There are approximately thirty-four native living spoken languages and related dialects in Italy, most of which are largely independent Romance languages. Although they are sometimes colloquially referred to as dialects or regional languages, they are almost all distributed in a continuum across the regions' administrative boundaries, and speakers from one locale within a single region are 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, a direct descendant of Tuscan. However, in parallel, most Italians also communicate in one of the regional languages that are indigenous evolutions of Vulgar Latin.
Almost all the Romance languages native to Italy, with the notable exception of Italian, are often colloquially referred to as "dialects", although 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 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
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.
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.
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. In fact, the discrimination lies 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".
Venetian is unofficial but recognised (Legge regionale 13 aprile 2007, n. 8, Art. 2, comma 2).
Frequency of use of regional languages in Italy, as the sole or principal languages at home, based on ISTAT data from 2015.
According to the UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, there are 31 endangered languages in Italy. The degree of endangerment is classified in different categories ranging from 'safe' (safe languages are not included in the atlas) to 'extinct' (when there are no speakers left).
The source for the languages' distribution is the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger unless otherwise stated, and refers to Italy exclusively.
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 different classification systems.
Romance languages (Ethnologue)
The source is the SIL's Ethnologue unless otherwise stated. Language classification can be a controversial issue, when a classification is contested by academic sources, this is reported in the 'notes' column.
Sardinian (sardu) is a distinct language with significant phonological differences among its own varieties (Ethnologue assigns it four separate ISO codes). Some linguists, like Heinrich Lausberg, proposed that Sardinian is the sole living representative its branch of the Romance languages, which used to comprise the now extinct Afro-Romance dialects as well as the Corsican dialects before they underwent Tuscanization. UNESCO, while calling Gallurese and Sassarese "Sardinian", considers them to be originally dialects of Corsican rather than Sardinian. The linguistic landscape of Sardinia is in principle most accurately described as being a dialect continuum.
Outlying dialect of Corsican, sometimes considered part of Sardinian
Romance languages (Loporcaro)
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 varieties (dialetti settentrionali):
Gallo-Italic (Emilian, Piedmontese, Lombard, and Ligurian).
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:
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;
Sardinian: "Limba sarda comuna" was experimentally adopted in 2006;
Friulian: "Grafie uficiâl" created by the Osservatori Regjonâl de Lenghe e de Culture Furlanis;
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 December 14, 2017, under the name of "Grafia Veneta Ufficiale".
Detailed map of the languages and dialects in Italy, net of the recognised ethno-linguistic minorities
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)
^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
^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
^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.
^«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, the more neutral term variety is used here.
^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
^Grafîa ofiçiâ, Académia Ligùstica do Brénno, retrieved 17 October 2015
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)