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The dialects spoken in Italy divide in four main groups:
-The northern Italian dialects, which consists of two main groups, which are the Gallo-Italic dialects, spoken in Piemonte, Liguria, Lombardia and Emilia, and the Venetian dialects.
-The Tuscan Italian dialects, which distinguish in central, southern and western dialects.
-The central dialects which are spoken in Lazio, Umbria and in Marche
-The southern Italian dialects which divide in Neapolitan dialect, spoken in Campania, Basilicata, Abruzzo, southern Lazio and in northern Puglia, and in Sicilian dialect, spoken in Sicilia, Calabria and in Salento.
A dialect is a language variety used by people of a particular geographical area. A dialect spoken in a larger area is likely to contain many subdialects, which in turn can contain dialects of yet smaller areas and so on. The term "dialect" is often used - very loosely - to define any Romance language spoken in a geographic area of the country and does not enjoy the official status (eg. Calabrian, Italian, Neapolitan, Venetian etc.). Other languages - Romance and not - are recognized as official languages as well as Italian in some administrative areas (eg. Sardinian spoken in Sardinia, Catalan in Alghero, German in Alto Adige etc.) as they are not referred to as dialects.
A dialect is a complete system of verbal communication with an own vocabulary and grammar, which has developed over the centuries and has benefitted from the influence of a variety of other official languages although they have primarily originated from the Italian language. This means that the variations that are noticeable in the dialects are due to the alteration of the Italian language influenced by one or more secondary languages. For example, the Neapolitan dialect features some elements of the Spanish, French and Arabic whereas the Gallo-Italic dialects and the Venetian dialects feature elements of the French and German languages.
The four groups of dialects are however profoundly different although they have developed from a common language. For example, northern dialects such as the Lombard, Piedmontese and Venetian have both lexical and grammatical differences but they are similar, as they have developed in geographical areas close to each other. The same is for southern dialects, as generally a Neapolitan speaker can comprehend parts of the Sicilian dialect and vice versa, as they developed in regions close to each other. However, northern dialects are very different from southern dialects and to speakers of southern dialects; the northern dialects are very hard to understand unless the speaker is from a geographical area or region nearby.
However, why are there so many differences and most of all why do all of these dialects exist?
To answer this question it is of vital importance to know how Italy has developed through history. In synthesis, since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Italy has always been subject of foreign Kingdoms and rulers. The country has always been split in a variety of small and independent states or parts of larger Kingdoms. For example the south of Italy has been during the course of his history, been conquered by Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French and therefore the languages of the conquerors have influenced the local language and has helped the development of the dialect.
Italy was only unified in 1861 when it became the Kingdom of Italy, and therefore the process of “Italianisation” is relatively young and therefore nowadays the presence of dialects is still relevant and the use of all of these dialects is still very popular among people of different ages and social classes.
The importance and popularity of dialects has also affected the Italian language itself. After the unification of Italy, the newly born Kingdom could not wipe out the many dialects spoken across the Italian territory, but with the development of the modern Italian language and the education institutions teaching only pure Italian in schools around the country, the use of dialects has decreased with the new generations.
Therefore, what we have nowadays in Italy is a set of dialects that have been “Italianised”. This means that each dialect, regardless of its region of origin, has lost its original form through time and is now closer to the official Italian language than it was many decades ago. Nowadays dialects are still very important cultural patrimonies that need to be protected in order to keep hold of the social structures and the multitude of traditions that exist throughout the country.
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