Tongue twisters

Observations on ITALIAN

The Godfather trilogy's Corleone family brought the lu sicilianu, or Sicilian dialect, to fame through the films' use of the vernacular. With the u endings and sh sound, the language used by the New York mafiosi is still spoken by an estimated 4.7 million people.

Sicilian is one of Italy's many regional dialects, from Napoletano to Sardinian, that stem from the country's divided past. Based on various roots, including Arabic and German, the dialects have been in decline since Italian was adopted as a uniting force.

But now there are signs that the bilingual tradition is regaining strength and, contrary to expectations, those responsible for the resurgence are not the grandparents who grew up speaking their regional tongue. Instead, young people are driving the trend.

The picture emerging from a survey of 24,000 families interviewed by the Italian National Institute of Statistics is, unsurprisingly, one of an overall increase in the exclusive use of Italian for communication. Although most Italians are able to converse in both the common language and that of their home town, most cited the former as their language of choice.

However, among students, the use of the dialect has risen not only within the home but also for conversing with friends and even strangers. Indeed, a growing number of children use "only or prevalently" their dialect with their peers, while a majority switch between tongues depending on the context. Teachers report children chattering in Calabrese in the south during breaks in the playground; university students hang out conversing in Friulian on the Austrian borders.

"There is an element of it being seen as cool to turn back to tradition," said one Italian sociologist. "But it is also a question of identity. It is a universal phenomenon for young people to want to use a form of communication specific to themselves - new colloquialisms are invented by every generation."

Older generations have a different explanation for the rise. "We Italians are fiercely proud both as a nation and of our very individual regional heritage," a friend told me. "Linguistic diversity is one way to promote this in a more globalised world."

There is also a class issue. Dialects were the primary form of expression until the middle of the 20th century - especially among less wealthy sections of the population, who had poor access to education and low levels of literacy.

To overcome the rich north-poor south divide, workers learned the national language to increase their economic opportunities. Speaking Italian meant social mobility. The growth of mass media meant access to the national language became widespread.

But, as the stigma attached to regional tongues has lessened, Italy appears to be seeing a resurgence in their use. The rise is tentative, the statistics officials stress. The over-60s are still the group most likely to speak local languages. And their adoption among the young may prove as ephemeral as so many youth fashions.