Even if you’ve been learning Italian for a while, you may notice that the Italian spoken in mobster movies is hard to understand. Don’t worry, you’re not alone in this: Italians don’t always catch the dialogue either!
That’s because the language spoken in the Godfather, for example, often isn’t really Italian at all.
At least not the Italian you’re thinking of. But some of the many separate languages along the boot that are not derived from Italian. If this sounds confusing, don’t worry — it’s actually pretty simple.
Standard Italian, the language we all associate with Italy, is pretty new, and is mostly based on the variant of Tuscan spoken in Florence — a language that, like many of the languages spoken in Italy, comes from Latin. Knowing this, it would seem like you'll only hear standard Italian in Tuscany. Well, yes and no.
People in Florence do speak a very clear version of Italian, but they have their own dialect, which is not quite as easy to understand. The region actually has a number of local dialects, with some further from the textbook Italian, some closer. People say that Siena is the place to go if you’re looking for the closest thing to standard Italian.
That's why I'm devoting a whole post to Italian dialects – to give you a better idea of the similarities and differences between these languages and dialects and standard Italian. The languages aren't a barrier to learning Italian. But rather, something that can enrich your knowledge of both the language and culture.
By the time you get to the end, you’ll know the essentials of the Italian dialects and be able to tell the difference between them.
By the way, if you want to get started on your Italian learning journey, I recommend Italian Uncovered, my story-based course that will take you from beginner to conversational Italian, without the stress.
So how come there are so many separate languages and dialects in one, relatively small, country? Because Italy only began to unify around 1848 – almost 100 years after the United States.
So all these separate regions, each with their own language and additional regional dialects, have had a long time to develop. And that’s why no two languages anywhere along the boot sound or feel the same.
Way up north, in Trentino Alto Adige, the local language is spoken in the back of the throat, far back — sort of like Kermit the frog, if he were Italian. In Milano, speech is pressed down so that the sides of the words squeeze out, in a similar way to a New York accent. The intonation, too, is similar: you’re here and you want people to hear what you’re saying.
The language in Rome is full and confident, with stops and starts — as if the speaker was at the same time surprised but also trying to make a convincing argument.
Ligurian – spoken in Genoa, for example — varies inflection so much it almost sounds Portuguese, going up and down in a singsong way. Speech in Torino is prim and high pitched, while the language of the Veneto sounds like a foreigner just learning to speak Italian.
The language of Emilia-Romagna races away like an Italian sports car, so you better pay attention. Abbruzzese, in turn, rolls and rumbles out of the mouth, like a tractor starting up. Neapolitan is hardly enunciated at all and so feels slow, pleasant and warm, along with being difficult to understand.
Sicilian sounds serious and is demanding on the ear, melodious in a manner fit for threats — which is why those are so effective delivered in the language. Sardinian is blunt and filled with an adorably large amount of a sharply pronounced letter u, and about as hard to understand as it is endearing to listen to.
Speaking of which…
No appo compresu nutta. (I didn’t understand anything)
As mentioned, one main feature of the Sardinian language is that it is heavy on the u-s. You can see that above in the words compresu and nutta, which would be compreso (understand) and nulla (nothing, zero) in standard Italian. This switching of o and u can sometimes be the only difference between words.
Sardinia is an island that’s far enough north to have a winter and is an arid and windy place. Some of this is reflected in the language, which is blunt and has a dryer feel than speech further south.
Sardinian, Sardo, is recognized as a separate language unto itself. This means that each dialect, or language — used here interchangeably — comes with its own set of local versions.
Sardo is a language beloved all over Italy for its unique and cute sound, and words from it are often adapted. So that babbo, a word of Sardinian origin, is used to refer to fathers all over Italy. This borrowing of Sardinian words is called italianu porcheddìnu, or “piggy Italian”.
A marker of Sardo is that it often shuffles the sentence structure, sort of like Yoda from Star Wars, like this:
In standard Italian, this would go stai uscendo?
Here, standard Italian sentence structure is: stavo studiando.
Also, importantly, there’s no length differentiation on vowels, so no accents on a, e, i, o and u to mark a different sound — they always stay the same.
Here are some Sardinian proverbs to give you an idea:
Spoken Sardo presents a challenge due to the different intonation and sound. But, if you speak Italian already, you can often understand written Sardo reasonably well.
Pi fauri, parra chiu adaciu (Please speak more slowly)
The most popular dialect with the Italian-American diaspora, Sicilianu, or Siculu, like Sardo, is different enough from textbook Italian to deserve separate language status.
And also like to Sardo, it uses a fair share of the letter u, but because of the differences between the two languages, the effect is not all that similar.
Sicilian is much wider and rounder, for one, taking its time with syllables before they leave the mouth, resulting in a quieter sound.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has seen a lot of traffic throughout history: Greeks, Romans, Moors, Swabians, Spaniards, Austrians and Italians, to name a few, have set up camp here.
This is why Sicilian, and its many subdivisions draw so much influence from a number of languages. Words of Greek and Arabic origin can easily be pointed out, if you speak the languages.
Here are a few words as examples of the foreign influence on the Sicilian language:
Most of the time, where standard Italian words start with an i, it is dropped in Sicilian.
Sometimes, this is true for words that start with e, a and o.
With a thing for keeping things short, Sicilian is heavy on contractions. Thus a common expression such as avemu a accattari, meaning “we have to buy” (dobbiamo compare in standard Italian) will become amâ ‘ccattari when in informal company.
Most feminine nouns and adjectives end in -a in the singular, though soru (sister, same for plural) does not. The usual masculine singular ending is -u, as in omu (man), libbru or nomu (name).
Unlike standard Italian, Sicilian mostly uses the same plural ending for nouns of any gender and adjectives: casi (houses), or porti (doors). Sometimes, -um or -a will be used, instead, like in libbra (books) or jorna (days).
Now for the proverbs:
In terms of a written tradition, Sicilian is the oldest of modern Italian languages. About five million people speak it today, with younger people moving steadily towards using standard Italian.
Ma staje pazziann? (Are you kidding me?)
Napoletano is very loose, relaxed and takes care to emphasize what is being said in a way that makes it sound light-hearted but also gives it a sense of seriousness.
You can come across Napoletano across much of southern Italy, and even in a small part of central Italy (in Ascoli Piceno, Marche). A large number of speakers in the United States make this language, like Sicilian, familiar to trained foreign ears.
In Napoli, where love is king, it’s not all about u, for once, but about doubling up on letters. When in doubt, use two, and remember that unlike standard Italian, the Neapolitan alphabet does use the letter j, but does not contain k, w, x, or y.
But back to the doubling: when does it happen? Many, many times, as it turns out. And the rules are seemingly random, so they have to be memorised. Here are some of them…
…and there are many more. Also, forget about doubling when there’s a second consonant after the first. For instance, while there’s doubling here:
it doesn’t happen here:
Let’s look at a few proverbs. It might be fun to try and say these aloud, even if you can’t really understand the writing. The written version of Napoletano lends itself wonderfully to correct pronunciation.
As you can imagine, Neapolitan wisdoms are known and loved all over the country, and for good reason.
Na ƚengua soƚa no ƚa xé mai bastansa (One language is never enough)
Close to the area where standard Italian is spoken, one of the most particular dialects in the country thrives: the Venetian language, łéngoa vèneta or vèneto.
This well-preserved language is spoken in the Veneto region, but people understand and, to some extent, speak it in some surrounding areas, as well.
Venetian has a casual feel to it and a sound a little similar to Spanish, but with slavic undertones. The letter s, in particular, gets a Spanish makeover and is notably different from how standard Italian pronounces it.
The letter x is used frequently to take the place of an s in standard Italian, like in this case:
Since this region is so close to a German language country, you will often find germanic influences, such as with trincàr, “to drink”, which is “trinken” in German.
The Venetian language has influenced other languages, itself. Here are some venetian-origin words that other languages use:
Even that most Italian greeting, ciao, comes from Venetian: s'ciavo (schiavo, slave), an abbreviation of s'ciavo vostro, or “your slave”, meant in the sense of “I am at your service”.
Take a look at these Venetian proverbs:
La boca i ghe l’à toeucc, el co i ghe l’à poc. (Everyone has a mouth, but few have a head.)
The easiest way to separate a northern accent from a southern one in Italy is by listening for a z sound where there ought to be an s, like in the case of casa or cosa (“house” and “what”), both pronounced like “caza” and “coza” in the northern part of the country. This is especially typical and evident in the Milanese dialect.
In Milano, speech is more angular, words lengthened and it’s very close to written standard Italian. Things are over-emphasized rather than under-pronounced.
For this reason, Milan is a great place to go if you’re just beginning to speak Italian. But there is of course a local dialect, Lombardo, in the area, though it is much less frequently used than dialects in other parts of the country.
Few people in Milan proper speak Lombardo or even Milanese, called Meneghin in the language, besides a few funny or otherwise memorable sentences.
You’re more likely to find speakers in the villages surrounding the city, if at all. Generally, all Lombard speakers speak Italian, and just as well. So this language is mostly relegated to the family home or remote villages, which means you likely won’t hear it much.
Here are a few examples of the Lombard language:
There is a way of saying things in Lombardo not used elsewhere in Italy, but common in the English language:
A popular turn of phrase is “to be behind” something. Used in this way, it’s something like “being into” in English:
The letters “oeu” are pronounced like French for “eu” or the German o umlaut, ö.
U is mostly pronounced like the French u or German u umlaut, ü, so that, malumor, malumore (bad mood) becomes “malümor”.
Italians, and Milanese people themselves often caricature this aspect of Lombardo and Milanese, as a uniquely recognisable part of the dialect.
Finally, let’s look here, too, at some proverbs:
Una hoha hola hon la hanuccia horta holorata (A coca cola with a short, colored straw)
As we mentioned above, standard Italian is based on Tuscan, more exactly Florentine, so it is an easy dialect to get the hang of. It spread through the country as the language of the arts, with famous Florentine writers like Dante Alighieri or Niccolo Machiavelli hailing from the city.
The introduction quote to this chapter is, in Italy, the most iconic and famous phrase of the Florentine dialect. It’s easy to see why: it sounds like a thing a child with a speech impediment would say. Well, it’s not an impediment: it’s called la gorgia toscana, or the tuscan throat.
Whenever c would normally be pronounced as a k, as in coca cola (but not ciao), an h is substituted.
There are, of course, a number of exceptions to this. A c that comes after a preposition stays like in standard Italian, so you would say: si va a casa (one is going home) and not si va a hasa. When a c is followed by the letter i or e, it stays the same as well: Stavo a Cina (I was in China), not Hina.
But then, even the letter t is sometimes pronounced as an h, like this:
Also, te appears where tu would be the standard Italian version.
In the dative case, standard Italian uses a me or mi (to me). The Tuscan version of this just uses both at once, like this:
In English, you could compare this to saying “me, I do like it”. While not correct grammatically, you'll come across it all over Northern and Central Italy. Like many dialects, Tuscan also does a fair bit of shortening:
Also, whenever a verb ends on -re, you can just cut that off, no trouble:
So finally, you can see that the languages of Italy are many. And each one is beautiful and valuable in its own, unique way.
Sadly, these small, local languages are fading from use. Everyone ought to do their part in keeping them alive, even if just by showing an interest in them.
Learning to speak these dialects will not be necessary to make yourself understood in any part of the country, save perhaps for the most rural places.
But people all over Italy do speak the school-taught standard, if maybe with an accent.
Still, it’s always nice to understand, and sometimes say something in, the language of the people you’re getting to know.
So even if you don't need to worry too much about Italian dialects as a learner, they can still be an enriching part of learning this language.