Italian Languages, Dialects, and Hands: An Outsider’s View

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

Italy, EuropeWhat compelled me to write this post?

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.

Italy 1000AD, Europe
Map credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

regions of Italy
Map credit: Wikimedia Commons

So what happened to all those languages you ask?

Nothing. They’re all still spoken.

Languages

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.

Italy language map
Map credit: Wikipedia

But let’s not forget Italy’s dialects as these 34 languages are not dialects but separate languages.

Dialects

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.

dialects, languages, Italy, Europe
Over 200 dialects on this incomplete SB Language map

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.

dialects, languages, Italy, Europe
Groups of languages and dialects

As my father’s family is from several villages scattered at the start and into the Sila National Park in southern Italy’s Calabria region, each dialect holds its own nuances and colloquialisms.

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.

Hands

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! 😉

Wrap-up

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…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts on Italy.

Advertisements

56 thoughts on “Italian Languages, Dialects, and Hands: An Outsider’s View

Add yours

  1. Thank You for verifying what I already thought. I’ve been here 15 years & when I’m in Rome it’s so much easier than where I live speaking a Sabina Mountain dialect. I was just telling a potential guest what happens when you go to school in Rome for Italian & then go to Toscana Milano or Sardegna. So, I told her to rent a place where no English is spoken like here in Torricella in Sabina & stay 3 months. That’s how I learned but still difficult to write in Italian. Most people think I am Italian then a mountain dialect comes out and they say Wait, you’re not Roman!!!! Ha Ha Ha no idea but happens all the time! I say no I’m AMERICAN And they’re really shocked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, that’s impressive if locals think you’re Italian! As soon as I open my mouth locals ask me where I’m from so my accent always gives me away.

      The Calabrese dialects are difficult, especially further into the mountains. Although I can understand most of a conversation in different dialects, I can’t speak anything but just the odd few words.

      I’ve only been here 3 years so maybe things will improve with time.

      Many thanks for leaving me your comforting thoughts! 😉 Please feel free to share this post or any of the 50-plus posts I’ve written on Italy, especially the south, Nilla

      Like

    1. Very true Francis and yes, Italians are extremely proud of their different languages and dialects, as they are of their culture and food. 🙂
      Although there are people that believe that dialects shouldn’t be spoken in certain places such as government offices and Standard Italian should be spoken instead.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s one of my favorite countries and I’ve tried to learn the language so often but it’s tricky when you don’t live there. My mother was first generation Australian of Italian parent from Piedmont and I always remember them speaking a dialect when I was growing up. How are you finding learning the language?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Suellen…many thanks for your comment – much appreciated.

      I’m finding the grammar difficult but I’m not really applying myself to rote-learning this part of the language and use more the ‘wing it’ principle. Maybe I’m just a slow learner! My Italian has improved though and I’m very conscious of pronouncing my words correctly and trying to fit some grammar rules in correctly – it’s the practicing that’s crucial for me…

      You should try and learn Italian whilst sailing night passages. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure what you’re like with languages but I was brought up speaking a mesh of Italian and dialects so I call my version pigeon Italian! Rarely spoke it for decades then came back to it but I still don’t think the grammar is easy. I think my problem is that I never studied the grammar, which is of course fundamental.
      have a wonderful Sunday! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving me your thoughts.

      Totally agree that Italians are receptive when you at least try and say a few words in Italian but I’ve found the same in most of the countries in which I’ve travelled. Make the effort I say…we are guests in their country after all. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, neither did I until I got here…but it’s all great experience and so much fun trying to work out all the dialects – love it!
      Always great to have a few local words up your sleeve for any country. 😉

      Like

  3. I have always tried to speak the native tongue in whatever country we were in [Turkey was difficult!] though my communication goes up a level with wild hand and arm gestures 🙂 Informative post, Nilla.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is such a good post and so true!!!!! When I first went over there to live, I heard my uncle speaking in the dialect of Milan??!! to his friends. Then I hung out with a girl from Genoa at the beach and my family didn’t like my accent! Truly, there are a lot of dialects and accents throughout the region! Viva la Lingua! 😍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not may but do have their own dialect and that’s exactly what I’ve noticed. For example, the deeper into the Sila National Park you go, the stronger (tighter) the accent.
      I think that’s 34 languages not dialects.

      For some odd reason, WP put this comment in my Trash folder – bizarre.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Italians think that everybody should understand their language, so not only one time I have received a phone call from Italy here in Berlin and the caller would just speak Italian saying: Ciao, sono …. And I normally say simply: Non capisco niente! Don’t you speak English? Cheers. 😎

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! Agree if they’re phoning Germany, German (or English) should be spoken.
      Although I think that when you’re travelling in a different country, you should at least make the effort to know a few local words. It’s a little arrogant to expect a local in every country to speak English don’t you think? After all, you are a guest in that country. 😉

      Like

    2. When an Italian (whom I do not know at all) calls on my phone in Germany for whatever reason), and I am German, I find it very unpolite and arrogant that he/she speaks Italian first of all to me. Do you understand me now? In Germany we speak German and not Italian! English is a fair compromise In this regard.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. If you read my first comment rightly, you would have seen that I am able to say “Non capisco niente” as well much more of course also. The same does not apply for many Italians in regard of foreign languages who are really quite lazy respectively. And I remember also very well that when we once asked people in the area of Bari – of course in Italian – for the way to a nearby town, they would have explain to us that this is very difficult and absolutely dangerous to go there, although a nice road was leading there, no problems at all and completely uncomplicated secure. A bit stubborn this mentality to some extent. Ciao.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. Hey…I did read your first comment correctly and did understand. Think you misunderstood me as what I’m speaking of is when travellers approach a local in any country (not just in Italy) with English when this isn’t their first language.

      So, my experience in the south is that Italians either haven’t learnt English (especially in the smaller villages and elderly people), or they learnt at school and forgotten, so quite embarrassed to speak English, or are happy to speak English if they’re confident.

      It sounds like you didn’t have a great experience in Bari. I haven’t visited Bari since 1985 and remember that it wasn’t the greatest part of southern Italy back then, but I’ve also had your exact experience in many countries.

      Liked by 1 person

    5. My wife is a Romanist, but in fact we have not been to Italy since 2004 except in 2013 for a short day trip to Southern-Tyrole which we then found quite crazy and not very relaxed due to feragosto. I fear the Italy I once liked does not exist anymore, otherwise people like Salvini would not play such an important and disgusting role!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you and happy you enjoyed this post!
      I’ve found this is the case worldwide, not just in Italy. Even if you know a few basic words in any country, locals are very appreciative that you’re making an effort.

      Liked by 1 person

Would love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: