For centuries the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of hundreds of dialects, often as different from one another as French from Spanish or English from Italian. Sailors from Genoa couldn’t understand—or be understood by—merchants from Venice or farmers from Friuli. Florentines living in il centro, the historic heart of the city, couldn’t speak the dialect of San Frediano on the other side of the Arno.
A few dialects are relatively similar to the national language, but others—such as Piemontese, Neapolitan and Sicilian—are distinct enough to qualify as separate languages. Consider one example: A “head” is testa in Italian; co’ in Lombard; teta in Piedmontese; capoccia in Romanesco; coccia in Molisan; capa in Neopolitan; chepa in Lucanian; and conca in Sardinian. A thousand years ago Italian Jews fashioned a dialect of their own mixed with Hebrew, now called Italkian, which is still spoken by about four thousand natives. A Venetian translated Shakespeare’s plays into his dialect because he felt that Italian was insufficient to transmit their emotional complexity.
When Italy became a unified nation in 1861, more than 90 percent of its new citizens spoke only or predominantly in dialect. For generations most Italians were—and to some extent still are—bilingual, speaking a local dialect with family and friends and the “italiano standard” learned at school in public. Despite the fascist regime’s ban on their use, dialects—like traditional regional folk dances such as the tarantella—have survived. Today, according to Italy’s national statistics bureau, 55 percent of Italians still use dialect some or most of the time when they are with family and friends. A quarter use dialect even when speaking to strangers.
For foreigners, dialect words add to the dizzying complexity of the language. Depending on where you are in Italy, you might sit on a sedia, seggiola or seggia;blow your nose into a fazzoletto, pezzuolo or moccichino; and wear calzini, calzette, calze, calzettoni, calzettini or pedalini with your shoes. Bambino may be the proper Italian word for a small child, but a “kid” remains a bimbo in Florence, a cittino in Siena, a puteo in Venice, a figgeu in Savona (Liguria), a burdel in Romagna, a frut in Friuli, and a quatraro in some southern dialects. Whatever they are called, Italian kids are cherished by their mothers. As a well-known Neapolitan saying puts it, “ogni scarrafon’ è bello a mammà soja.” “Every cockroach is beautiful in its mother’s eyes.”
Here are some other words and expressions in Italian dialects:
Li mortacci tua! — Roman slang, literally “bad wishes to your lousy dead ancestors!”
Romano de Roma — A Roman whose family has lived in the city for several generations
Tirrem innanz –- Milanese dialect for continuing onward despite difficulty, not giving up even though it’s hard.
Ca’gia fa — Neapolitan for “What can we do?”
Ajò –- Sardinian for “c’mon!”, “let’s go!”
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; MONA LISA: A Life Discovered; and “A” Is for Amore, which you can download for free at diannehales.com.