Lessons in Dialect: Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Lessons in Dialect

I can’t speak Italian. Neither could most of my ACLE colleagues; that’s why my first camp director and her friend liked to get us to repeat various phrases we didn’t understand, falling about laughing when they heard them. One evening, they started teaching us dialect and so, in the first week of my travels, a mission was born. I was going to learn the same phrase in the dialect of every region I visited.

Charlie has visited an impressive sixteen different regions of Italy, and learned the same phrase in each one! (Photographer: Nicola; Flickr)

Charlie has visited an impressive sixteen different regions of Italy, and learned the same phrase in each one! (Photographer: Nicola; Flickr)

Here are some notes on the phrases I collected throughout my time in Italy:

• In the interests of pronunciation, I have followed each phrase with a version using British English phonemes where necessary.
• I have grouped them according to location, with those areas close to each other listed together, so it is easier to see the similarities and differences.
• For any Italian readers, apologies for the expletive in the Sicilian phrase. It couldn’t really be helped!
• Also for any Italian readers, please correct my spelling where necessary!

‘What are you doing?!’ (In sixteen different dialects, spoken with the necessary angry/confused hand shaking and in an aggressive tone).
Italiano (true Italian): ‘Cosa stai facendo?!’ (Cozza sty fachendo?!)


Padovan: Coxa sito drio fare? (Coxa seato dreeo fah-reh?)
Cavallino: Cossa sisto drio far? (Cossa sisto dreeoh far?)
Venetian: Cossa ti si drio far? (Cossa tee see dreeoh far?)
Vicentino: Cosa fetto? (Cozza fetto?)
Mantovan: Cosa set dre far? (Cozza set dreh far?)
Bergamo: Set dre a far? (Set dreh a far?)
Castel Goffredo: Cosa se de a far? (Cozza say say a far?)
Gorla Minore: Cousa te set dre fa? (Coosa ti set dreh fa?)
Milanese: Sa te dre fa cousé? (Sa teh dreh fa coosé?)
Savonese: Cose ti feh? (Cousseh ti fé?)
South Piemontese: So cet foi? (So chet foy?)
Roman: Che stai a fa? (Keh sty a fa?)
Neapolitan: Ma che stai faschen? (Ma keh sty faschen? I know there’s a problem with the way I’ve spelled ‘faschen’ in the Italian version — in the absence of knowledge I used the British phoneme to denote a ‘sh’ sound, but included the ‘c’ for stress and emphasis — it’s not an entirely soft sound).
Pugliese: Ma cesta fa? (Ma chesta fa?)
 Sicilian: Ma che minchia fa? (Ma keh minkia fa?)

'Ma che minchia fa?!' Try this one out in Sicily, but be careful not to offend Italians elsewhere! (Photographer: Jari Mäkilä; Flickr)

‘Ma che minchia fa?!’ Try this one out in Sicily, but be careful not to offend Italians elsewhere! (Photographer: Jari Mäkilä; Flickr)

You can see from this how similar the dialect is in parts of the country ranging from the northern regions of Venice across to Milan. Many people from these areas can understand one another quite easily when they’re speaking in dialect. However, when you consider how close places like Milan, Gorla, Bergamo, Vicenza, Mantua and Castel Goffredo are (they’re all situated within a roughly 50 kilometre radius), you realise that their dialects are really quite different despite their proximity to one another. Move down south and the snappy shouts of the Romans, the Sicilians and the Pugliese are almost unrecognisable from the rolling syllables of the north. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that ‘Che stai a fa?’ and ‘Cosa sito drio fare?’ were completely different questions!
In the second instalment of this mini-series, I will consider some of the socio-political reasons behind why dialect still has such a presence in Italy, as well as sharing some interesting anecdotes I learned from host-families along the way.


Lessons in Dialect: Part 2 (Socio-political Influences)

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Lessons in Dialect

Speaking of the country as a unified whole, Italy is very young. Its history is complex and confusing and I cannot make any claims to expertise here, but scholars generally agree that the Risorgimento that led to Italian unification began around 1815 with the Congress of Vienna and the end of Napoleonic rule. Unification was then achieved around 1871, when Rome officially became the capital of what was known as the ‘Kingdom of Italy’. Before this time, ‘Italy’ was separated into many different ‘city-states’, each with its own ruling family trying to extend their territory and influence, as well as overseas monarchs (such as the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France), fighting over which part was ‘theirs’.

Florence: the centre of the Italian language?(Photographer: Toni Rodrigo; Flickr)

Florence: the centre of the Italian language? (Photographer: Toni Rodrigo; Flickr)

What does this all mean for Italian as a language? Florentines claim ownership of ‘true Italian’ as we know it — largely because the Tuscan dialect is the closest to classical Latin, because of how large and central Tuscany is, and because of what has been described as the ‘aggressive commerce’ of Florence, Tuscany’s ‘most influential city.’ Florence also produced Dante, Petrarca and Bocaccio, who arguably did for Italian what Shakespeare, Milton and Tyndale did for English. However, across the rest of Italy, regions had developed their own languages that didn’t just differ from region to region, but from city to city and even town to town. Much like the similarities in the development of Cornish and Breton through their closeness in trade and commerce, you find surprising links and similarities in the dialects of various parts of Italy and its neighbouring countries.

The further in to the Dolomites you go, the more Germanic the dialect sounds. Likewise, visit Savona or Genoa, and their dialects are very similar to those spoken in the northern coastal regions of Sardinia — largely due to trade and migration. I remember my Savonese host-mother telling me that when her mother — who was from a town called Liguria, just outside of Savona — met her future husband (from Sardinia), she felt she was only able to trust him fully and therefore marry him because they spoke such a similar dialect.

Savona, Italy. (Photographer: Jorge Brazil; Flickr)

Savona, Italy. (Photographer: Jorge Brazil; Flickr)

Even across many parts of Italy today, dialect is what children grow up speaking at home and ‘true Italian’ is what they speak at school. So, when Italy became unified, there wasn’t necessarily one common language. My Savonese host-father told me stories about the utter chaos in the First World War that occurred as  a result of this: apparently, young recruits from all corners of the country would assemble for training miles from home with little or no knowledge of any language apart from their local dialect, and be almost completely unable to understand the commands issued to them by leaders from other regions.

Dialect is still a stronghold across huge parts of Italy today. Along with the Italian reverence for family, this is probably one of the many contributing factors as to why Italians have historically remained within the area in which they grew up. Their cultural identity isn’t just a national one but a regional one, and many of the Italians that I met are immensely proud of their dialect.

I love studying words and etymology, particularly with regard to how social and political conditions have affected language, and this task of learning a little about Italian dialect was absolutely fascinating. It has provided me with a  greater understanding of Italians and their national identity, what has made them who they are, how they think, their history as a nation and how all of this is reflected in the Italy I experienced when I visited this summer just passed. What started by accident, as a laugh with a camp director and my friends, has turned into a thrilling exploration of language, lifestyle and history, and I am by no means finished with it yet.