Just as French became the “lingua franca” in the area known as France, and Spanish the predominant language in Spain, so Italian evolved as the national tongue in Italy.
While it’s true that all three languages derive originally from Latin and have evolved their modern “similar but different” forms over many centuries, it’s certainly not the case that Italian, French and Spanish would have been the main form of communication across the respective territories during the whole of that time.
Language and empire
Those of us from the English-speaking world are used to speaking a fairly homogenous language, that is to say one without significant variations within our country of origin, or across different countries.
Despite the differences between, say, American, British or Indian English, people in each place are still recognisably speaking the same language, one which was spread by British settlers/colonisers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Empires require a degree of standardisation to function efficiently.
Geographical isolation, on the other hand, encourages variation, especially over the long term. So in Europe, with its long history, regional variations in language were and are profound, even within relatively small areas of the continent.
The European Babel
In the eighteenth century, at the time of the American declaration of independence, most Frenchmen, Italians or Spaniards would not have travelled more than a few miles from home, so the language they spoke would have been defined by the place of their birth rather than by the need for a national lingua franca.
Perhaps the same was true of the myriad of Native-American languages, or the hundreds of languages still spoken in modern India (but not true in what were once imperial China and Japan, where central rule was the norm.)
In short, politics and technology influence which language comes to be used in which geographical area.
French, for instance, is said to have been given a boost as a “national language” by Napoleon, who conscripted vast armies to conquer Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Soldiers needed to be able to understand their orders, and conscripts who only spoke, say Breton, would have been have little use in a fight.
Likewise, many a Spaniard will tell you that at heart he is really a Catalan, Basque or whatever but speaks Spanish out of necessity, almost as a second language, because it is the language of his state.
Italy: a recent invention
If, like Sam Cooke, you “don’t know much about history”, you might be surprised to know that Italy was only unified as a nation around 150 years ago. Before that it was divided into various reigns and city states, each of which had its own dominant language/dialect.
Linguistic variations in the Italian peninsular were (and still are) particularly rich. As an example, according to Wikipedia there are six variants of the Bolognese dialect. If you lived right here in the city, you’d have spoken one form, while people living in the countryside to the north or south of town would have communicated in other, different, forms.
There was certainly no assumption that someone living in one part of what is now Italy would have been able to talk to an inhabitant of another city or region, and nor could they; Italian dialects/languages are very different from one another.
As history is said to be written by the victors, so today’s Italian is the dialect that happened to emerge from the unification process as the “official” one. The other forms continued to exist and to be used as before, but for the first time there was an “official, national” way of communicating.
With the new Italian state came military-service and education, both powerful forces for promoting the national language. Later the mass media helped too. First cinema, radio and newspapers, then TV gradually made a good working-knowledge of Italian indispensable, even in regions which still maintain separate linguistic traditions (German in Bolzano, for example.)
Once, many Italian children would have been effectively bi-lingual, speaking both their local dialect AND Italian, to a greater or lesser extent. Sadly, this has now changed, and in many areas of Italy dialect is more of a memory than a living language.
The demise of Bolognese
Fifteen or twenty years ago in Bologna it was still normal to hear older people chatting away to each other in dialect. Which was reassuring, as I always had a good excuse for not knowing what was going on.
Middle-aged people would understand what their parents were saying, but probably not use it much themselves. The world had moved on, after all.
Their children/grandchildren would be oblivious.
Fast-forward to today, and the last generation to use Bolognese dialect naturally and fluently has mostly disappeared, the middle-aged are now aged, the children are adults.
It’s become much rarer to hear dialect spoken on the bus or in the park. Only traces remain, though there are a number of websites for people interested in learning.
Nevertheless, there remain a few words of Bolognese which are indispensable for both Italian and foreign visitors to the city.
3 essential Bolognese dialect words
Learn these 3 dialect words to get by in Bologna, and to give your Italian a Bolognese flavour!
In Bologna, you’ll throw your trash into the “rusco” (in Italian that would be: pattume, spazzatura).
And you’ll gain entry to an office or appartment building, by pressing the “tiro” (which rings the bell to invite whoever’s inside to open the main door.)
When something surprises you, exclaim “soccia” or “socmel” (which means “suck it”.) While that sounds, and is, very vulgar, even old ladies use the term round here, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t too.
Try it: tiro, rusco…
Socmel, you’re talking Bolognese already!