Maria - can you tell me what is thought to be the oldest regional dialect and why are there so many? Grazie, Michele
first of all it would be quite debatable to assert that one of the Italian dialects is the oldest one, simply because all these dialects developed almost contemporaneously from a gradual change of vulgar Latin (“sermo vulgaris”or “sermo cotidianus” in Latin), i.e. Latin spoken by the illiterate, like soldiers, merchants, peasants, slave, in short, ordinary people, whereas classical Latin (“sermo urbanus” in Latin) was spoken by the literary circles and the learned.
Such a gradual change from vulgar Latin, which was quite different from classical Latin, began to happen from about the 1st. and 2nd. century AD, when different social groups that lived in Italy started speaking a kind of medley of “sermo cotidianus” and “sermo urbanus”: hence vulgar Latin which was also carried just by the soldiers, merchants and colonists throughout the Roman Empire and became source of the modern Romance languages, i.e. Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish.
Moreover the vulgar Latin, just because of its popular origin, included words that belonged to other languages such as Celtic (northern Italy), Etruscan (Central Italy), Oscan and Greek (southern Italy) spoken in certain regions of Italy before Latin became the primary language used by most the people, during the Roman conquest.
This is just the reason why in Italy we have so many dialects, that can be classified as the Gallo/Celtic -Italic dialects (spoken in Northern Italy), Central Italic dialects (spoken in Central Italy) and Southern Italic dialects (spoken in Southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia).
All these dialects differ in sound, grammar, syntax and vocabulary from the standard Italian, which is nothing but the Florentine dialect that became the common language of Italians, thanks to the great Tuscan authors Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio, who first - in the 13th-14th century - used their Tuscan vernacular in some of their works such as e.g. “La Divina Commedia”, “Il Canzoniere” and “Il Decamerone”.
Lastly, I have to tell you that nowadays the Italian dialects are not so common as once were, when everyone spoke in the dialect of their region.
Today in fact many people do not know the vernacular of the region they dwell in or the region they come from, for we speak always standard Italian, especially from the mid-1950’s, while before only the learned people spoke Italian.
To sum up,I have to tell you that:
1)no dialect can be considered the oldest regional dialect in Italy since all the dialects developed almost contemporaneously from a gradual change of vulgar Latin.
2)we have so many dialects because Latin Language, from which our dialects derive, was imposed on pre-existing languages such as Celtic, Etruscan, Oscan and Greek with wich it got mixed up: hence the different vernaculars of our regions.
Hope this quick look at this matter can be helpful to you.