Italian Language/Dialects


I would like to do a 3-4 week immersion course in Italy next year. I have my eye on Sorrento, but my only concern is how much standard Italian will I hear outside of the class room? Can you tell me more about the dialect spoken there?
Grazie in anticipo!

ANSWER: Hello Cornelia,

thank you for your question. I think that Sorrento should be a good place for your course. Whatever city you go to in Italy you can find both people who talk dialects and people who talk standard language. If you visit "cultural" places, such as theatres, museums, lecture centers, you will sure find people talking a very good standard Italian, no matter which part of Italy you will go to. If you go to public places such as coffee shops, restaurants or shops next to the center of the cities or the universities, you will meet many high-educated students and workers who will probably talk a good, fashionable but essentially correct Italian.
My advice is to avoid those groups of people who are "too much friendly" and spend almost the whole time just going round and trying to talk to tourists and students: wherever you go, you will find such people and even though they can be somewhat pleasant, they probably talk a strange local slang rather than "Italian". Anyway, slang and dialects are interesting too: just care to find some other situations to compare the different talking and care to practice with well educated people. Your teachers could possibly introduce you to people they know and who talk a good language, for example other Italian teachers or students.
I can tell you that the contemporary Italian language was adopted as standard Italian between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries; it was first called "volgare" (from "vulgus", people in Latin; it was meant to be "the common people" language, opposed to the Latin that was the educated people language). That language was first spoken in central Italy, especially in Tuscany (Florence, Pisa, Siena and so on) and the surrounding lands.
In southern regions and extreme northern regions people usually have stronger accents. Anyway, wherever you go you can find good people to talk to, just take care to what kind of attitude they have towards the correct spoken (and written) language. People who often use written language and read a lot usually talk a better language too.
Remember that during the Summer you will probably find a lot of tourists wherever you go, either to small seaside and countryside cities or to the biggest cities like Rome or Milan: look for genuine Italian people and don't make friends just among the tourists - they are always funny and nice, but it will very hard to practice Italian that way.
Take long walks in "common places" too, look for "common people", like shopkeepers, families with children and dogs and so on: just try to talk to as many people as you can, wherever you go, then ask your teachers about who you have met and what you have heard. In a few days you will start to understand the difference between "good" and "bad" Italian pronounce, grammar, talking.
It's always good to know about people who want to learn Italian! I think that you will have great time, I hope that you will enjoy Italy, learning and people. Sorrento is a wonderful city and it is near to Naples too, one of the most famous and loved Italian cities. I think that it could be a very good choice.
Good bye!


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------


Silly me! Only after I read your answer did I notice in your bio that you DON'T commment on dialects. Thank you anyway for replying so thoughtfully. Here are a couple of new questions, possibly more within your chosen ambit:

1. What is una tranvata ?
2. When would you use  - e tutto grasso che cola
         - ci ha messo lo zampino il diavolo /?
3.  is Perdincibacco a parolaccia? How is it used?

Thanks in advance

Thank you Cornelia and no worries: your question was a matter of "Italian culture" in general, I just couldn't say anything technical about dialects - such as meaning for sentences and translation - but general questions are ok, as well as questions about local expressions that are spread also elsewhere in Italy.
Now, let's talk about something new: three points about colloquial expressions, idiomatic expressions and slang!

1) "Una tranvata" is a colloquial and slang expression; it means something like a big shock or a very bad trick received by someone; the most common expressions sound like "Ho preso una tranvata": I got a very strong shock, meaning generally because of someone else, for example in a love affair because of the partner, or in a working situation because of a colleague; of course it can be used also in other situations, but usually it concerns very strong social contexts. For example I can say that "ho preso una tranvata", because a friend "gave" (figuratively) that to me: "mi ha tirato una tranvata".
It is usually said to mean a figurative and emotional shock, but sometimes it can also be used to mean a material shock, like a strong and surprising hit against an obstacle:
"Non ho visto la finestra aperta, ho preso una tranvata pazzesca";
"I hadn't seen that the window was open, I got a terrible shock", I could say for example if I hurt my head.
The expression probably comes from the word "tram" (tramway), in the version "tranvi"; it could literally be imagined as a big vehicle striking the poor unfortunate fellow!

2)" tutto grasso che cola"; "ci ha messo lo zampino il diavolo" -  These are two different idiomatic expressions.
"E' tutto grasso che cola" ("" is the verb to be, it is written with the accent) means that something good comes as a surplus in a situation. For instance if I have a friend who usually comes to visit me to listen to music, but he is a very good runner, student and guitar player too and he doesn't just listen to the music with me, but usually and freely ends up to teach me something, to play for me or to help me training in running, I can say that those "plus" things are "tutto grasso che cola". I can say "E' tutto grasso che cola", or I can also say "sono tutto grasso che cola" (those thing "are" tutto grasso che cola).
The expression probably refers to the saucy grease that comes from the meat when it is cooked.
"Ci ha messo lo zampino il diavolo" means that the "devil" took part in a situation; it can be used in a bad situation, meaning that something unpleasant has happened and things went wrong, but it can also mean just a tricky situation, in a more neutral case - for instance just a delay, or a mistake about the movies to get from the DVD store, but just meaning that you was supposed to take one and you took another instead, but you find it funny and not much troubling. Finally, it can also be used for fun, also to talk about a funny coincidence - for instance, a friend was supposed to phone you, but you both met one hour earlier because a third friend called you both to visit her: you can say, in a light sense, that the coincidence was because "il diavolo ci ha messo lo zampino", the devil made things happen and you don't need to talk by phone, because you have met personally.
"Zampino" is the diminutive for "zampa", that means the foot of an animal; it is also used in other idiomatic expressions, for example referred to cats: "Tanto va la gatta al lardo, che ci lascia lo zampino".

3) And finally... no, "perdincibacco" is not a bad word, una "parolaccia", it's just a funny colloquial expression meaning more or less "Oh gosh", "oh l l!", "ooooops"; it is a cross between "perdinci" and "perbacco".
"Perdinci" is
per (for) + di[nci] and it's a fake word to refer to "Perdo", "Per-Dio" (sort of "God sake!"). It's not fine to say "God" to mean disappointment, anger or something meaningless, so someone uses that milded expression, "perdinci".
"Perbacco" is "Per Bacco" and it's almost the same: "Bacco" is Bacchus, the ancient Greek god of wine; so, it's somewhat like "by Jove" (we also say "Per Giove", or  "Per Diana", "perdiana") and also... "perdindirindina", that is another fake for the first expression, literally meaningless.
These are not so often used expressions - rather old-fashioned; but you can use them safely, especially if you mean to talk in a light and funny speech using a "vintage" expression.
Thanks for your questions! I hope this helps, pleas feel free to tell me if you need more clear explanation and/or examples.

Good bye,


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I read and correct your italian texts, either translations or written compositions. I read or listen to your oral compositions, readings and speechs and help you improve your pronunciation and style. I read and correct also your advertising short and medium texts. I answer questions about Italian language, slang, style, punctuation. I don't answer about dialects and specific local slang.


I'm mother tongue; I graduated at Classic Lyceum (100/100), studying classic Italian language and classic Latin and Greek. The 5 years long daily exercise in translation from ancient Latin and Greek to modern Italian taught me to appreciate a correct italian translation and/or text composition. I graduated at University in Law studies and Jurisprudence, learning to appreciate deep differences between a strictly specific and technical language and other styles. I'm currently PhD candidate in Philosophy of Law. I read fiction, classic novels, philosophical books and papers, legal books and papers.

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Italian mother tongue; diploma at Liceo Classico (100/100; year 2001); Laurea at University (110/110 cum laude; year 2008); PhD in Law: Philosophy of Law and Sociology of Law

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