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Regional Italian, sometimes also called dialects of Italian, refers to regional[note 1] varieties of the Italian language. The various forms of Regional Italian have features, most notably phonological, prosodic, and lexical that originate from the underlying substrate languages, the regional languages of Italy. The latter, especially those without political recognition, are customarily, though imprecisely, labeled dialects (dialetti), even though they are not dialects of Italian and are notably distinct from it.[note 2] Tuscan, Corsican and Central Italian are in some respects not distant from Standard Italian in their linguistic features, because the latter was based on a somewhat polished form of Florentine.
Regional Italian and the languages of Italy
The difference between Regional Italian and the regional languages of Italy, customarily imprecisely referred to as dialects, is exemplified by the following: In Venetian, the language of Venice, "we are arriving" would be expressed "sémo drio rivàr", which is quite distinct from the Standard Italian "stiamo arrivando". In the Regional Italian of Venice, the statement would be "stémo rivando". The same relationship holds throughout Italy: Italian as spoken locally is usually influenced by the underlying regional language, but the regional language can be very different with regard to phonology, morphology, syntax, and vocabulary. Anyone who knows Standard Italian well can understand Regional Italian, but at first exposure may not understand the regional languages.
Many Italian regions already had different substrata before the conquest of Italy by the Romans: Northern Italy had a Celtic substratum (this part of Italy was known as Gallia Cisalpina, "Gallia on this side of the Alps"), a Ligurian substratum, or a Venetic substratum. Central Italy had an Etruscan substratum, and Southern Italy had an Italic or Greek substratum. These began as a diversification between the ways of speaking Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire.
The spoken language of Florence gained prestige in the 14th century after Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio wrote major works in it: the Divina Commedia, the Canzoniere and the Decameron. It was up to Pietro Bembo, a Venetian, to identify Florentine as the language for all of Italy in the Prose della volgar lingua, where he set Petrarch up as the perfect model. Italian, however, was a literary language, and hence a written rather than a spoken language, except in Tuscany and Corsica.
In the parts of Italy that were colonized, official business was often conducted in the colonial power's language, i.e. in French, German, or Spanish.
The synthesis of a unified Italian language was the main goal of Alessandro Manzoni, who advocated building a national language derived mainly from Florence's vernacular. Italian was then an unwieldy means for expressing thought. Having lived in Paris for a long time, Manzoni had noticed that French, on the contrary, was a very lively language, spoken by ordinary people in the city's streets. The only Italian city where ordinary people spoke something pretty much like literary Italian was Florence, so Italians, in Manzoni's opinion, should take Florentine usage as the basis for a renewal of the national language.
Due to the Italian Peninsula's history of fragmentation and colonization by foreign powers (especially France, Spain and Austria-Hungary) between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and unification in 1861, there was considerable linguistic diversification. When Italy was unified in 1861, Italian existed mainly as a literary language. Many Romance regional languages were spoken throughout the Italian Peninsula, each with local variants. Following Italian unification Massimo Taparelli, marquis d'Azeglio, one of Cavour's ministers, is said to have stated that having created Italy, all that remained was to create Italians (a national identity).
Italian as a spoken language originated in two "linguistic labs", i.e. the metropolitan areas of Milan and Rome, that functioned as magnets for immigrants from the rest of Italy. Immigrants only had the national language to communicate with the locals and other immigrants. After Italy's unification, Italian was also taught in primary schools and its use by ordinary people developed along with mass literacy.
Various regional languages remained the normal means of expression of the populace until the 1950s, when, with breakthroughs in literacy and the emergence of national television programs, Italian became more and more widespread, usually in its regional varieties (Regional Italian varieties).
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The solution to the so-called language question that had also interested Manzoni came to the nation as a whole in the second half of the 20th century through television. The TV's widespread adoption as a popular household appliance in Italy was the main factor in helping all Italians learn the common national language regardless of class or education level. At roughly the same time, many southerners moved to the north to find jobs. The powerful trade unions successfully campaigned against the use of dialects to maintain unity among the workers. This allowed the southerners, whose "dialects" were not mutually intelligible with the northerners', to assimilate by using Standard Italian. The large number of mixed marriages, especially in large industrial cities such as Milan and Turin, resulted in a generation that could speak only Standard Italian, and usually only partly understand the "dialects" of their parents.
Primarily within North American Italian diaspora communities, Italian dialects that have nearly died out in Italy have been preserved in several major cities across Australia, Canada and the United States. This is due in large part to older-generation immigrants, often with low levels of education, having left Italy during or before World War II and maintaining little contact with Italy or with Standard Italian. A significant number of endangered dialects have survived, they've been passed on generationally to varying degrees, and have kept innumerable archaisms as well as have adopted linguistic features and lexical borrowings from American English, Canadian English, Canadian French, and Latin American Spanish, respective to the milieu of the individual community in question.
Similar holds true to much smaller degrees in Middle Eastern-Italian communities, namely those of Egypt and Lebanon, as well as South American-Italian diasporas in Argentina and Brazil. Italian diasporas within Europe tend to maintain much stronger ties with Italy and have easier access to Italian television as well, which almost exclusively broadcasts in the standard language.
- Regional in the broad sense of the word; not to be confused with the Italian endonym regione for Italy's administrative units
- The existence of the regional languages of Italy far predates the establishment of the national language and hence they do not descend from Italian, nor are they varieties of Italian.
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