The history of dialects in Italy is a rich one, revealing of our complex heritage. While they may be a vivid reminder of the fragmentation of the country prior to the unification of the language, to many now they have come to symbolize a connection to tradition, which has become vital in an increasingly globalized world. No platform better showcases this function than that of social media.

A brief history of dialects

Dialects date back to the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Despite Latin remaining the prevalent language throughout the Middle Ages, local dialects started to develop. This brings us to the Unification of Italy in 1861. This was not a mere assertion of existence as a country: rather, it was meant to unify a country that, as rich as diverse as it was, felt vastly fragmented. The main contributor to this fragmentation was the lack of a widely used common language, allowing effective communication between citizens. As stated by Tullio De Mauro, «one of the fundamental reasons at the basis of the request for unification of the country was the commonality of language» (De Mauro 2014).

Despite this, high rates of illiteracy continued until the 1950s, stunting an effective unification, mainly because it wasn’t until 1948, with the establishment of the Italian Constitution, that the basic right to education was extended to all. Despite this, some credit the widespread use of Italian to the introduction of television. TV programmes like It’s never too late (Non è mai troppo tardi) presented by teacher Alberto Manzi, taught many to read and write in Italian. Speaking from personal experience, this has led to dialects assuming a ‘second class’ language status: seen as the language of the uneducated, many have dismissed the rich contributions of these branches of spoken history.

The importance of language is succinctly conveyed by cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky.

Social media communities

It should feel fitting then that it is another technological revolution to bring dialects back to the spotlight. With the introduction of platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the 2000s, our way of communicating began to change in unexpected ways: suddenly, we could easily connect to anyone in the world. The most relevant aspect of this revolution however was not the connection between friends who fell out of touch. Rather, it was the creation of millions of communities, united by common interests. From groups working to fight for human rights, to those simply looking to express their love of movies, social media united people through common interests. While some criticized this aspect of algorithm in the field of politics, highlighting how these niches created an increasing polarized political scene, others saw the potential in connecting people to their communities. From Instagram accounts like Spoken Veneto to Tuscanian Says, numerous pages began to put dialects front and centre of their mission. Another such page is Rome is More which, through Instagram, gathered over 270k followers by attracting them with a simple premise: “a ready-to-use guide to survive in Rome with an ‘expressionary’ to learn Roman dialect”, as read in their bio. To better understand their mission statement, I contacted them directly, asking them whether the page was born out of a desire to remind the younger generations of their linguistic traditions. They commented: «Rome is More begun exactly for this, to leave a tangible sing of an immaterial heritage like that of dialects».

With their translations of popular Roman sayings to English, Rome is More exemplifies the paradox of social media: while connecting us to the wider globalized sphere, we feel evermore connected to our communities than ever before. This has given a new life to dialects, which have gone from being seen as the language of the uneducated, to a rich tradition that needs to be preserved.

This is an example of how Rome is More has brought dialects into the digital world

Dialects and emigration

Therefore, it becomes clear that dialects have come to represent a connection to our history. A study conducted on 3,500 Italians revealed that  «67% of those ‘curious about dialects’ have said that they wanted to learn it to “reinforce family bongs”, and the 72% stated their ‘curiosity towards dialects of other regions».

This becomes even more relevant when considering the reality for many Italians today: despite Italy having a known history of emigration, today it has become even more common. For example, according to statistics from Istat, emigration of Italians towards other countries has increased of 1.7% just between 2017 to 2020. Adding to this, the migration within Italy contributes to people found outside of their communities. While moving away might present an important opportunity for most, it is still soured by the inevitable nostalgia. Speaking from personal experience, one of the most important ways to soothe this pain is simply to reconnect to the language. This was the statement behind the creation of Facecjoc, an Italian social networking site aiming to spotlight dialects. As reported by Fanpage.it: «De Bortoli thought about the kids of Italian immigrants who, inevitably, cannot know their dialects. For this reason, the portal is translated in English, Spanish, Russian, Czech, Turkish and Arabic» (Paretti 2015).

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the function of dialects has changed drastically since the beginning: from representing a tool of fragmentation, they now connect Italians to their traditions.

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