was an important high school: The "Lyceum De Bono" of Mogadishu. In this Lyceum was created in the early 1950s the "National Institute of Legal, Economic and Social Studies",,+Economic+and+Social+Studies+in+1954+mogadishu&source=bl&ots=mP42GvAq5x&sig=yOpgFHBoJy27ENMYV3us-68jnJ4&hl=it&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjOgafixZ_bAhUILKwKHc4RB3MQ6AEITTAF#v=onepage&q=National%20Institute%20of%20Legal%2C%20Economic%20and%20Social%20Studies%20in%201954%20mogadishu&f=false, as a post-secondary school in Italian language for pre-university studies in order to access the Italian universities.

Although it was the primary language since colonial rule, Italian continued to be used among the country's ruling elite even after 1960 independence when it continued to remain as an official language (Video showing Somalian natives talking fluently in Italian after the Somalia independence: It is estimated that more than 200,000 native Somalis (nearly 20% of the total population of former Somalia italiana) were fluent speaking Italian and/or Somali Pidgin Italian when independence was declared in 1960.

After a military coup in 1969, all foreign entities were nationalized by Siad Barre (who spoke Italian fluently), including Mogadishu's principal university, which was renamed 'Jaamacadda Ummadda Soomaliyeed' (Somali National University). This marked the initial decline of the use of Italian in Somalia.

However, Italian is still widely spoken by the elderly, the educated, and by the governmental officials of Somalia. Prior to the Somali civil war, Mogadishu still had an Italian-language school, but was later destroyed by the conflict.

Libyan Pidgin Italian

There was an italian Pidgin in the colony of Libya, that survived until the 1980s. Libyan Italian is a name given to the Italian language used by native population in the North African nation of Libya.

Indeed Italian is a legacy of Italian colonial period when Libya was part of Italian North Africa. Of course it was the language of the Italians who settled in Libya. In 1940 Italian Libya, nearly half the native Libyans were able to speak Italian, but in Tripoli – and in downtown Benghazi - nearly all of them were fluent in the Dante language.

Although it was the primary language since colonial rule, Italian greatly declined under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi who expelled nearly all the Italian colonists population (and Italian-educated Libyans who were opposed to Gaddafi’s rule). The Libyan dictator returned Arabic to be once again the sole official language of the country.

Nevertheless, Italian is still spoken and understood to some degree by mainly some old people. After the National Transitional Council (NTC) has been responsible for the transition of the administration of the governing of Libya, returning Libyan refugees from Italy or Switzerland and their children who speak Italian introduced the language again in Libya (but only in some limited cities like the capital Tripoli).

Under the colonial regime, Italian was the language of instruction in schools, but only a scattering of Muslim children attended these institutions. As a consequence, the Italian language did not take root in Libya to the extent that French did elsewhere in North Africa. Nevertheless, the strong wave of nationalism accompanying the 1969 revolution found expression in a campaign designed to elevate the status of the Arabic language. An order was issued requiring that all street signs, shop window notices, signboards, and traffic tickets be written in Arabic. This element of Arabization reached its apogee in 1973, when a decree was passed requiring that passports of persons seeking to enter the country contain the regular personal information in Arabic, a requirement that was strictly enforced. U.S. Library of Congress: Libya

After the 1990s, practically disappeared the use of Italian language in Libya.

Language characteristics: While phonology and intonation are affected by Arabic, Libyan Italian is mostly based on the standard European form. The Italian lexicon used in Libya contains many loanwords of Arabic origin, including Islamic terms. Also, Libyan Italian can be seem to resemble the form and structure of Creole based forms of European languages.

Actually some loanwords from the Italian language have been assimilated into the Libyan Arab language, according to Saul Hoffmann. The most important are in the following list: