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The languages of Italy are Italian, which serves as the country's national language, as well as numerous local and regional languages, most of which, like Italian, belong to the broader Romance group. The majority of languages often labeled regional are distributed in a continuum across the regions' administrative boundaries, with speakers from one locale within a single region being typically aware of the features distinguishing their own variety from one of the other places nearby.
The official and most widely spoken language across the country is Italian, which started off as the medieval Tuscan of Florence. In parallel, many Italians also communicate in one of the local languages, most of which, like Tuscan, are indigenous evolutions of Vulgar Latin. Some local languages do not stem from Latin, however, but belong to other Indo-European branches, such as Cimbrian (Germanic), Arbëresh (Albanian), Slavomolisano (Slavic) and Griko (Greek). Other non-indigenous languages are spoken by a substantial percentage of the population due to immigration.
Almost all the Romance languages are native to Italy. Apart from Italian, these languages are often colloquially referred to as "dialects"; however, the term may coexist with other labels like "minority languages" or "vernaculars" for some of them. However, the use of the term "dialect" may erroneously imply that the native languages spoken in Italy are actual "dialects" of standard Italian in the prevailing linguistic sense of "varieties or variations of a language". This is not the case of Italy, as the country's long-standing linguistic diversity does not actually stem from Italian. Most of Italy's Romance languages and related dialects predate Italian and evolved locally from Vulgar Latin, independently of what would become the standard national language, long before the fairly recent spread of Italian throughout Italy. In fact, Italian itself can be thought of as either a continuation of, or a dialect heavily based on, the Florentine dialect of Tuscan.
The indigenous Romance languages of Italy are therefore classified as separate languages that evolved from Latin just like Italian, rather than "dialects" or variations of the latter. Conversely, with the spread of Italian throughout Italy in the 20th century, local varieties of Italian have also developed throughout the peninsula, influenced to varying extents by the underlying local languages, most noticeably at the phonological level; though regional boundaries seldom correspond to isoglosses distinguishing these varieties, these variations of Italian are commonly referred to as Regional Italian (italiano regionale).
Twelve languages have been legally granted official recognition in 1999, but their selection to the exclusion of others is a matter of some controversy. Daniele Bonamore argues that many regional languages were not recognized in light of their communities' historical participation in the construction of the Italian language: Giacomo da Lentini's and Cielo d'Alcamo's Sicilian, Guido Guinizelli's Bolognese, Jacopone da Todi's Umbrian, Neapolitan, Carlo Goldoni's Venetian and Dante's Tuscan are considered to be historical founders of the Italian linguistic majority; outside of such epicenters are, on the other hand, Friulian, Ladin, Sardinian, Franco-Provençal and Occitan, which are recognized as distinct languages. Michele Salazar found Bonamore's explanation "new and convincing".
Legal status of Italian
Italian was first declared to be Italy's official language during the Fascist period, more specifically through the R.D.l. which was adopted on October 15, 1925 with the name of Sull'Obbligo della lingua italiana in tutti gli uffici giudiziari del Regno, salvo le eccezioni stabilite nei trattati internazionali per la città di Fiume.
The original Italian Constitution does not explicitly express that Italian is the official national language. Since the constitution was penned, there have been some laws and articles written on the procedures of criminal cases passed that explicitly state that Italian should be used:
Statute of the Trentino-South Tyrol, (constitutional law of the northern region of Italy around Trento) - "[...] [la lingua] italiana [...] è la lingua ufficiale dello Stato." (Statuto Speciale per il Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Art. 99, "[...] [the language] Italian [...] is the official language of the State.")
Code for civil procedure - "In tutto il processo è prescritto l'uso della lingua italiana. (Codice di procedura civile, Art. 122, "In all procedures, it is required that the Italian language is used.")
Code for criminal procedure - "Gli atti del procedimento penale sono compiuti in lingua italiana." (Codice di procedura penale, Art. 109 [169-3; 63, 201 att.], "The acts of the criminal proceedings are carried out in the Italian language.")
Article 1 of law 482/1999 - "La lingua ufficiale della Repubblica è l'italiano." (Legge 482/1999, Art. 1 Comma 1, "The official language of the Republic is Italian.")
Historical linguistic minorities
Recognition by the Italian state
Communities recognized by Italy as historical linguistic minorities.
The Republic safeguards linguistic minorities by means of appropriate measures.
The Art. 6 of the Italian Constitution was drafted by the Founding Fathers to show sympathy for the country's historical linguistic minorities, in a way for the newly-founded Republic to let them become part of the national fabric and distance itself from the Italianization policies promoted earlier because of nationalism, especially during Fascism. Since 1934, Minister Francesco Ercole had excluded in fact from the school curriculum any language other than Italian in accordance with the policy of linguistic nationalism.
For the Constitutional Court of the Italian Republic, Article 6 of the Constitution represents "the overcoming of the closed notion of the 19th-century national State and a reversal of great political and cultural significance, compared to the nationalistic attitude manifested by Fascism" as well as being "one of the fundamental principles of the current constitutional system".
However, more than a half century passed before the Art. 6 was followed by any of the above-mentioned "appropriate measures". Italy applied in fact the Article for the first time in 1999, by means of the national law N.482/99. According to the linguist Tullio De Mauro, the Italian delay of over 50 years in implementing Article 6 was caused by "decades of hostility to multilingualism" and "opaque ignorance".
Before said legal framework entered into force, only four linguistic minorities (the French-speaking community in the Aosta Valley; the German-speaking community and, to a limited extent, the Ladin one in the Province of Bolzano; the Slovene-speaking community in the Province of Trieste and, with less rights, the Province of Gorizia) enjoyed some kind of acknowledgment and protection, stemming from specific clauses within international treaties. The other eight linguistic minorities were to be recognized only in 1999, including the Slovene-speaking minority in the Province of Udine and the Germanic populations (Walser, Mocheni and Cimbri) residing in provinces different from Bolzano. Some now-recognized minority groups, namely in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Sardinia, already provided themselves with regional laws of their own. It has been estimated that less than 400.000 people, out of the two million people belonging to the twelve historical minorities (with Sardinian being the numerically biggest one), enjoyed state-wide protection.
Around the 1960s, the Italian Parliament eventually resolved to apply the previously neglected article of the country's fundamental Charter. The Parliament thus appointed a "Committee of three Sages" to single out the groups that were to be recognized as linguistic minorities, and further elaborate the reason for their inclusion. The nominated people were Tullio de Mauro, Giovan Battista Pellegrini and Alessandro Pizzorusso, three notable figures who distinguished themselves with their life-long activity of research in the field of both linguistics and legal theory. Based on linguistic, historical as well as anthropological considerations, the experts eventually selected thirteen groups, corresponding to the currently recognized twelve with the further addition of the Sinti and Romani-speaking populations. The original list was approved, with the only exception of the nomadic peoples, who lacked the territoriality requisite and therefore needed a separate law. However, the draft was presented to the law-making bodies when the legislature was about to run its course, and had to be passed another time. The bill was met with resistance by all the subsequent legislatures, being reluctant to challenge the widely-held myth of "Italian linguistic homogeneity", and only in 1999 did it eventually pass, becoming a law. In the end, the historical linguistic minorities have been recognized by the Law no. 482/1999 (Legge 15 Dicembre 1999, n. 482, Art. 2, comma 1).
Some interpretations of said law seem to divide the twelve minority languages into two groups, with the first including the non-Latin speaking populations (with the exception of the Catalan-speaking one) and the second including only the Romance-speaking populations. Some other interpretations state that a further distinction is implied, considering only some groups to be "national minorities". Regardless of the ambiguous phrasing, all the twelve groups are technically supposed to be allowed the same measures of protection; furthermore, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, signed and ratified by Italy in 1997, applies to all the twelve groups mentioned by the 1999 national law, therefore including the Friulians, the Sardinians, the Occitans, the Ladins etc., with the addition of the Romani.
In actual practice, not each of the twelve historical linguistic minorities is given the same consideration. All of them still bear strong social pressure to assimilate to Italian, and some of them do not even have a widely acknowledged standard to be used for official purposes. In fact, the discrimination lay in the urgent need to award the highest degree of protection only to the French-speaking minority in the Aosta Valley and the German one in South Tyrol, owing to international treaties. For example, the institutional websites are only in Italian with a few exceptions, like a French version of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. A bill proposed by former prime minister Mario Monti's cabinet formally introduced a differential treatment between the twelve historical linguistic minorities, distinguishing between those with a "foreign mother tongue" (the groups protected by agreements with Austria, France and Slovenia) and those with a "peculiar dialect" (all the others). The bill was later implemented, but deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.
The Charter does not, however, establish at what point differences in expression result in a separate language, deeming it an "often controversial issue", and citing the necessity to take into account, other than purely linguistic criteria, also "psychological, sociological and political considerations".
Regional recognition of the local languages
French is co-official (enjoying the same dignity and standing of Italian) in the whole region (Le Statut spécial de la Vallée d'Aoste, Title VIe, Article 38);
Franco-Provençal is unofficial, but protected and promoted according to federal and regional laws.
German is unofficial but recognised in the Lys Valley (Lystal) (Le Statut spécial de la Vallée d'Aoste, Title VIe, Art. 40 - bis).
Piedmontese is unofficial but recognised as the regional language (Consiglio Regionale del Piemonte, Ordine del Giorno n. 1118, Presentato il 30 November 1999);
the region "promotes", without recognising, the Occitan, Franco-Provençal, French and Walser languages (Legge regionale 7 aprile 2009, n. 11, Art. 1).
The region considers the cultural identity of the Sardinian people as a primary asset (l.r. N.26/97, l.r. N.22/18), in accordance with the values of equality and linguistic pluralism enshrined in the Italian Constitution and the European treaties, with particular reference to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (l.r. N.26/97). All the languages indigenous to the island (Sardinian, Catalan, Tabarchino, Sassarese and Gallurese) are recognised and promoted as "enjoying the same dignity and standing of Italian" (l.r. N.26/97) in their respective linguistic areas.
Sicilian is unofficial but recognised as the regional language (Legge regionale 9/2011).
German is co-official (enjoying the same dignity and standing of Italian) in the province of South Tyrol (Statuto speciale per il Trentino-Alto Adige, Titolo XI, Articolo 99); Ladin is the third co-official language of South Tirol
All living languages indigenous to Italy are part of the Indo-European language family.
They can be divided into Romance languages and non-Romance languages. The classification of the Romance languages of Italy is controversial, and we report here two of the generally accepted classification systems.
Loporcaro 2009 proposes a classification of Romance languages of Italy based on Pellegrini 1977, who groups different Romance languages according to areal and some typological features. The following five linguistic areas can be identified:
Northern (dialetti settentrionali):
Gallo-Italic (Emilian, Piedmontese, Lombard, and Ligurian).
Mid-Southern (dialetti centro-meridionali):
Middle (dialetti mediani; Central Marchigiano, Umbrian, Laziale).
Upper Southern (dialetti alto-meridionali; Marchigiano-Abruzzese, Molisano, Apulian, Southern Laziale and Campanian including Neapolitan, Northern Lucano-Calabrese).
Extreme Southern (Salento, southern Calabria and Sicily).
Albanian, Slavic, Greek and Romani languages
High German languages
The Northern Italian languages are conventionally defined as those Romance languages spoken north of the La Spezia-Rimini Line, which runs through the northern Apennine Mountains just to the north of Tuscany; however, the dialects of Occitan and Franco-Provençal spoken in the extreme northwest of Italy (e.g. the Valdôtain in the Aosta Valley) are generally excluded. The classification of these languages is difficult and not agreed-upon, due both to the variations among the languages and to the fact that they share isoglosses of various sorts with both the Italo-Romance languages to the south and the Gallo-Romance languages to the northwest.
Any such classification runs into the basic problem that there is a dialect continuum throughout northern Italy, with a continuous transition of spoken dialects between e.g. Venetian and Ladin, or Venetian and Emilio-Romagnolo (usually considered Gallo-Italian).
All of these languages are considered innovative relative to the Romance languages as a whole, with some of the Gallo-Italian languages having phonological changes nearly as extreme as standard French (usually considered the most phonologically innovative of the Romance languages). This distinguishes them significantly from standard Italian, which is extremely conservative in its phonology (and notably conservative in its morphology).
Southern Italy and islands
Approximate distribution of the regional languages of Sardinia and Southern Italy according to the UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger:
One common classification divides these languages into two groups:
The Italo-Dalmatian languages, including Neapolitan and Sicilian, as well as the Sardinian-influenced Sassarese and Gallurese which are sometimes grouped with Sardinian but are actually of southern Corsican origin.
The Sardinian language, usually listed as a group of its own with two main Logudorese and Campidanese orthographic forms.
All of these languages are considered conservative relative to the Romance languages as a whole, with Sardinian being the most conservative of them all.
Although "[al]most all Italian dialects were being written in the Middle Ages, for administrative, religious, and often artistic purposes," use of local language gave way to stylized Tuscan, eventually labeled Italian. Local languages are still occasionally written, but only the following regional languages of Italy have a standardised written form. This may be widely accepted or used alongside more traditional written forms:
Piedmontese: traditional, definitely codified between the 1920s and the 1960s by Pinin Pacòt and Camillo Brero
Ligurian: "Grafîa ofiçiâ" created by the Académia Ligùstica do Brénno;
Venetian: "Grafia Veneta Unitaria", the official manual published in 1995 by the Regione Veneto local government, although written in Italian. It has been recently updated on 14 December 2017, under the name of "Grafia Veneta Ufficiale".
Officially recognised ethno-linguistic minorities of Italy
Regional languages of Italy according to Clemente Merlo and Carlo Tagliavini in 1939
Languages and language islands of Italy
Languages of Italy
Main dialectal groups of Italy
Main linguistic groups of Italy
Percentage of people in Italy having a command of a regional language (Doxa, 1982; Coveri's data, 1984)
^«With some 1,6 million speakers, Sardinia is the largest minority language in Italy. Sardinians form an ethnic minority since they show a strong awareness of being an indigenous group with a language and a culture of their own. Although Sardinian appears to be recessive in use, it is still spoken and understood by a majority of the population on the island.» Kurt Braunmüller, Gisella Ferraresi (2003). Aspects of multilingualism in European language history. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: University of Hamburg: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 238.
^«Nel 1948 la Sardegna diventa, anche per le sue peculiarità linguistiche, Regione Autonoma a statuto speciale. Tuttavia a livello politico, ufficiale, non cambia molto per la minoranza linguistica sarda, che, con circa 1,2 milioni di parlanti, è la più numerosa tra tutte le comunità alloglotte esistenti sul territorio italiano.» Wolftraud De Concini (2003). Gli altri d'Italia : minoranze linguistiche allo specchio. Pergine Valsugana: Comune. p. 196.
^«Sebbene in continua diminuzione, i sardi costituiscono tuttora la più grossa minoranza linguistica dello stato italiano con ca. 1.000.000 di parlanti stimati (erano 1.269.000 secondo le stime basate sul censimento del 2001)». Sergio Lubello (2016). Manuale Di Linguistica Italiana. Manuals of Romance linguistics. De Gruyter. p. 499.
^Andreose, Alvise; Renzi, Lorenzo (2013), "Geography and distribution of the Romance Languages in Europe", in Maiden, Martin; Smith, John Charles; Ledgeway, Adam (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Romance Languages, Vol. 2, Contexts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 302-308 |volume= has extra text (help)
^Bonamore, Daniele (2006). Lingue minoritarie Lingue nazionali Lingue ufficiali nella legge 482/1999, Editore Franco Angeli, p.16
^Michele Salazar (Università di Messina, Direttore Rivista giuridica della scuola) - Presentazione: (...) La spiegazione datane nell'opera sotto analisi appare nuova e convincente (...) il siciliano (...) il bolognese (...) l'umbro (...) il toscano (...) hanno fatto l'italiano, sono l'italiano - Bonamore, Daniele (2008). Lingue minoritarie Lingue nazionali Lingue ufficiali nella legge 482/1999, Editore Franco Angeli
^Caretti, Paolo; Rosini, Monica; Louvin, Roberto (2017). Regioni a statuto speciale e tutela della lingua. Turin, Italy: G. Giappichelli. p. 72. ISBN978-88-921-6380-5.
^Paolo Coluzzi (2007). Minority Language Planning and Micronationalism in Italy: An Analysis of the Situation of Friulian, Cimbrian and Western Lombard with Reference to Spanish Minority Languages. Peter Lang. p. 97.
^Silvia Demartini (2010). Dal dialetto alla lingua negli anni Venti del Novecento. Pisa-Roma, Fabrizio Serra Editore; p.78
^Sentenze Corte costituzionale n. 15 del 1996, n. 62 del 1992, n. 768 del 1988, n. 289 del 1987 e n. 312 del 1983. Dalla sentenza nr. 15 del 1996 : 2.- «La tutela delle minoranze linguistiche è uno dei principi fondamentali del vigente ordinamento che la Costituzione stabilisce all'art. 6, demandando alla Repubblica il compito di darne attuazione "con apposite norme". Tale principio, che rappresenta un superamento delle concezioni dello Stato nazionale chiuso dell'Ottocento e un rovesciamento di grande portata politica e culturale, rispetto all'atteggiamento nazionalistico manifestato dal fascismo, è stato numerose volte valorizzato dalla giurisprudenza di questa Corte, anche perché esso si situa al punto di incontro con altri principi, talora definiti "supremi", che qualificano indefettibilmente e necessariamente l'ordinamento vigente (sentenze nn. 62 del 1992, 768 del 1988, 289 del 1987 e 312 del 1983): il principio pluralistico riconosciuto dall'art. 2 - essendo la lingua un elemento di identità individuale e collettiva di importanza basilare - e il principio di eguaglianza riconosciuto dall'art. 3 della Costituzione, il quale, nel primo comma, stabilisce la pari dignità sociale e l'eguaglianza di fronte alla legge di tutti i cittadini, senza distinzione di lingua e, nel secondo comma, prescrive l'adozione di norme che valgano anche positivamente per rimuovere le situazioni di fatto da cui possano derivare conseguenze discriminatorie.»
^Tratto dalla "Presentazione" a firma del prof. Tullio De Mauro della prima edizione (31 dicembre 2004) del Grande Dizionario Bilingue Italiano-Friulano - Regione autonoma Friuli-Venezia Giulia - edizione CFL2000, Udine, pag. 5/6/7/8: «Anzitutto occorre rievocare il vasto movimento mondiale che ha segnato la fine dell'ideologia monolinguistica e delle politiche culturali, scolastiche, legislative a essa ispirata. (...) I grandi Stati nazionali europei si sono andati costituendo, a partire dal secolo XV, sull'assioma di una vincolante identità tra Stato-nazione-lingua. (...) Il divergente esempio svizzero a lungo è stato percepito come una curiosità isolata.(...) Le vie percorso dal plurilinguismo (...). In Italia il percorso, come si sa, non è stato agevole.(...) Nella pluridecennale ostilità ha operato un difetto profondo di cultura, un'opaca ignoranza fatta dall'intreccio di molte cose. (...) Finalmente nel 1999, vinte resistenze residue, anche lo Stato italiano si è dotato di una legge che, non eccelsa, attua tuttavia quanto disponeva l'art. 6 della Costituzione (...)»
^Salvi, Sergio (1975). Le lingue tagliate. Storia della minoranze linguistiche in Italia, Rizzoli Editore, pp. 12-14
^Camera dei deputati, Servizio Studi, Documentazione per le Commissioni Parlamentari, Proposte di legge della VII Legislatura e dibattito dottrinario,123/II, marzo 1982
^"L.R. 25/2016 - 1. Ai fini della presente legge, la Regione promuove la rivitalizzazione, la valorizzazione e la diffusione di tutte le varietà locali della lingua lombarda, in quanto significative espressioni del patrimonio culturale immateriale, attraverso: a) lo svolgimento di attività e incontri finalizzati a diffonderne la conoscenza e l'uso; b) la creazione artistica; c) la diffusione di libri e pubblicazioni, l'organizzazione di specifiche sezioni nelle biblioteche pubbliche di enti locali o di interesse locale; d) programmi editoriali e radiotelevisivi; e) indagini e ricerche sui toponimi. 2. La Regione valorizza e promuove tutte le forme di espressione artistica del patrimonio storico linguistico quali il teatro tradizionale e moderno in lingua lombarda, la musica popolare lombarda, il teatro di marionette e burattini, la poesia, la prosa letteraria e il cinema. 3. La Regione promuove, anche in collaborazione con le università della Lombardia, gli istituti di ricerca, gli enti del sistema regionale e altri qualificati soggetti culturali pubblici e privati, la ricerca scientifica sul patrimonio linguistico storico della Lombardia, incentivando in particolare: a) tutte le attività necessarie a favorire la diffusione della lingua lombarda nella comunicazione contemporanea, anche attraverso l'inserimento di neologismi lessicali, l'armonizzazione e la codifica di un sistema di trascrizione; b) l'attività di archiviazione e digitalizzazione; c) la realizzazione, anche mediante concorsi e borse di studio, di opere e testi letterari, tecnici e scientifici, nonché la traduzione di testi in lingua lombarda e la loro diffusione in formato digitale."
^Note that Loporcaro uses the term dialetto 'dialect' throughout the book, intended as 'non-national language'. Since dialect has a different connotation in English, we avoid it here.
^Note that Maiden 1997:273 harvcolnb error: no target: CITEREFMaiden1997 (help) separates Emilian and Romagnol, with Bolognese characterized as transitional between the two.
^Hull, Geoffrey, PhD thesis 1982 (University of Sydney), published as The Linguistic Unity of Northern Italy and Rhaetia: Historical Grammar of the Padanian Language. 2 vols. Sydney: Beta Crucis, 2017.
^Andreose, Alvise; Renzi, Lorenzo (2013), "Geography and distribution of the Romance Languages in Europe", in Maiden, Martin; Smith, John Charles; Ledgeway, Adam (eds.), The Cambridge History of the Romance Languages, Vol. 2, Contexts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 303 |volume= has extra text (help)
Rapetti, Lori, ed. (2000). Phonological theory and the dialects of Italy. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series IV Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. 212. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.
NavigAIS Online version of the Sprach- und Sachatlas Italiens und der Südschweiz (AIS) (Linguistic and Ethnographic Atlas of Italy and Southern Switzerland)