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Should I know a little Italian when traveling independently in Italy?

All Guides speak English and Italian.  Also, many people in major cities, especially those who work in major tourist destinations, speak English.

>View a video from Steve Perillo's Travel Tips on Common Italian Greetings! 


History of Italian Language

Italy: One Country, Many Languages...

If Giuseppe Garibaldi, the legend credited with the unification of Italy, were to rise from his grave and listen in on a conversation between two Italians coming from opposite ends of the country, one from Venice and the other from Naples, it would be tough to say what would amaze him more: the invention of the telephone or the two interlocutors speaking the same language. Even if he were experiencing the wonders of the much-esteemed iPhone, Garibaldi would still probably be far more captivated by bland pleasantries exchanged by the pair since for him the native tongues of Venice and Naples were about as similar as Chinese and Aborigine. In Garibaldi's eyes, of course, cultural and linguistic differences not withstanding, all of the people who inhabited the Italian peninsula had a common, "Italian" heritage; the problem was, though, in his time the word "Italian" meant very little. It was for this that he, and the many others who felt similarly moved, embarked on the Risorgimento, to thread together the varied people of Italy to emphasize their common heritage and create the Italian identity.

Italy's Multilingual Heritage...

But even after Garibaldi succeeded in joining most of modern Italy under a single crown, he was still left with a country that could barely communicate with itself. Perhaps one of the only vaguely humorous parts about the First World War was that often when an Italian captain called "charge", only half of his soldiers could understand him. Historically Italy is a region filled with thousands of dialects, with many that seem to be or are claimed individual languages. Since all are largely rooted in Latin, there is obviously alot of cross-over; but add in some localized components, Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, French, Spanish, Greek, and, Arabic influence and you get many dialects that have little-to-nothing in common. Today, through mandatory education, everyone in Italy is taught "proper Italian", but in some regions, particularly in the south, a child only begins to learn Italian when he first goes to school. Interestingly, though today's oldest living Italians will sometimes not know more than a handful of words in Italian, many Italians are multilingual, speaking their local dialect and Italian, and those who are not will always have their speech dotted and inflected with traces of regional jargon.

The Evolution of Language through Middle Ages...

While it is not at all unusual for a country to experience the growing pains of stabilizing a single, common language, few areas in Europe have such a fascinating, if peculiar, language situation as Italy. It begins in Ancient Roman times when people spoke a more colloquial form of Latin called Vulgar Latin. But upon the fall of the Roman Empire the people of the cities and countryside began speaking in localized tongues rooted in Latin but changed both by other cultural influences and the passing of time, until what they spoke had little resemblance to Vulgar Latin. However, during the Middle Ages the educated elite and wealthy, most notably the nobles and members of the clergy, stuck to Latin as an implicit way to pay tribute to more glorious times under Ancient Rome's prosperity and reason, and the spiritual enlightenment of the Church Fathers.

The Rise of the Vulgare...

Not coincidently, the most rustic tongues spoken by most of the population were looked down upon and dubbed vulgare, meaning vulgar. But in time Western Europe, particularly Italy, developed a profound interest in the vulgare, bringing with it many of the social and artistic ideas that would plant the seeds of the Italian Renaissance. Among the people who brought questions of the vulgare to the forefront of the Western mind was the incomparable Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. With what might be considered some sort of primordial Marxism, Dante challenged the meaning of nobility and why it related to blood ties and not virtue. In each of his works he principally uses language, his own vulgar Florentine dialect, to challenge the supposed superiority of Latin. In one of his works, one that is actually named de vulgari eloquentia, he ironically snubs Latin by using it to discuss the eloquence of the southern Europe’s vulgar tongues. But in his grandest work, La Divina Commedia, Dante challenges Latin face-to-face and shows the world the superiority of the vulgare by using it to create the ultimate epic poem with the specific aim of wielding his supposedly down-trodden language in a way that even the insurmountable Greek Homer and Roman Virgil failed to do in their respective Iliad and Aeneid.

The Birth of Italian...

Dante’s successes led to the widespread emergence of literary, philosophical, and political writing in vulgar dialects, especially the Florentine. Two of the most notable champions of the vulgare were the 15th-century Tuscan greats Petrarch and Bocaccio, who joined Dantes as le tre corone, three crowns, of Italian literature. Despite the multitude of other Italian dialects, many of which were masterfully employed by other poets and authors, the literary prominence of the Florentine tongue led to its acknowledgment as the most refined in Italy; it was also the most recognized outside of Tuscany due to the fame of the Divine Comedy and the other great Renaissance works. In 1861, then, when Garibaldi unified Italy, it was the sweet, divine language of Dante that became the country’s official language.

Hand Gestures:

One of the most prominent idiosyncrasies of the way Italians communicate is their masterful use of hand gestures. Often, instead of even uttering a single syllable, they will simply point their hand upwards, touch their fingers to their thumb, and give a subtle shake. This can mean anything from “che vuoi?”(what do you want?) to “che idiota” (what an idiot). As you will find, these often theatrical hand motions are the perfect accompaniment to such a musical language.