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Well yes…..

One of the beauties of conversing in Italian with Italians is that they rarely chide you for errors – both sides somehow manage to make themselves understood.

Most Italians don’t actually speak Italian as their first language. What we all – and they all – call Italian is actually Florentine Italian. What most grow up speaking is the Romance language of their region. Or even smaller areas than a region.

It can get very specific too. Pozzuoli speaks something closer to Catalan, rather unlike the Neopolitan of only 10 miles away. The “dialetti” can be much further apart than, say, A Jethro Cornish and Scouse or Geordie. There are villages in Sicily that still speak something closer to Provencal than anything else. And that’s before we get to the little islands of Albanian up in the hills….

For the vast majority Italian itself is actually a second language.

18 thoughts on “Well yes…..”

  1. My late missus, although Austrian, was born and brought up in Lombardy. She spoke Italian with a rather posh Milanese accent that made waiters jump to attention.

    Documentaries always portray Mussolini as some buffoon gesticulating on balconies, but she used to make a very cogent point:

    “You lot like to poke fun at Mussolini, because he got the trains to run on time, but he did something very important: he made all Italians learn how to speak Italian.”

  2. So Much For Subtlety

    English language speakers, in my experience, are actually intolerant of people who don’t speak English properly. More so than anywhere else I know. Except perhaps Japan. And Paris.

    But everywhere people usually like people who are learning.

  3. I understand that this is also the case in Germany. The official dialect is Hochdeutsch, but the locals might speak Koelsch or Schwabisch or something.

  4. The French won’t tolerate anyone mangling their language. It’s hard to have a conversation in French because they keep interrupting you to correct trivial le/la errors.

    I’m not sure how much any of this applies to the present generation. The Aosta Valley is notionally French-speaking, South Tyrol is notionally German-speaking, yet every time I’ve been I’ve heard nothing but Italian. (Granted, the ski resorts probably attract seasonal workers from across the country rather than locals.)

    The data suggests that it’s mostly the older generation who still speak the old tongues, much like Welsh or Gaelic. Anybody under 40 speaks standard Italian, with regional accents and diction. (Contrast with France, where even the regional accents seem to be dying out.)

  5. Is there anywhere you’ll be chided for not speaking the language accurately, so long as you’re trying?


    Anyway, nice to see the Veneti still having some influence. Amazing how long tribal structure, culture and influence lasts.

  6. SMFS, I am only intolerant of foreign people not speaking English properly on customer helplines.

    Also, I knew a guy whose wife could speak 30+ languages. They never went abroad because she said the locals wouldn’t be speaking the language properly.

  7. Ticinese: comprehensible
    Milanese: not

    Andrew, you need to go to South Tyrol out of ski season to find out the region is largely German-speaking. It depends, as with most Balkanised places, on which village you are in, sometimes which side of which village.

    In German, the case/gender thing is retained, I am convinced, for the sole purpose of flagging up non-native speakers. Native speakers, at least educated ones, practically never make mistakes here, the gender is just part of the noun. In over 10 years, I’ve heard a native speaker misgender a noun on the radio twice. I remember because on both occasions I immediately leapt up to check and whooped with delight that they did actually get it wrong, and I am not alone in the world. My own hit-rate with genders is miserable.

    Gender conveys no useful information, case often doesn’t either, governed by preposition as much as what the word is actually doing. Many spoken dialects deal with the problem with the article contracted to “d-” or indistinguishable “-m/-n”, but in writing you are completely exposed.

    TMB will be along to correct me in 3, 2, …

  8. I sympathise with BiG, I have a terrible memory for gender. I try to speak Jerry as fast as my English so as to disguise the grammatical faults.

    Some gender does make sense and is overtly sexual

    eg Der Schlussel = key
    Die Schloss = lock


    The Sun is feminine and the Moon masculine, though. This dates back to pagan times and shows why the Romans thought that the early Germanics were a bunch of thickies.

  9. Otto – Schloss is neuter, which sadly spoils the Rocco Siffredi image you might have had in mind?

    Großer – am I too late? I think that German is even an official language in Italy, isn’t it?
    As to the functionality of gender in everyday language, there really isn’t one but I’d disagree with you a bit over cases which do have a grammatical role and help at the most basic level to distinguish between the subject, the direct object and the indirect object.

    You’re right that prepositions are tricky and can be dual purpose. The correct case is dependent on the context, as for when there is implied motion (when they take the accusative) or not (dative). None of this if it’s simply a question of making oneself understood at a basic level much matters. And then there’s the word order…

  10. You can get along in Italy using your Spanish.

    It was years ago but I once came across an Italian shop assistant who spoke no English but could speak French. In Milan, I think.

  11. Bugger, I’d have got away with it if it weren’t for those pesky.. etc etc 🙂

    Anyway, such was the militancy of the Sud Tirol Austrians in the 1960s especially that the Italians caved and gave them special status. The Sudtirolvolkspartei is still the main political party in that part of the world.

    Cases existed in Anglo Saxon, but French grammar largely superimposed itself on the English language. A surviving example is the subjunctive/were clause. The Saxons being rather practical people had a lot of trouble with the concept of describing an event that was not going to happen

    eg If I were rich, I would live in Barbados.

    So they developed “waere” as a special case on its own and we still retain its remnants today.
    I once tried to explain subjunctives to an English teacher using if-then programming statements. I found very quickly that I was wasting my time, she couldn’t get her head around the notion. Arts graduates (says the man with BA and MA in History).

  12. The Other Bloke in Italy

    Some excellent discussion up there.

    I can add only two observations.

    This morning, I and the barman spoke Italian when I was fixed up with a coffee, then when he resumed chatting with his friends, I could understand not a word. Sometimes he forgets, and talks to me in local.

    There are persistent stories of whole villages where the dialects on opposite sides of the street are mutually unintelligible.

  13. A running joke in Montalbano is miscommunication between il commissario (Sicilian) and his girlfriend (Genovese). It gets a bit lost in the subtitles, sadly.

    I’ve heard Spaniards speaking Spanish in Italy with a fair degree of success. Where the vocab diverges, it’s nearly always because Spanish adheres to the Latin, but Italian has had some Germanic influences (thanks, Goths). So mesa/tavola cerveza/birra etc.

  14. Many years ago, I was in an Alitalia queue at Heathrow. The people in front of me, presumably on a business trip as they looked quite smart, read out the flight number and used the word “onze”, which as any fule kno is French for eleven. But they weren’t speaking French, of that I was certain, they were talking Italian. I phoned the missus and asked her if it was a word in Italian and she concluded that it might be some weird Piedmontese dialect.

    It being Alitalia, the queue moved slowly so I could earwig their conversation : it turned out that one of their number was Spanish ( probably the boss, he spoke to someone on his mobile and it was defo Dago ) and the Italians were speaking Spanish to him but with Italian accents. It was very strange. “Once” is of course eleven in Spanish.

  15. I found the French very tolerant of my poor French in my five years there. I was trying, and they appreciated that.

    Some did switch to English, but rarely usefully. As bad as my French is I knew the technical words (e.g. spark plug, spouting, meat cuts) and they only had TV English.

    The rudest person by far was an Italian waiter in the Aosta valley, where French is common still.

    I was lectured a couple of times on grammar, but only in areas where the French disagree between themselves. Such as whether there is an s elision in rue des haies.

    The English are far less tolerant of my fluent but accented English than the French were is my broken French.

  16. I can’t believe that Italian is Florentine, because when I am in Florence, my pals have just stopped speaking ‘posh’ and lapse into Florentine because they know I can understand it. I understand Neapolitan best.

    The French, generally, will listen if they are not stressed, but mostly they are stressed and get grumpy, then refuse to listen. I think that it’s often lack of patience as much as anything. But, the only time I have ever had a successful conversation in French was with a Russian, because we’d both done it at School!

    In my experience, Italians like people who try – unlike the French, who believe that the world should speak French, the Italians are delighted to meet someone prepared to try! I have had discounts in restaurants for ordering in Italian, and even had a discount in a bookshop!

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