Note from Cher: While we do A LOT of Italian-related stuff at The Iceberg Project, we don’t plan trips for you. That’s why I love partnering with a few key travel agents and planners so you can have the trip you keep daydreaming about – whether that’s visiting the town your family is from or doing a monthlong exploration of the south. In this post, you’ll meet one of the co-founders of Santoro Tours, a company that specializes in trips to Sicily. Buona lettura!
Did you know there are 22 official dialects in Italy? And hundreds of un-official small-town dialects too!
No wonder when I arrived in Italy, after having studied Italian for 6 months, I still found myself thinking ‘Am I in the right country?’ and ‘Did I learn anything in my 6 months of study in every spare moment?’
My excitement to ‘try on’ my Italian quickly faded! I flew down to Sicily to meet my future suocera and remember thinking that no one had warned me that Sicilians spoke a different language! When we went to Palermo for the day (a Sicilian city about 3 hours from where my husband was born), I came to realize the challenge of dialect – especially when my mother-in-law and hubby couldn’t understand what the taxi driver had said and I could!!!
The official Italian that us stranieri learn is closest to the Italian spoken around the region of Florence, Tuscany. Meaning, if you travel to Florence you’ll understand what the locals are saying better in comparison to anywhere else in Italy. So, going to Florence is a must! (That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it – Florence is second best only to Rome in my opinion, secondo me.
Tell Me Why Dialects Exist
So how did this happen? Italy has so many cultural influences over its long and exciting history because of its close location to many other European countries. Over time, being invaded by many other countries over the millennium has made it a melting pot of cultures and language.
This all came to a head in the 20th Century when Italians began moving around the country in World War I and it was required that troops from all over Italy come together to fight for their country. Turns out the soldiers and troops from different regions couldn’t understand each other!
If you travel up north near the Dolomites, you will hear that the dialect has a German inflection and down south in Sicily an Arabic one. So, Mussolini, the Italian dictator, declared war on dialects when he came to power in 1921. His goal was to have a unified Italy and having a unified language was a key part of his strategy. As it happens, many of the great texts written by Italy’s famous scholars like Dante and Petrarch were written in the Tuscan dialect so that became the official Italian taught in schools, written in newspapers and magazines, and spoken in media.
How Do I Understand Dialect?
So, what can you do when you travel around Italy and come across local dialect?
My top 6 tips:
- Don’t let the local dialect stop you from ‘trying on’ your Italian. Be strong – forza!
- Let the person you’re talking with know that you don’t understand and ask if could they please not use dialect. These days nearly everyone knows Italian too. Find yourself a phrase to express this such as “Io non parlo dialetto. È possible parlare in Italiano per favore?”
- Don’t be offended if they’re using dialect – it’s just habit. Remember that we’re guests in their country.
- Share your desire to learn – ask about the dialect words using phrases like ‘che significa? – what does that mean?’
Here is a list of phrases that Cher compiled that may be helpful if you’re trying to learn new words or understand what someone is saying.
- Google key words you hear – you’ll be amazed by what is online.
- Take some time to find your ‘ear’. I know, as I travel around Italy, it takes me a day or so when I arrive somewhere to get comfortable with the way the locals sound and pick up the unique pronunciation of the common words.
What Do Different Dialects Sound Like?
Here’s an example of the difference in dialect:
He said ‘The beach is beautiful here’
She said ‘Let’s go. Let’s go to our favourite place. We have been there many times.’
Lui dice ‘La spiaggia è bella qui’
Lei dice ‘Andiamo! Andiamo al nostro posto preferito. Ci siamo stati tante volte’.
Iddu dice ‘A spiaggia ē bedda ca.’
Idda dice ‘ Amunnini. Iemu o nossru posto favorito. Semo stati da tanti voti’
Overall – Don’t Stress!
Lastly, don’t stress about it! Even Italians have trouble understanding dialect from other areas of Italy. In fact, dialect from Napoli is particularly challenging for other Italians. One time I asked a young northerner what dialect his father was speaking and he said ‘It’s his own – he made it up and only the family understands it’. Aaaagghhh…. You just gotta laugh and don’t give up on the joy of learning Italian.
Check out our small group and personalized tours of Sicily and Italy on our website. If you’re an Italian language learner, we will help you advance your learning as we travel by providing resources, making time to converse in Italian as a group – especially whilst wining and dining – and setting fun tasks to encourage you to ‘try on’ your Italian. Language learning is a constant and ‘’use it or lose it” is the motto. I am still very much a learner, so we can continue the learning journey as we travel and my husband, Nino, is of course the expert, who will help us too!
Catherine is the co-owner of Santoro Tours with her husband, Nino Santoro. She also works internationally as a Consultant in Human Services. She and Nino live in both Australia and Italy, following the summer to both continents every year. Catherine is a passionate traveller who loves to immerse herself in new cultures and loves to share that journey of life with others who want to travel.