Many people learn Italian to get in touch with their heritage, but for the vast
majority of Italian-Americans, their ancestors did not speak the Italian we learn in
class, which is the official government and media language of Italy. What they
spoke was not even “dialect,” but different languages entirely.
Italian descends from Latin, but it wasn’t as though Italians just decided to stop
speaking Latin and start speaking Italian one day. Latin remained the language of
the Church, which it still officially is, and also of official government business in
Italy right up to the time of Napoleon. It was the language of the educated
classes, which meant mostly the clergy. The local languages that evolved from
Latin, which most people spoke, were just seen as bad Latin. Even after authors
began writing seriously in the Italian languages starting in the 1200’s, proper
Latin continued to be the only acceptable language for official documents.
Separate languages evolved in the different regions of Italy: Sicilian, Neapolitan,
Roman, Tuscan, Emilian, Lombard, Ligurian, Venetian, Piedmontese, Friulian, and
Sardinian, as well as other, minor languages. Some towns in Southern Italy and
Sicily continued to speak Greek right through modern times because they
descended from Ancient Greek colonies there.
The “official” Italian is a constructed language, drawing a little bit from the various
regional languages. Because the first major poets to write in Italian — Petrarch,
Dante, and Boccaccio — were from Tuscany, their Tuscan language became the
most important source for modern standard for literary Italian.
Starting with Napoleon (who was an Italian from Corsica and took a great interest
in governing Italy even though he ruled France) and culminating with the
unification of Italy in 1861, official Italian became the language of government,
education, and media. Other languages were actively discouraged as part of
forging a new nation. Recently, however, the trend has been towards greater use
of and respect for local languages. Right now, Italy officially recognizes twelve
languages other than Italian, but many more continue to be spoken throughout
the county. Some are at risk of extinction, and scholars are attempting to study
them before they are no longer spoken.