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Italian became the official language of Italy after the unification of the country in 1861. However, (the plot thickens), the country is home to dozens of languages or dialects. The subject is debatable, really, since linguists argue that some dialects are in fact languages. All these regional dialects or languages evolved from Latin, and not Italian, hence the doubt. Kind of reminds us of the story of the Tower of Babel, doesn’t it? In an effort to understand this debate a little, bellow there is a short explanation of the 6 most well-known dialects and languages of Italy.
Tuscan and Florentine
Standard Italian, the language most spoken in the country and taught in schools originated from the language spoken in Florence, in the region of Tuscany. This has happened because of great authors, such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, who used this language to write their masterpieces. According to ISTAT, 45.9% of Italians speak standard Italian at home, and around 32% use both Italian and a dialect, only 14% use only an Italian dialect.
Lombard and Milanese
Lombard is considered by some linguists to be a language. It is spoken in the region of Lombardy, in the north of Italy, and in Switzerland, but you may not hear it in the big cities, like Milan, as it is primarily spoken regionally and in smaller towns, by the elderly. You will be able to tell it is a northern accent because of its distinct pronunciation of the letter ‘Z’, instead of an ‘S’ (cosa, meaning “thing” becomes coza), this is very typical in Milan, for instance.
The Venetian dialect has Germanic and Slavic influences, and on top of that, it sounds similarly to Spanish. It is a particular dialect, characteristic of the region of Veneto. You will notice the different sound of the ‘S’, very similar to the one used in Spanish, not like Standard Italian at all. The charismatic Italian ‘ciao’ comes from the Venetian word ‘s’chiavo’ (slave), an abbreviation of ’s’ciavo vostro’ (your slave) which means “I’m at your service”.
The Neapolitan dialect is quite different from standard Italian. So much so, that even Italians have difficulty understanding it. This dialect is spoken in the south of Italy, in and around the city of Napoli. Speakers of this dialect are usually regarded as being in a hurry, as they will drop vowels at the end of words. Apparently, Neapolitans, like to sing. So, if you ever find yourself in this region of Italy, it is best to come prepared with the lyrics of the song ‘O sole mio’ (a Neapolitan song) in case you forget your linguistic bases.
Sardinian, or Sardo, original to the island of Sardinia, is recognized as a language and it has a different pronunciation and sound than that of standard Italian, along with a different sentence structure. Out of all the romance languages (including Italian, Spanish and French, for example), it is the most similar to Latin. One of the characteristic features of this dialect is the switch between o’s and u’s. For example, the word “compreso” (understand), becomes “compresu” in Sardo.
Sicilian, spoken mainly in the island of Sicily, in the south of Italy, also deserves language status. This language is popular among Italian Americans, since many immigrants left this region looking for a better life in the U.S. The language has had influences of Greek and Arabic words, that are still noticeable today.
Greetings are usually warm among Italians. “Ciao” means “Hello” and it is rather informal. In formal situations “Buongiorno” (Good day) or “Buonasera” (Good afternoon) are probably the best way to address your Italian counterpart, along with a handshake with direct eye contact and a smile. Giving air kisses is also common across all genders.
Italians are usually direct communicators. They are generally straightforward and tend to be honest about their feelings and expectations. Conversation partners are expected to act the same way and ambiguity and understatements should be avoided. You may expect to be asked personal questions, when speaking to an Italian, because they are usually open and inquisitive. Additionally, silence should be avoided as it may become a little bit of an uncomfortable situation.
Personal Space and Touching
Italians generally stand close to each other while talking. If you do try to make some room between yourself and your Italian counterpart it may be seen as a sign that you are avoiding them. When it comes to touching, it is normal in Italy to hug, kiss, and hold hands in public, as Italians, like other south European neighbors, are usually tactile people.
Eye contact and gestures
During conversations, direct eye contact is expected. Be it in their tone of voice or body language (we are all aware of the hand gestures, I believe), Italians are usually expressive.
Italian Culture Reference Guide
Some parts of Croatia and Slovenia
68 million people speak Italian as a first language worldwide. It comes with no surprise that almost 60 million of them, reside in Italy.
Italian is the fourth European language most spoken in homes across the U.S. and there are over 700,000 Italian speakers throughout the country.
It is an official language in six countries: