As he nears the gate of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante is accosted by the giant Nimrod, whose blasphemy in building the Tower of Babel has landed him in chains in the citadel of treachery. Other shades at least have the consolation of telling the traveller their stories, but since it was he “through whose ill counsel in the world no more one tongue prevails,” all he can manage is the gibberish “Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi!” “Each language is to him, as his to others, understood by none.”
One wonders if this gave Dante pause. After all, he did more than anyone else to catapult Italian from a degraded form of Latin to a literary language in its own right. Of course, it was neither Dante nor Petrarch nor anyone else that made people lapse from the speech of their Roman forebears. But legitimising the vernacular in writing represented a cataclysmic change. Centuries after the fall of Rome, Latin’s imperium was beginning to crumble.
They key fact here, the one that (God forbid) might land Dante in Dis, is that he wrote not in “Italian” per se, but in Tuscan. In his time, and well into the 20th Century, Italians spoke mainly in their native dialects. Thanks to Florence’s prominence in the Renaissance era, as well as its relatively neutral intelligibility, Tuscan became the basis for a new pan-Italian standard register. Starting with unification (under a Piedmontese king) in the 1860s, everyone had to learn it, and over the last century it became the language of daily life for most Italians.
Italy’s regional tongues are usually called dialects, but this is misleading. They did not develop from Italian (i.e. Tuscan), but alongside it. All of them are ultimately from Latin- strictly speaking, Vulgar Latin, the common colloquial form of the language. Although it was rarely written, we know a lot about it because men like Cicero devoted a good deal of time and energy to cataloguing and denouncing its errors. (It should be noted that even the man who did more than any other to define the language sometimes let his Latin lapse in informal letters).
The common tongue differed markedly in grammar and vocabulary from Classical Latin. But there do not seem to have been any problems with intelligibility, either between registers or between people from different parts of the Empire, in the imperial period. Unity was upheld mostly by the three pillars of commerce, literacy, and the army. When all three collapsed, dialectal drift accelerated dramatically. People were in denial well into the Middle Ages, in Italy longer than anywhere else, but by the 10th Century Italians finally started to acknowledge that they were no longer speaking Latin.
Today, thanks to mass media, education, and travel, virtually everyone speaks standard Italian. Traditional languages have retreated to the countryside, spoken mainly among intimate friends and family. In the wealthy, developed north, they are fading fast- even a dyed-in-the-wool Lombard will likely speak a blend of standard Italian with a strong local flavour.
Things are different in the sunny south. Italy’s biggest regional language is Neapolitan. It is spoken by over five million people, a third of the population south of Rome. Its vocabulary and grammar are broadly the same as standard Italian (to be fair, the same could be said of Spanish), but it has some standout characteristics. It preserves the neuter gender, and tends to drop terminal vowels, both of which are unusual among modern Romance languages. The latter could reflect Catalan influence- southern Italy was under foreign rule for much of its history, and the Aragonese, Spanish, and French all left linguistic legacies.
Outsiders struggle to understand Neapolitan, but travel further south and they may as well be in another country (a Genoese friend’s grandmother once rather rudely explained to me that Sicilians are not Italian, but African). Sicilian most likely diverged from the Vulgar Latin much earlier than the peninsular dialects. Although even Sicily has seen significant dialect levelling (“pure” Sicilian is apparently hard to find these days), it is probably the last place in Italy where other Italians might have a hard time making themselves understood.
The southern dialects are looked down upon in Italy, but they are probably the most familiar to the Anglophone world. There is a reason why Italian restaurants in New York serve moozadell instead of mozzarella. Most Italians who sailed for Ellis Island and became a prominent part of American society came from the impoverished south- the Sopranos speak Napulitan.
It is worth noting that none of these is monolithic. Like everywhere else, language in Italy varies along a spectrum. Someone from the Campanian countryside may well feel the need to switch to standard Italian when visiting Naples. The most standardised of the regional tongues is probably Venetian. The lyrical language of medieval millionaires was the prestige dialect of a swath of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, and one gets the feeling that Venetians still resent the fact that everyone is supposed to speak Florentine now.
One of the most popular linguistics questions people ask is which modern language is closest to Latin. The answer, like the language, is complex. The short answer, among major Romance languages, is Italian, though Romanian preserves Latin’s genders and cases more fully than any other. When I was exceptionally bored one night in the Bodleian Library at Oxford I stumbled across a poem that supposedly worked in both Latin and Venetian. But the people who best carried on the linguistic legacy of their Roman ancestors through the centuries were not the proud citizens of Venice, or Florence, or Rome. They were not even in Italy.