NOTE: This is an updated version of an article originally posted in 2010 on a previous blog I ran called Modern Culture: Italy. The blog no longer exists; however, I am pulling and updating some of the articles that I found to be interesting enough to have a life here on Magnusmade.com.
Why don’t you understand me?
Many of you know, I was raised speaking both English and Italian – however, it wasn’t until my first experience meeting an Italian (from Italy) that I realized my language (or the Italian I was raised speaking) was not like theirs.
I’ve mentioned this about me in previous posts and interviews and thought I should elaborate for those who can relate, or just want to learn more.
1985: My first trip to Italy. I was the 10-ish years old. I went on this trip with my parents and siblings. We stayed at my grandparent’s home – where my father was raised. I was introduced to relatives: my father’s cousins, their children (my 3rd/4th cousins), his aunts/uncles, and childhood friends. I didn’t speak much, because I was overwhelmed by an unfamiliar environment and hearing the Italian language more frequently than I was used to hearing. So, it took some adjusting – both to the language and to the environment. I would say it was the first time I felt out of my element. But, I do remember thinking: Why is it difficult to understand a language I thought I knew? The language my parents and grandparents had spoken to me?
The simple answer was: Dialects.
A History of Italian Dialects
I’ll sum up the history – and I encourage you to please comment if you feel there are any discrepancies or inaccuracies. To start, one must consider the background on Italian dialects: definition and origin.
Dialects are local adaptations of a language based on the history of the region. Before its unification in the late 1800s, Italy consisted of several different regions/city-states – each containing their own traditions, history and influences – from Germany, Austria and France to Spain, Greece and Northern Africa. For example, the mid-16th century Spanish invasion/conquer of Naples and Southern Italy had a major affect on that area’s local language and grammar. Hence, the very Spanish-like sounds and words in the dialect my family spoke (being from the south) and which I was raised speaking.
Italy’s unification eventually pushed an official Italian language into place. It was through written literary works – and because Florence being one of the strongest of the country’s history of capital cities – that Dante’s Italian became the official language of Italy. Since then, the people of Italy spoke both their local dialect and the new unified Italian language – an attribute still carried on today – as if they are quasi-bilingual, as I would call it. However, with the common use and strong push for the ‘official Italian’, dialects began to weaken as they were only used within the home or unofficially within an area.
Dialects can differ so much between regions that it would be hard to communicate if not speaking the official Italian. They are stronger in the rural areas than in the major cities – where the official Italian is more commonly used to communicate amongst the mix of people.
My personal language struggles were a result of evolution and distance.
As I was saying, I struggled understanding and speaking to local Italians because I spoke only a dialect of the Italian language. And, I soon found out that the dialect I spoke – my family spoke – was aged. That dialects, too, evolve over time – incorporating more and more of the official Italian language into them.
(1) Local dialects sometimes adapt and adjust to the times. As communication barriers come down through technology and education, local dialects became over-shadowed by the official Italian language – however, accents still remain.
(2) Italians that settled abroad learned to adjust to their new language – whether it be English, etc – slowly adding words into their language, which obviously do not exist in Italy. At the same time, these Italians managed to keep their traditional local dialects alive, however adapting differently than the dialect used by their hometown people in Italy. As a result of being away from, thus not affected by, the evolving Italian language and culture – this emigrant Italian language could be considered its own dialect, or a preserved language.
Initially, I was ashamed of the dialect I knew – I didn’t like making mistakes and it was hard for me to claim I spoke Italian when I felt I really didn’t. As I returned to Italy every summer, and explored different regions, I realized that dialects characterized and defined a region’s tradition, culture, history, and people. And, sometimes they were cause of controversy or rivalry.
Eventually, I did learn the official Italian. For three summers, I was tutored by a family friend – a former teacher. Every afternoon, I would sit with her and learn to read, write, and pronounce the proper Italian – as used in schools and all throughout the country. We started with children’s workbooks, learning the basics, then gradually added reading, sentence structure, and some composition.
With her encouragement, I continued my reading at home – my grandparent’s home. I started with comic books featuring Topolino (Micky Mouse) and Paperino (Donald Duck), eventually graduating to one of my favorites, Corto Maltese. At the same time, I read elementary level books, then moved up to middle grade, and so on, continuing to improve my reading.
Also during these Italian summers, my local friends introduced me to the music of the time. I would purchase cassettes and read the lyrics as I listened to the music of the period: Vasco Rossi, Zucchero, Luca Carboni, Eros Ramazzotti, and Jovanotti. All while conversing with my friends and improving constantly.
At the end of summer, when I returned to the USA, I would exchange letters with some of my Italian friends. We would practice each other’s language. They would write to me in English and I would respond in Italian – sometimes swapping language within the same letter. At the start of the following summer, we would reconnect back in Italy and laugh about all of our mistakes.
Here in USA, I attended Sunday sessions of Italian language classes. And in college, I took Italian language classes – always to continue to improve my skill level.
Over time, my Italian improved. And to this day, I continue to occasionally read an Italian novel, news article, or watch a film or TV series, and of course, travel to Italy, all to keep up with the language. However, it takes me about a day or two to adjust to speaking Italian full time. And, still to this day, I mess up my verb conjugations – thus, my language flaw exposed.
In the end, I suppose, with knowing and understanding the Italian language, in addition to being raised with the local dialect, I had become a quasi-bilingual Italian myself… or I suppose, being raised also speaking English (my native language) would make me a tri-lingual now? Ha!
Assignment: Learn a dialect phrase or word from your closest Italian friend. Find out from where does his/her family originate and what culture influenced that dialect.