When you think of Italy, chances are you are not thinking of a multilingual Country. This is quite a common misconception, given how most Italians often forgot that they live in a country in which multiple languages are spoken. As it happens, only six Italian regions out of twenty are monolingual, meaning they have no officially recognised linguistic minorities and it is esteemed that approximately 5% of the population does not consider Italian to be their native language. This is the result of centuries, if not millennia, of contacts and clashes between different civilisations, from the Turkish invasion of the south-eastern regions, to the Norman conquest of Sicily, from the disputes over the attribution of some of the northern regions of the peninsula to the mass migrations of the past three centuries. This constant contamination resulted in a wealth of linguistic identities, that has been recognised in recent years as a tremendous asset, opening new channels for intercultural communications. There are approximately seventeen different linguistic groups in Italy, not including dialects, but in this post we are going to focus on four of the larger communities and their languages.
The French speaking minority of Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta
French is a widely spoken language, mostly used as a national language in former French colonies, and it used to be the Lingua Franca of the western civilisation before English established itself in that particular position. In Italy, French was considered the most desirable second language to acquire, well into the XX Century, when the ties with America strengthened after WWII. In the north-western regions of Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta, French still has a wide currency, to the point that Valle D’Aosta has been officially recognised as a bilingual region since 1948. Historically, French was the language of the aristocracy, particularly in the territories governed by the Savoy family, and its use was so deeply rooted in the north-western regions of the Country that it stayed on as the official language of bureaucracy and religion for decades after the Savoy rule had come to an end. While French is recognised as an official language in Valle d’Aosta and used in public administration, daily interpersonal communication is more likely to happen in Franco-Provençal patois, a system of dialects that can be found in the north-west of the Country and, as a result of a XV century invasion, in the Apulian province of Foggia.
German in the north-east: a question of identity (and languages)
German, in various declinations that can sometimes be considered borderline dialects, is widely spoken in Trentino Alto Adige, particularly in the Bolzano province and in South Tyrol. This particular region was cut off from Austria as a result of WWI and the cultural and national identification with that Country has been unwavering and strong ever since, to the point that political movements periodically advocate for South Tyrol to become independent or be re-joined with Austria. It is quite common, for the inhabitants of this part of Italy, to consider Italian as their second language and to have a generally poorer command of it than they have of their other official languages, German and Ladin (an indo-european language also spoken in Friuli Venezia Giulia). Local newspapers and tv channels generally use German as their main language and it is quite common for the local population to watch Austrian and German television, thus making the whole community way more culturally detached from the neighbouring Italian regions than geography could justify.
The Slovenian minorities of the north-east
A small community in the easternmost part of the autonomous region of Friuli Venezia Giulia uses Slovenian as its first language. This is a recognised linguistic minority, but it is split into three groups, that speak different Slovenian dialects. In the Udine province, an archaic version of the Slovenian language is spoken: it crystallised as the Slovenian communities in the area were cut off from the motherland and influenced by the nearby republic of Venice. A language much more akin to modern-day Slovenian is spoken In Gorizia and Trieste, that were annexed to Italy as late as 1918 and have kept strong cultural ties with their former Country.
Albanian: a language frozen in time
The political unrest in the Balcan region has determined phenomena of mass-emigration towards Italy, but the Albanian migrants that landed on the Adriatic coast in the 90s were not the originators of the Albanian (or Arbërsh) linguistic minority in Italy. Albanian-speaking communities have been present in southern Italy since approximately the XV Century and they can be found in the regions of Campania, Calabria, Molise, Basilicata, Sicily and Apulia. Just like some of the German-speaking communities of the north, these linguistic groups have been isolated from the fatherland for century and only parted contaminated their language with the surrounding influences of Italian and of local regional dialects. As a result, the variety of Arbërsh commonly spoken in Italy is much closer to the ancient Albanian language than the strand that actually established itself and is currently spoken in Albania.
Griko: an ancient tradition at risk
The southernmost part of Apulia was a Greek colony for Century, together with parts of Sicily. Strong Greek influences can still be found in the local architecture, in the sound of some dialects and in traditional music and recipes. Greek was the commonly spoken language in the region of Apulia known as Salento until the Middle Ages, as well as in parts of Calabria and eastern Sicily. Some linguistic communities strongly resisted the Latin assimilation and refused to convert to the dominant language of the Roman Empire. As a result, an ancient dialect, known as Griko has survived on an almost entirely oral tradition made of songs and individual interactions. Griko is a creole mixture of ancient and medieval Greek and local dialects and is not spoken or understood by any other local community in the surrounding regions. Alas, due to its lack of written tradition, this beautiful language is at risk of disappearing completely and it has been the object of several cultural initiatives aimed at preserving it and passing it on.
The multilingual soul of Sardinia
The Sardinian linguistic minority had to struggle for decades before Sardinian was granted the status of language, as opposed to its previous classification as a dialect. Sardinia is a beautiful region with a complex cultural identity and its multilingualism doesn’t stop at the dichotomy of Sardinian and Italian. The Sardinian language itself is split into different dialects and the region also counts a consistent Catalan-speaking minority on the north-western coast. This is the legacy of centuries of Spanish rule, as well as the particular condition of the island, which is detached from the mainland both geographically and culturally and has never felt a strong pull towards cultural integration, maintaining a proud and independent spirit that is reflected in its cultural and culinary traditions as well as in its multilingualism.