Language &
in Europe
Ch 8 Italy: Language as a Weak
Marker of Identity
Overall role of language in Italy
• Language is a weak indicator of national identity
in Italy, despite substantial coincidence of
linguistic, national, and state boundaries
• Late development of standard Italian reduced its
relevance to identity; standard language has
become prevalent only with recent introduction of
mass media, and mutually incomprehensible
dialects remain local language varieties of choice
Italian identity politics
1. There are distinctive families of mutually
intelligible dialects in certain territories that have
2. Italian has a formal standard literary language
that is separate from any local spoken norm
(though there is a spoken version of the literary
language used by politicians)
These two facts sustain ethno-nationalist sentiments
• Lega = northern Italian separatist Lombardy
• Initially used northern dialects as an exclusionary
device, but later adopted a popular colloquial
variant of Italian to gain support for opposition to
• Rome and gov’t are perceived by many as distant,
unpredictable, corrupt -- motivating desire for
political self-determination
Language in Italy
• Most varieties in Italy
are Romance, nearly
all are variants of
Italian, based on
Tuscan dialect
• N dialects show Celtic
influence: GalloItalian & Venetian
• S dialects: Umbrian,
Language in Italy, cont’d.
• Remember that dialects are sisters, not
daughters, of Italian
• Many dialects have remained distinct, have
a variety of registers, and have produced
valuable literatures (e.g. 14th c Florentine)
• Today most Italians know the standard
language and speak a dialect of Italian
Dialects in Italy
• Sardinian dialects -- a
distinct language not
comprehensible to
mainland Italians
• Valle d’Aosta -- these
dialects are FrancoProvençal, not Italian,
and in this region both
French and Italian are
standard languages
Dialects in Italy, cont’d.
• Friuli region -- most
people are bi/tri-lingual,
using standard Italian,
German dialects, and
Friulian, which is a
Romance dialect related to
Romansch of Switzerland
(but considered by Italians
to be an Italian dialect)
Dialects in Italy, cont’d.
• Alto Adige/South
Tyrol (NE border) -bilingualism with
German, official
bilingualism has
defused demands for
unification with
Other small minorities with no
political demands
• Slovene in NorthEast
• Albanian & Italiot Greek in South
Back to Italian in Italy…
• Italians from North and South often find each
other’s speech unintelligible
• For most Italians, language is of secondary
importance, not a source of identity
• Political fragmentation lasted until 19th c, and this
contributed to linguistic fragmentation
• For centuries Latin was used as administrative
• Early attempts to create a standard language were
based on archaic literature and did not inspire real
Early nationalism
• Minimized internal linguistic differences for
unification purposes
• Maximized external linguistic differences
• BUT: “The majority of Italians were never
particularly interested in the process of
national unification, or in the creation of a
national language.”
1861 - Year of Italian Unification
• At that time, only 2.5% of the population spoke a
language called “italiano”, which was not a
marker of identity
• “the push for nationalism emerged from the
contempt the educated classes in cities had for
foreign occupiers”, but the peasantry did not
follow this lead
• “Italy had been created, now it is the Italians who
are to be made.”
But were the Italians ever made?
• In some sense, this never really happened
• Very high illiteracy rate persisted through 1930s,
keeping access to standard Italian low
But were the Italians ever made?
• Fascism brought standard
Italian to the masses:
propaganda, films,
universal primary
education emphasized
pride in the nation and
standard Italian
• Fascism brought a change
from formal to familiar
address, avoidance of
foreign borrowings, and
suppression of minority
After WWII
• After Fascism, fascist ideology, including
linguistic pride, receded
• 1950s brought an economic boom, mass
media, and migrations, which helped spread
standard language
• Political parties, trade unions, and social
movements also promoted spread of
standard language
Recent history
• 1960s-70s -- Large growth in proportion of
speakers of standard Italian -- grew to exceed 25%
who use it exclusively, 32% who use it alongside a
dialect (diglossia); still, proportion of people
speaking standard Italian is limited
• Upper strata use/identify with standard Italian the
• Dialects remain viable, gradually losing
distinctiveness due to mass communication and
geographic mobility
Language & politics
in Italy today
• Lega, which initially represented the North,
now has broader national appeal, perceives
language as a carrier of social identity,
sought to identify North Italian dialects as a
separate language, focus on street-tough,
macho language
• Recent resurgence of nationalist &
regionalist sentiments
Language & politics
in Italy today, cont’d.
• Lack of national pride due to losing WWII,
Mafia, and other social ills, corruption
• Standard Italian has become predominant,
but has lost its literary character

Language & Nationalism in Europe