Italian Language Blog

Italiano o Toscano? Posted by on Dec 17, 2008 in Culture

In the last few blogs about Italian pronunciation I mentioned in reply to some comments that the Italian language has its origins in Toscana (Tuscany) and that Toscano is considered the most correct Italian. But are Italiano and Toscano the same thing? Lets see.

When Italy was being unified in the 19th century there wasn’t a common Italian language just a collection of regional languages such as Piemontese, Lombardo, Siciliano, Toscano, Napoletano, Romanesco, etc. all derived from Latin, and all to various degrees influenced by other languages such as the Arabic, Spanish, French, Longobard, etc. So with the unification of the country there was a need for a common language, but which one, something completely new, or one of the languages that already existed? The second choice prevailed and soon Toscano, and in particular the language spoken in Firenze (Florence), was identified as the most probable candidate. There were three main reasons behind this choice: 1. Out of all the neo-Latin languages, including those from other countries, Toscano is the closest to Latin. 2. Geographically Toscana is at the center of the Italian peninsula. 3. The first great Italian writers of the 13th and 14th centuries, Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca, were all from Tuscany. The final stroke came from Alessandro Manzoni, writer of the first Italian novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), who in 1827 went to Firenze “a lavare i panni in Arno” (to wash the clothes in the river Arno), meaning that he was going to check the language of his novel against Toscano and remove all the Lombard influences.

So it was that in 1861 Italy, finally unified, had an official common language, together with a King and a Prime Minister who couldn’t speak it, as they only spoke Piemontese and French! For a long time Italian was mainly a written language used only in documents, school and by writers, with the majority of the population continuing to speak their original dialect. In the Army, corporals and sergeants had to translate the officers ‘Italian’ commands into the different dialects spoken by the troops. It wasn’t until the advent of television in the Fifties, together with the spread of formal school education, that Italian finally became the commonly spoken language of the country.

These days it’s rare to find dialects spoken as a first language by the younger generations. Dialect words survive however in two main forms: words related to food, which in Italy is still very regional, and words used for everyday objects. Regional accents and pronunciations on the other hand are, of course, still very common.

So to return to the question are Italiano and Toscano the same thing? When linguists began to codify the rules and grammar of the Italian language, they based their work not on the language spoken by the people, but on the written work of Tuscan authors. An attempt was made to standardize pronunciation, although in reality of course it changes not only from region to region, but also from town to town. The Tuscans (together with the Romans) are said to be the only ones who can distinguish the open or closed e and the open or closed o. In Lucca and Viareggio the hard letter c as in casa is pronounced khasa with a gentle out breath. This pronunciation however becomes stronger and stronger as you get near to Firenze, until the c finally disappears and is instead pronounced like the h in ‘hotel’, so casa becomes hasa. Another characteristic of Toscano is the tendency to shorten words e.g. mia mamma and mio papà become mi’ ma’ and mi’ pa’, and bambino becomes bimbo. We Tuscans also change the spelling of some words: spegnere (to turn off) is spengere, palude (marsh) is padule and schiacciata (flattened or squashed) is stiacciata. These particular spellings are virtually unknown outside the more ‘classic’ Tuscany, not even here in Lunigiana, which although situated in the northern extremity of Toscana is more influenced by the neighboring region of Emilia Romagna. A few days ago, for example, I asked one of my friends here in Lunigiana to switch off the light and without thinking I said: “Puoi spengere la luce?”. She looked at me in surprise and said: “Hai sbagliato. Si dice spegnere (You made a mistake. It’s spegnere). Tuscany has many words and idiomatic expressions that are not really known outside the region with the notable exception of the famous insult bischero, which denotes a not-very-intelligent person.

It’s beyond the scope of this blog to give a comprehensive list of Toscanismi (Tuscanisms), but if you would like to know more have a look at the following websites:


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