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La Lingua Toscana: Tuscany's Dialect & the Birth of Italian

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Italian is a fascinating language, and varies widely depending where exactly you visit. If your ears are used to the clipped precision of the Milanese, Torinese or other northern Italians, you’ll find eavesdropping on a couple of Neapolitans utterly bewildering — even if they’re speaking Italian, rather than their local dialect.

Tuscan, however, stands out from them all. During the medieval period and the Renaissance that followed, this was this dialect that shaped standard Italian as it’s spoken today. But how did the Tuscan dialect come to be? And what are its standout features? What are you likely to hear on a stay at one of our Tuscany rentals?

Birthplace of the Italian language

After the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages, trade grew again around the peninsula’s most influential cities. Languages followed. Venetian, for example, was spoken all over the Adriatic, including right along the coast of what’s now Croatia.
Things began to change around the time Dante wrote his “Divine Comedy”, in the early 1300s. Dante went against the grain (standard Latin) and chose to write his epic tale in the Florentine vernacular, a sub-dialect within Tuscany. Dante was not the only writer to raise the profile of Tuscan. Petrarch, Boccaccio, and later, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, followed suit by writing in their dialect. The rise of Florence’s economic power, and Tuscan’s similarity to Vulgar Latin, helped ease its transition to standard literary Italian.
In 1861, the Tuscan dialect (a.k.a. “Italian”) gained the status of official language after Italy’s unification. (Florence was briefly Italy’s capital, too.) After unification, everyone from press and politicians, to aristocrats and opera composers, used the dialect, helping to bed it in among the people of Italy’s diverse regions.

Gorgia Toscana

Despite its role in shaping modern Italian, today’s Tuscan dialects retain some significant differences. The main feature separating standard Italian and Florentine is the phonetic characteristic called “Gorgia Toscana”, simply translated as the “Tuscan throat”.
“Gelato”, which means ice cream in Italian, is pronounced [dʒeˈlaːto] (with a [dʒ] sound as in judge). However, in Tuscany you will hear it with a [ʒ] sound (as in vision), making it [ʒeˈlaːto]. “Ponte”, meaning bridge, is pronounced in standard Italian as [poːnte], but as [φoːnte] in Tuscan. The [φ] is an f-sound made only by using the lips.
But the most noticeable difference is the pronunciation of “c” as an “h” sound. There’s a well-known tongue-twister in Italy designed to spot a Florentine. Ask one to try, “Coca Cola con la cannuccia corta” (a Coke with a short straw), and keep your ears open!
There are even further sub-dialects within Tuscany — including Sienese and Pisan — that can be distinguished with a really attuned ear.

A Lesson in Lexicons

Another difference is the words Tuscans use compared to standard Italian. There are quite a few; so we picked out a few of the most useful for a stay at your Tuscan villa...

  • Cacio: Cheese
  • Diaccio: Cold
  • Abbollore: Very hot
  • Dàgnene: Giving something to someone
  • Topini: Gnocci

What do the experts say?

We asked Alex Preston, author of the Florence-set novel “In Love and War”, about his experience of Florentine. He hears people saying “ ‘gento’ rather than ‘cento’ for a hundred” and “’Va’ia’ all the time when I’m speaking Italian. It’s like a marker that you’re from Florence, a calling-card from the city.”

Writers of the Florence for Free blog offered some favourite “Florentine-isms”: “One Florentine-ism we have adopted is ‘ganzo’, Florentine for ‘cool’. Although it comes with a warning: it can also mean mistress or lover, so calling someone ‘ganzo’ might even get him or her into a bit of trouble in the wrong context!”

Ondine Cohane, a Tuscany-based contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler magazine, comments on the playful nature of the dialect, saying it’s “hilarious how Tuscans can swear like few others, most involving some awful incarnation of Porca or Madonna. They make the craziest blasphemies!”

Our advice? When staying in one of our villas near Florence or in other regions of Tuscany, use these tips or the cheat guide.

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