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Regional Italian, sometimes also called dialects of Italian, is any regional[note 1] variety 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 but imprecisely called dialects (dialetti), even though they are not dialects of Italian and are notably distinct from it.[note 2]
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", 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 normally cannot 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 (that 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. They began as a diversification between the ways of speaking Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire.
Though the Sicilian School, using the Sicilian language, had been prominent earlier, by the 14th century the Tuscan dialect of Florence had gained prestige once Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio all 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 in which he set up Petrarch as the perfect model. Italian, however, was a literary language and so was a written rather than a spoken language, except in Tuscany and Corsica.
In the parts of Italy that were colonized by other countries, official business was often conducted in the colonial power's language: 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 similar to literary Italian was Florence, so he thought that Italians should take Florentine usage as the basis for a renewal of the national language.
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 its unification in 1861 caused considerable linguistic diversification. At unification, the country used Italian 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": the metropolitan areas of Milan and Rome, which functioned as magnets for immigrants from the rest of Italy. Immigrants had only the national language to communicate with both locals and other immigrants. After 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 breakthroughs in literacy and the emergence of national television programs made Italian become more and more widespread, usually in its regional varieties.
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The solution to the so-called language question, which concerned Manzoni, came to the nation as a whole in the second half of the 20th century by television, as its 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. The use of Standard Italian helped the southerners, whose "dialects" were not mutually intelligible with those of northerners, assimilate. 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 their parents' "dialects".
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. That 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 either Italy or Standard Italian. A significant number of endangered dialects have survived, passed on from one generation to another to varying degrees. They have kept innumerable archaisms as well as 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.
To a much smaller degree, a similar situation occurred 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 also have easier access to Italian television, which almost exclusively broadcasts in the standard language.
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