Languages of Italy

Sep 7, 2010 by

Last week, we discussed languages of Spain and France. Today we will continue with Western Romance languages and the Western Romance dialect continuum and will discuss languages/dialects of Italy.

As with France, in Italy too exists a sharp divide between linguistic varieties of the north and the south/center.

Standard Italian — a fairly recent phenomenon — is based on the Florentine, or toscano, dialect (navy blue on the map above) because this was the dialect associated with Petrarch and Dante, two greatest Italian writers. Standard Italian is used in the government, media and education, but most people still speak a local dialect at home. The mosaic of these local dialects is rich and complex, especially in the north, where the different linguistic varieties occupy an intermediate position between Southern Italian dialects and Langues d’Oïl of France (see chart below).

Take, for example, the Provençal (or provenzale) dialect in Val Germanasca on Italian-French border. Its word for ‘six’ is pronounced [sɛi] — just like in Standard Italian — and its word for ‘seven’ is pronounced [sɛt] — just like in Standard French. While the Ligurian dialect spoken in Levanto leans towards the Italian pronunciation of these two words ([sei] for ‘six’ and a bisyllabic [‘sɛte] for ‘seven’), Dolomites Ladino (or ladino dolomitico) spoken in Ortisei leans towards Standard French ([‘si:.ɜs] for ‘six’ and [sɪt] for ‘seven’). Or take words for ‘eight’ and ‘nine’: the Ligurian dialect features front rounded vowels in these words ([‘øtʊ] and [‘nø:ve], respectively) — like Standard French; the Provençal dialect has a front rounded vowel only in the word for ‘eight’ (pronounced [øət]) but not in ‘nine’ (pronounced [nɔʊ]), while the East Lombard (or lombardo orientale; brown on the map above) spoken in Bergamo, Brescia and Treviglio has a front rounded vowel only in the word for ‘nine’ (pronounced [nøf], almost the same as in Standard French) but not in ‘eight’ (pronounced [ot]). East Lombard is also the least conservative of the northern Italian dialects in that it introduced a change not found in the other northern Italian dialects: the initial [s] in words like ‘six’ and ‘seven’ has been replaced by [h]: [hes] ‘six’ and [hɛ̝t] ‘seven’.

West Lombard (lombardo ocidentale) dialect spoken in Ticino is in many ways more similar to Standard French than to Standard Italian: for example, its word for ‘six’ has the final consonant ([se:s]), its word for ‘seven’ is monosyllabic ([se̞t]) and the word for ‘nine’ has a front rounded vowel ([nø:f]). In contrast, the dialect of Venice (venetian, or veneto) is more similar to Standard Italian: for example, its word for ‘six’ has no final consonant ([‘si:.e]), its word for ‘seven’ is bisyllabic ([‘sɛɪte]) and its word for ‘nine’ is bisyllabic and has a back rounded vowel ([‘nɔ:ve]).

Like Standard French and unlike Standard Italian (and southern Italian dialects), many northern Italian dialects — including Ligurian (ligure), Lombard (lombardo), Piedmontese (piemontese), Emilian-Romagnol (emiliano) and Venetian (veneto) — changed Latin intervocalic [p] and [t] into [v] and [d]. For instance, compare the word riva ‘river bank’ in these dialects with the Standard French rive and Standard Italian ripa. Similarly, the northern Italian dialects have a [d] in the word for ‘wheel’ (except Piedmontese, which dropped the consonant altogether). The Standard French word for ‘wheel’ is roue (with no second consonant), but Old French was ruede, with a [d]. In contrast, the Standard Italian word for ‘wheel’ is ruota, with a [t], as in the original Latin form.

The peculiarities of northern Italian dialects are not limited to pronounciation, though. For example, Lombard does not have the four way distinction in adjective forms between masculine singular, feminine singular, masculine plural and feminine plural (e.g., Standard Italian: bello, bella, belli and belle ‘beautiful’). Instead, there are only two forms in Lombard: one form is for feminine singular and the other for the other three combinations of features — masculine singular, masculine plural and feminine plural. For example, the adjective ‘big’ has two forms: granda for feminine singular and grand for the rest. This is also similar to (although not exactly the same as in) Standard French, where the form grande(s) (pronounced [grãnd]) is used for feminine singular and feminine plural, while the form grand(s) (pronounced [grã]) is used for masculine singular and masculine plural.

Another French-like feature of a northern Italian dialect is the use of an enclitic interrogative particle at the end of the verbal form (e.g., Veus-to…? ‘Do you want to?’). Compare it with the Standard French Veux-tu…? and recall that the use of subject-auxliary inversion among Romance languages is limited to the Langue d’Oïl varieties and is a result of the contact with Germanic-speaking peoples.

We will continue with the dialects of central and southern Italy in the upcoming posting(s).

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