Languages of Italy
Regional and minority languages of Italy[1][2][3][4]
Regionalsee "classification"
Minoritysee "historical linguistic minorities"
SignedItalian Sign Language
Keyboard layout
Italian QWERTY
SourceSpecial Eurobarometer, Europeans and their Languages, 2006

The languages of Italy include Italian, which serves as the country's national language, in its standard and regional forms, as well as numerous local and regional languages, most of which, like Italian, belong to the broader Romance group. The majority of languages often labeled as regional are distributed in a continuum across the regions' administrative boundaries, with speakers from one locale within a single region being typically aware of the features distinguishing their own variety from one of the other places nearby.[6]

The official and most widely spoken language across the country is Italian, which started off based on the medieval Tuscan of Florence. In parallel, many Italians also communicate in one of the local languages, most of which, like Tuscan, are indigenous evolutions of Vulgar Latin. Some local languages do not stem from Latin, however, but belong to other Indo-European branches, such as Cimbrian (Germanic), Arbëresh (Albanian), Slavomolisano (Slavic) and Griko (Greek). Other non-indigenous languages are spoken by a substantial percentage of the population due to immigration.

Of the indigenous languages, twelve are officially recognized as spoken by linguistic minorities: Albanian, Catalan, German, Greek, Slovene, Croatian, French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladin, Occitan and Sardinian;[7] at the present moment, Sardinian is regarded as the largest of such groups, with approximately one million speakers, even though the Sardophone community is overall declining.[8][9][10][11][12][13] However, full bilingualism (bilinguismo perfetto) is legally granted only to the three national minorities whose mother tongue is German, Slovene or French, and enacted in the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and the Aosta Valley, respectively.

Language or dialect

See also: Regional Italian

Almost all of the Romance languages spoken in Italy are native to the area in which they are spoken. Apart from Standard Italian, these languages are often referred to as dialetti "dialects", both colloquially and in scholarly usage; however, the term may coexist with other labels like "minority languages" or "vernaculars" for some of them.[14] The label "dialect" may be understood erroneously to imply that the native languages spoken in Italy are "dialects" of Standard Italian in the prevailing English-language sense of "varieties or variations of a language".[15][16] This is not the case in Italy, as the country's long-standing linguistic diversity does not actually stem from Standard Italian. Most of Italy's variety of Romance languages predate Italian and evolved locally from Vulgar Latin, independently of what would become the standard national language, long before the fairly recent spread of Standard Italian throughout Italy.[17][16] In fact, Standard Italian itself can be thought of as either a continuation of, or a dialect heavily based on, the Florentine dialect of Tuscan.

The indigenous Romance languages of Italy are therefore classified as separate languages that evolved from Latin just like Standard Italian, rather than "dialects" or variations of the latter.[18][19][20] Conversely, with the spread of Standard Italian throughout Italy in the 20th century, local varieties of Standard Italian have also developed throughout the peninsula, influenced to varying extents by the underlying local languages, most noticeably at the phonological level; though regional boundaries seldom correspond to isoglosses distinguishing these varieties, these variations of Standard Italian are commonly referred to as Regional Italian (italiano regionale).[16]

Twelve languages have been legally granted official recognition as of 1999, but their selection to the exclusion of others is a matter of some controversy.[15] Daniele Bonamore argues that many regional languages were not recognized in light of their communities' historical participation in the construction of the Standard Italian language: Giacomo da Lentini's and Cielo d'Alcamo's Sicilian, Guido Guinizelli's Bolognese, Jacopone da Todi's Umbrian, Neapolitan, Carlo Goldoni's Venetian and Dante's Tuscan are considered to be historical founders of the Standard Italian linguistic majority; outside of such epicenters are, on the other hand, Friulian, Ladin, Sardinian, Franco-Provençal and Occitan, which are recognized as distinct languages.[21] Michele Salazar found Bonamore's explanation "new and convincing".[22]

Legal status of Italian

Italian was first declared to be Italy's official language during the Fascist period, more specifically through the R.D.l., adopted on 15 October 1925, with the name of Sull'Obbligo della lingua italiana in tutti gli uffici giudiziari del Regno, salvo le eccezioni stabilite nei trattati internazionali per la città di Fiume.[23]

The original Italian constitution does not explicitly express that Italian is the official national language. Since the constitution was penned, there have been some laws and articles written on the procedures of criminal cases passed that explicitly state that Italian should be used:

Historical linguistic minorities

Recognition by the Italian state

Communities recognized by Italy as historical linguistic minorities[25][26]

The Republic safeguards linguistic minorities by means of appropriate measures.

— Italian Constitution, Art. 6

Art. 6 of the Italian Constitution was drafted by the Founding Fathers to show sympathy for the country's historical linguistic minorities, in a way for the newly founded Republic to let them become part of the national fabric and distance itself from the Italianization policies promoted earlier because of nationalism, especially during Fascism.[27][28][29] Since 1934, Minister Francesco Ercole had excluded in fact from the school curriculum any language other than Italian, in accordance with the policy of linguistic nationalism.[30]

For the Constitutional Court of the Italian Republic, Article 6 of the Constitution represents "the overcoming of the closed notion of the 19th-century national State and a reversal of great political and cultural significance, compared to the nationalistic attitude manifested by Fascism" as well as being "one of the fundamental principles of the current constitutional system".[31]

However, more than a half century passed before the Art. 6 was followed by any of the above-mentioned "appropriate measures".[32] Italy applied in fact the Article for the first time in 1999, by means of the national law N.482/99.[7] According to the linguist Tullio De Mauro, the Italian delay of over 50 years in implementing Article 6 was caused by "decades of hostility to multilingualism" and "opaque ignorance".[33]

Before said legal framework entered into force, only four linguistic minorities (the French-speaking community in the Aosta Valley; the German-speaking community and, to a limited extent, the Ladin one in the Province of Bolzano; the Slovene-speaking community in the Province of Trieste and, with less rights, the Province of Gorizia) enjoyed some kind of acknowledgment and protection, stemming from specific clauses within international treaties.[27] The other eight linguistic minorities were to be recognized only in 1999, including the Slovene-speaking minority in the Province of Udine and the Germanic populations (Walser, Mocheni and Cimbri) residing in provinces different from Bolzano. Some now-recognized minority groups, namely in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Sardinia, already provided themselves with regional laws of their own. It has been estimated that less than 400.000 people, out of the two million people belonging to the twelve historical minorities (with Sardinian being the numerically biggest one[12][8][13]), enjoyed state-wide protection.[34]

Around the 1960s, the Italian Parliament eventually resolved to apply the previously neglected article of the country's fundamental Charter. The Parliament thus appointed a "Committee of three Sages" to single out the groups that were to be recognized as linguistic minorities, and further elaborate the reason for their inclusion. The nominated people were Tullio de Mauro, Giovan Battista Pellegrini and Alessandro Pizzorusso, three notable figures who distinguished themselves with their life-long activity of research in the field of both linguistics and legal theory. Based on linguistic, historical as well as anthropological considerations, the experts eventually selected thirteen groups, corresponding to the currently recognized twelve with the further addition of the Sinti and Romani-speaking populations.[35] The original list was approved, with the only exception of the nomadic peoples, who lacked the territoriality requisite and therefore needed a separate law. However, the draft was presented to the law-making bodies when the legislature was about to run its course, and had to be passed another time. The bill was met with resistance by all the subsequent legislatures, being reluctant to challenge the widely-held myth of "Italian linguistic homogeneity",[32] and only in 1999 did it eventually pass, becoming a law. In the end, the historical linguistic minorities have been recognized by the Law no. 482/1999 (Legge 15 Dicembre 1999, n. 482, Art. 2, comma 1).[7][36]

Some interpretations of said law seem to divide the twelve minority languages into two groups, with the first including the non-Latin speaking populations (with the exception of the Catalan-speaking one) and the second including only the Romance-speaking populations. Some other interpretations state that a further distinction is implied, considering only some groups to be "national minorities".[32][37] Regardless of the ambiguous phrasing, all the twelve groups are technically supposed to be allowed the same measures of protection;[38] furthermore, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, signed and ratified by Italy in 1997, applies to all the twelve groups mentioned by the 1999 national law, therefore including the Friulians, the Sardinians,[39][40][41] the Occitans, the Ladins etc., with the addition of the Romani.

In actual practice, not each of the twelve historical linguistic minorities is given the same consideration.[32] All of them still bear strong social pressure to assimilate to Italian, and some of them do not even have a widely acknowledged standard to be used for official purposes.[42] In fact, the discrimination lay in the urgent need to award the highest degree of protection only to the French-speaking minority in the Aosta Valley and the German one in South Tyrol, owing to international treaties.[43] For example, the institutional websites are only in Italian with a few exceptions, like a French version of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.[44] A bill proposed by former prime minister Mario Monti's cabinet formally introduced a differential treatment between the twelve historical linguistic minorities, distinguishing between those with a "foreign mother tongue" (the groups protected by agreements with Austria, France and Slovenia) and those with a "peculiar dialect" (all the others). The bill was later implemented, but deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.[45][46]

Recognition at the European level

Italy is a signatory of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but has not ratified the treaty, and therefore its provisions protecting regional languages do not apply in the country.[47]

The Charter does not, however, establish at what point differences in expression result in a separate language, deeming it an "often controversial issue", and citing the necessity to take into account, other than purely linguistic criteria, also "psychological, sociological and political considerations".[48]

Regional recognition of the local languages

Comparison between the domains of the Duchy of Milan in the 14th century (in green) and the modern geographical borders of the Lombard language (in yellow)

Conservation status

Frequency of use of regional languages in Italy, as the sole or principal languages at home, based on ISTAT data from 2015[63]

According to the UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, there are 31 endangered languages in Italy.[64] The degree of endangerment is classified in different categories ranging from 'safe' (safe languages are not included in the atlas) to 'extinct' (when there are no speakers left).[65]

The source for the languages' distribution is the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger[64] unless otherwise stated, and refers to Italy exclusively.


Definitely endangered

Severely endangered


All living languages indigenous to Italy are part of the Indo-European language family.

They can be divided into Romance languages and non-Romance languages. The classification of the Romance languages of Italy is controversial, and listed here are two of the generally accepted classification systems.

Romance languages

Loporcaro[68] proposes a classification of Romance languages of Italy based on Pellegrini,[69] who groups different Romance languages according to areal and some typological features. The following five linguistic areas can be identified:[70]

The following classification is proposed by Maiden:[72]

Non-Romance languages

Albanian, Slavic, Greek and Romani languages

Language Family ISO 639-3 Dialects spoken in Italy Notes Speakers
Arbëresh Albanian Tosk aae . recognized as a variant of the Albanian strain by UNESCO[64] 100,000
Croatian Slavic South Western hr Molise Croatian 1,000
Slovene (slovenščina) Slavic South Western slv Gai Valley dialect; Resian; Torre Valley dialect; Natisone Valley dialect; Brda dialect; Karst dialect; Inner Carniolan dialect; Istrian dialect 100,000
Italiot Greek Hellenic (Greek) Attic ell Griko (Salento); Calabrian Greek 20,000
Romani Indo-Iranian Indo-Aryan Central Zone Romani rom By ISO 639-3 classification, Sinte Romani is the individual language most present in Italy in the Romany macrolanguage

High German languages

Language Family ISO 639-3 Dialects spoken in Italy Notes Speakers
German Middle German East Middle German deu Tyrolean dialects Austrian German is the usual standard variety 315,000
Cimbrian Upper German Bavarian-Austrian cim sometimes considered a dialect of Bavarian, also considered an outlying dialect of Bavarian by the UNESCO[64] 2,200
Mocheno Upper German Bavarian-Austrian mhn considered an outlying dialect of Bavarian by the UNESCO[64] 1,000
Walser Upper German Alemannic wae 3,400

Geographic distribution

Northern Italy

The Northern Italian languages are conventionally defined as those Romance languages spoken north of the La Spezia–Rimini Line, which runs through the northern Apennine Mountains just to the north of Tuscany; however, the dialects of Occitan and Franco-Provençal spoken in the extreme northwest of Italy (e.g. the Valdôtain in the Aosta Valley) are generally excluded. The classification of these languages is difficult and not agreed-upon, due both to the variations among the languages and to the fact that they share isoglosses of various sorts with both the Italo-Romance languages to the south and the Gallo-Romance languages to the northwest.

One common classification divides these languages into four groups:

Any such classification runs into the basic problem that there is a dialect continuum throughout northern Italy, with a continuous transition of spoken dialects between e.g. Venetian and Ladin, or Venetian and Emilio-Romagnolo (usually considered Gallo-Italian).

All of these languages are considered innovative relative to the Romance languages as a whole, with some of the Gallo-Italian languages having phonological changes nearly as extreme as standard French (usually considered the most phonologically innovative of the Romance languages). This distinguishes them significantly from standard Italian, which is extremely conservative in its phonology (and notably conservative in its morphology).[73]

Southern Italy and islands

Approximate distribution of the regional languages of Sardinia and Southern Italy according to the UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger:

One common classification divides these languages into two groups:

All of these languages are considered conservative relative to the Romance languages as a whole, with Sardinian being the most conservative of them all.

Mother tongues of foreign citizens in Italy

Language (2018)[74][75] Population
Romanian 806,938
Albanian 441,027
Arabic 420,980
Chinese 299,823
Spanish 285,664
Ukrainian 239,424
Filipino 168,292
Italian 162,148
Others 892,283

Standardised written forms

Although "[al]most all Italian dialects were being written in the Middle Ages, for administrative, religious, and often artistic purposes",[76] use of local language gave way to stylized Tuscan, eventually labeled Italian. Local languages are still occasionally written, but only the following regional languages of Italy have a standardised written form. This may be widely accepted or used alongside more traditional written forms:


See also

Notes and references

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  2. ^ "La variazione diatopica". Archived from the original on 16 February 2012.
  3. ^ [1] Archived 7 November 2005 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ AIS, Sprach-und Sachatlas Italiens und der Südschweiz, Zofingen 1928-1940
  5. ^ "Cittadini Stranieri in Italia - 2018".
  6. ^ "Italy". Ethnologue. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  7. ^ a b c Norme in materia di tutela delle minoranze linguistiche storiche, Italian parliament, retrieved 17 October 2015
  8. ^ a b "Letture e linguaggio. Indagine Multiscopo sulle famiglie "I cittadini e il tempo libero"" (PDF). ISTAT. 2000. pp. 106–107.
  9. ^ «With some 1,6 million speakers, Sardinia is the largest minority language in Italy. Sardinians form an ethnic minority since they show a strong awareness of being an indigenous group with a language and a culture of their own. Although Sardinian appears to be recessive in use, it is still spoken and understood by a majority of the population on the island.» Kurt Braunmüller, Gisella Ferraresi (2003). Aspects of multilingualism in European language history. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: University of Hamburg: John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 238.
  10. ^ «Nel 1948 la Sardegna diventa, anche per le sue peculiarità linguistiche, Regione Autonoma a statuto speciale. Tuttavia a livello politico, ufficiale, non cambia molto per la minoranza linguistica sarda, che, con circa 1,2 milioni di parlanti, è la più numerosa tra tutte le comunità alloglotte esistenti sul territorio italiano.» Wolftraud De Concini (2003). Gli altri d'Italia : minoranze linguistiche allo specchio. Pergine Valsugana: Comune. p. 196.
  11. ^ «Sebbene in continua diminuzione, i sardi costituiscono tuttora la più grossa minoranza linguistica dello stato italiano con ca. 1.000.000 di parlanti stimati (erano 1.269.000 secondo le stime basate sul censimento del 2001)». Sergio Lubello (2016). Manuale Di Linguistica Italiana. Manuals of Romance linguistics. De Gruyter. p. 499.
  12. ^ a b "Lingue di Minoranza e Scuola, Sardo". Archived from the original on 16 October 2018. Retrieved 12 January 2019.
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  22. ^ Michele Salazar (Università di Messina, Direttore Rivista giuridica della scuola) - Presentazione: (…) La spiegazione datane nell'opera sotto analisi appare nuova e convincente (…) il siciliano (…) il bolognese (…) l'umbro (…) il toscano (…) hanno fatto l'italiano, sono l'italiano - Bonamore, Daniele (2008). Lingue minoritarie Lingue nazionali Lingue ufficiali nella legge 482/1999, Editore Franco Angeli
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  25. ^ Sergio Lubello (2016). Manuale Di Linguistica Italiana. Manuals of Romance linguistics. De Gruyter. p. 506.
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  37. ^ [2] Archived 16 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine
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  41. ^ "Il Consiglio d'Europa: "Lingua sarda discriminata, norme non-rispettate"". 24 June 2016.
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  43. ^ See the appeal of the attorney Felice Besostri against the Italian electoral law of 2015.
  44. ^ "Chambre des députés".
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  54. ^ "L.R. 25/2016 - 1. Ai fini della presente legge, la Regione promuove la rivitalizzazione, la valorizzazione e la diffusione di tutte le varietà locali della lingua lombarda, in quanto significative espressioni del patrimonio culturale immateriale, attraverso: a) lo svolgimento di attività e incontri finalizzati a diffonderne la conoscenza e l'uso; b) la creazione artistica; c) la diffusione di libri e pubblicazioni, l'organizzazione di specifiche sezioni nelle biblioteche pubbliche di enti locali o di interesse locale; d) programmi editoriali e radiotelevisivi; e) indagini e ricerche sui toponimi. 2. La Regione valorizza e promuove tutte le forme di espressione artistica del patrimonio storico linguistico quali il teatro tradizionale e moderno in lingua lombarda, la musica popolare lombarda, il teatro di marionette e burattini, la poesia, la prosa letteraria e il cinema. 3. La Regione promuove, anche in collaborazione con le università della Lombardia, gli istituti di ricerca, gli enti del sistema regionale e altri qualificati soggetti culturali pubblici e privati, la ricerca scientifica sul patrimonio linguistico storico della Lombardia, incentivando in particolare: a) tutte le attività necessarie a favorire la diffusione della lingua lombarda nella comunicazione contemporanea, anche attraverso l'inserimento di neologismi lessicali, l'armonizzazione e la codifica di un sistema di trascrizione; b) l'attività di archiviazione e digitalizzazione; c) la realizzazione, anche mediante concorsi e borse di studio, di opere e testi letterari, tecnici e scientifici, nonché la traduzione di testi in lingua lombarda e la loro diffusione in formato digitale."
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  68. ^ Loporcaro 2009
  69. ^ Pellegrini 1977
  70. ^ Note that Loporcaro uses the term dialetto 'dialect' throughout the book, intended as 'non-national language'. Since dialect has a different connotation in English, we avoid it here.
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