The art of understanding Italian languages and dialects is difficult – for me anyway. Throw Italy’s hand language into the mix and it’s nigh impossible for an outsider…
Ever travelled to Italy with a basic understanding of Italian only to discover that you really can’t understand much at all?
I’m not surprised.
A little background
After almost 3 years in Italy I’m still learning the beautiful melodic language that is the Romantic Italian language and its difficulties. Apart from immersing myself in Italian, I also use the free version of Duolingo to learn mainly grammar.
I hope to shed some light for other travellers to this gorgeous country so as to ease the pain, if you feel guilty about not getting it right.
You may not realise that Italy has more than one language and it’s not just the official language – Italian.
In addition to the various Italian languages there are hundreds of dialects that are spoken throughout regions, cities, towns, and villages – every corner of Italy.
If this isn’t enough to confuse you, then the hand gestures Italians use also make up a different language, so I’m here to help you digest some of the basic differences. But, before I go on any further, just letting you know that I’m definitely not an expert at any of this and these are just my outsider’s observations.
In the beginning…
So now you may be wondering why Italy has so many languages?
The answer isn’t difficult.
Although thousands of years’ old, Italy was not always a unified country and used to be geographically and politically fragmented with separate territories, languages, governments, and currencies.
Following Napoleon’s second conquest of the Italian peninsular annexing the north in 1799, Napoleon’s fall in 1814, an uprise against occupation, and then the Franco-Austrian war in 1859, Garibaldi finally unified Italy in 1861.
Today, Italy is made up of 20 regions.
So what happened to all those languages you ask?
Nothing. They’re all still spoken.
With the Roman conquest, the introduction of Latin spread throughout half of Europe and the Mediterranean basin creating in effect, another layer over the already spoken languages. Subsequent invasions introduced even more variations to dialects.
Italy’s Romance languages grew from Vulgar Latin (“informal Latin of classical times”), which predates Italian.
Although Standard Italian spread through Italy in the 20th century, regional areas of Italy used variations of Italian languages and dialects and became known as Regional Italian (italiano regionale).
Today, 34 native languages made up of 28 indigenous and 6 non-indigenous (Ethnologue) and classed as the Romance Languages are still spoken.
But let’s not forget Italy’s dialects as these 34 languages are not dialects but separate languages.
Throughout Italy, cities, towns and villages also have their own dialects, which can be completely different or similar to a nearby village of only 20 kilometres away, and still different to one of the Italian languages or the official Italian.
As an example, Genoese – locally known as Zeneize – is the main dialect of Liguria’s language in northern Italy.
Visiting my relatives in Genoa in 2015, I was shown a brief video to see if I could understand Genoese. Not surprisingly, I only understood one word in every twelve or so words of Genoese – it really is that different to Italian.
Although not great at speaking Italian back then, I did pride myself on understanding a few variations of Italian and some dialects. And, can only put this down to growing up around my parents’ relatives and friends that hailed from various regions throughout Italy.
Have I mentioned just how different dialects look when letters dance off a page?
For me, it’s almost nigh impossible to read these alien words staring back at me, waiting patiently to be deciphered…
I’ve heard that there are over 300 dialects in Italy, but can’t find an actual figure. Does anyone know the actual number?
When travelling through Italy, remember that the majority of Italians still use dialects and 15% of the population use dialects as a primary language. Locals in some of the tiny villages I’ve visited don’t know the official Italian language and just understand their own dialect.
I’ve also noticed that locals use their dialect at home and Italian when out or when meeting foreigners, or when speaking with other Italians from different regions.
Italians are renown for speaking with their hands – it’s not a myth – this is an effective form of communication, especially if you’re not in earshot of a person.
As Italy had many languages when not a unified country back in the 1700s, hand gestures also became an easy form of communication.
Research from professor Isabella Poggi (Rome Tre University), states that the Italian hand language does “comprise a lexicon of gestures that is comparable in size and sophistication to the lexicon of sign language for the deaf”.
What I’ve observed in Italy is that the hand language is not just a gesture with hands.
Hand gestures are also delivered with the most passionate of facial expressions and at times the whole torso. Whilst an outsider may find this slightly over-reactive or quite dramatic, it’s serious business for Italians as it’s an excellent form of self-expression and communication without using words.
Unable to find an official number for Italian hand gestures, I found that around 250 hand gestures are used by Italians daily. Does anyone know the exact number?
Meanwhile, Marco in a BOX explains only 60 of the most common hand gestures used around Italy in his 4-minute video – enjoy! 😉
My experience is that Italians are very patient and appreciative when a foreigner tries to at least speak some sort of Italian – even if it’s just a few words of Italian or words from one of the hundreds of dialects. You may get some laughs at your pronunciation. Don’t be offended, take this reaction in your stride and try to learn a little more whilst having some fun.
Sometimes a smile is the best universal language.
What about your experience whilst travelling through Italy?
Did you find that locals appreciate when you speak Italian? I’d love to hear about your experience, so leave me a comment below and we can chat further…