Unlike signs at amusement parks which say "You must be this tall to go on this ride" there are no signs which read "Your dialect must have this many people to be considered a language." In fact, many of the issues surrounding the concept of language versus dialect have proven so controversial that one linguist, a man named Max Weinreich who specialized in Yiddish, once joked that "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." When you think about it, that definition may not be so farfetched.
Ask anyone to define a language and a dialect and you will probably get the same answer: "A language is a means of communication and a dialect is a lesser version of a language." Most people don't have a clear cut idea of what either is, probably because the experts themselves don't even know. Ethnologue, a website dedicated to the classification and cataloging of the world's living languages, admits in its introduction that the guidelines it follows are not exclusive to other, more complex understandings of languages.
In addition, other vocabulary words sometimes crowd out our understanding of these concepts. Terms such as idiolect (an individual's speech pattern at a particular period in his or her life), idiom (the language of a given community or class), or accent (referring often to how we pronounce words) are used interchangeably with "language" and "dialect" sometimes in reference to something as simple as a conversation about different forms of English. Every time you talk about the "Southern dialect" or the difference between the British, American, and Australian "dialects" you are using the word in only one of its many contexts. But how does this relate to Italian dialects? To answer that, we must walk briefly through the passage of Italian.
The history of the Italian language as we know it today began roughly in the third century A.D. when the Roman Empire effectively ruled the entire Mediterranean world and Latin was the language of choice. When the empire collapsed in the fifth century, Italy became fragmented and was subjected to a series of invasions from Greeks, Germans, and Celts, to name a few. Each region in Italy became a world unto itself developing its own unique culture and language. Over the centuries, these languages, due to the variety of outside influences, grew to be mutually incomprehensible versions of Vulgar Latin.
By the 15th century Italy saw commercial prosperity and a growing national Italian identity which, in turn, demanded a national Italian language. There was a definitive clash between Latin—the refined language understood by the elite, educated few—and the new languages spoken by the masses. Perhaps because Latin was only spoken by a few, it soon became apparent that the national language would have to be chosen from one of the new languages in order to be understood by everyone. The Florentine dialect, because of its central position, similarity to Latin, and perhaps most importantly, the popularity of its three literary stars Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio, was chosen to be the national language while the rest of the newly evolved languages were subsequently relegated to the status of "dialects."
Today these dialects are mainly spoken in homes, among close neighbors and friends, or in local areas among older generations. They are classified over a broad spectrum. By some standards, Italy may be divided into fourteen different regional dialects; by others, there is one for every city in Italy. A few of these regional varieties are relatively similar to the standard language, while still others—such as Piemontese and Sicilian—are distinct enough to be considered separate languages. Yet by naming the Italian languages "dialects" we effectively place them in a lower ranking.
So what is a dialect? You'll notice that I did not define a dialect or distinguish it from a language. The purpose wasn't to provide one cookie-cutter definition which can be used in all contexts for all discussions. Rather, it is to point out how labels such as "dialect" and "language" can be confusing, and downright misleading at times.
About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.