When people think of the Italian language, they tend to think of ‘Standard Italian’ which they will be familiar with for reasons of culture and the media.
Everyone knows words like ‘bella’ or ‘ciao’ these days. However, language in Italy is far more complicated than that.
In effect, many Italians are bilingual, speaking both ‘Standard Italian’ and their own regional dialect.
Believe me, you would be completely flummoxed by these dialects.
Barlettan, for example, sounds more like French than Italian. These dialects are a linguistic manifestation of each area’s history, so a German and Spanish influence can be found in the north; French, Arabic and Greek in the south, including Sicily.
Amazingly, ancient Greek is still spoken in parts of the Salento region and Calabria and an Albanian influence is also found in Calabria and Sicily.
Sardinia has its own unique language but Catalan is spoken in Alghero.
An Italian from Piedmont would therefore be as lost as you or I when trying to understand someone speaking a Neapolitan dialect, and vice versa.
Standard Italian, as we know it today, comes from the Tuscan dialect which had a long association with cultured writers such as Dante and Boccaccio. It was therefore chosen as the national language, even before the unification of Italy’s separate city states.
Of course, Italian is a beautiful language, with some great words and expressions, like ‘cosi cosi’ meaning ‘so so’ and ‘Boh!’ to express many things, such as uncertainty.
Even the word meaning ‘to limp’, zoppicare , sounds exotic. In addition, gestures can be used to emphasize points.
Italian is famously known as the language of romance.
With its musical qualities and auditory appeal, it is also perfect for The Opera.
Think of Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ which wouldn’t be the same at all with a more guttural language. Indeed, many foreign composers have adopted Italian as their language of choice for this purpose.
It’s even been said that Emperor Charles V used Spanish with God, French with men, German with his horse but Italian with women. Enough said.