The image of the European nation state is still so strong that, when we think of Italians, we tend to think of them as exclusively Italian-speaking. The reality is far more complex. Apart from the various dialects of Italian which are still spoken by millions, several other languages are used by sizeable minorities. Some of these languages are closely related to Italian; others are members of completely different language families. If one considers, however, that until the 19th century Italy was a collection of separate republics, dukedoms, and kingdoms, and not a unified state, that should not be so surprising.
In fact the Italian peninsula has been occupied by speakers of many different language groups since antiquity. As well as languages related to Latin such as Oscan and Umbrian, Celtic languages were also spoken, and some, such as Etruscan, were not related to any other known language. Greek was widely spoken in the colonies of Magna Graecia in Sicily and the south.
Today the Italian constitution recognizes the existence of other languages apart from Italian and states: La Repubblica tutela con apposite norme le minoranze linguistiche ('The Republic protects linguistic minorities with special provisions'). In practice, however, the degree of protection afforded can depend very much on the attitude of the particular region or province.
Three of the languages, Sardinian, Ladin, and Friulian, are direct descendants of the Latin spoken in their respective areas (Friulian is sometimes considered a branch of Ladin and called Eastern Ladin). Sardinian is spoken on the island of Sardinia, and Ladin and Friulian are spoken in a number of valleys in the north-east of Italy. Although they are, like Italian, direct descendants of Latin, they are considered to be separate languages and not dialects because of the extent of their difference from Italian, and also because of their long independent history. Sardinian in fact conserves many archaic features from Latin which disappeared in Italian, such as the hard k-sound in words like chelu, where Italian has cielo.
French, also descended from Latin, is an official language of the Valle d’Aosta region in the north-west of Italy, which has autonomous status. Banned during the Fascist period, it now enjoys equal status with Italian, and is used widely in education and the local media. The language which is actually used by Aostans for daily communication is not standard French, however, but Franco-Provençal, a language which combines elements of French and Occitan, the traditional language of southern France. Franco-Provençal and Occitan dialects are also spoken in the Piedmont region.
One reason for the existence of minority languages in Italy is that Italy’s territory has increased in the years since unification. One of the later arrivals to the Italian state was the South Tyrol, which was assigned to Italy after the First World War. About three quarters of the population now use German as their normal means of communication, and the language enjoys a fair amount of official support and legal protection at provincial level.
A large number of speakers of Slovenian (a Slavic language) were added to the population of Italy when the province of Trieste in the north-east was assigned to Italy in 1954. Their right to use the language is protected in law, and there are regular broadcasts in Slovenian, as well as newspapers published in the language.
Other languages have been brought by settlers. Albanian, Greek, and Franco-Provençal are spoken in villages scattered throughout the south, and Catalan is traditionally spoken in Alghero in Sardinia. These languages enjoy little protection in law and virtually all speakers are bilingual. This means that the languages are unlikely to survive into the next century. The languages which appear destined to survive are those which are major languages in other countries of Europe, i.e. French and German, with sad consequences for linguistic variety in Italy.