The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #10 July / August 2014
Languages in Peril
Decline of the Gallo-Italics
by Lucille Martin
July / August 2014 | 

The Gallo-Italic languages make up the majority of northern Italian languages. They are Emilian-Romagnolo, Ligurian, Lombard, and Piedmontese. Sadly, they are all endangered, with the population of their speakers in decline.


Linguistic map

Emiliano-Romagnolo is a minority Italian language, structurally different from standard Italian, and is not descended from Italian. It is spoken by roughly 2 million people, with most of those being in Italy, where it is used mainly in the northwestern region. It is also referred to as Emilian, Emiliano, or Sammarinese.

There are two major dialects, Emilian and Romagnol, which can further be broken into the variants of Western Emiliano, Central Emiliano, Eastern Emiliano, Northern Romagnolo, Southern Romagnolo, Mantovano, Vogherese-Pavese, and Lunigiano.

The history of the language goes back to pre-Roman days, when the region had been part of the Etruscan territory. Around 400 BC, the region was invaded by the Gauls (Celts), a tribe from western Europe, which crossed the Alps and settled in the Etruscan territory of what is now northern Italy. Over the centuries, the Gauls and Romans often clashed before the Romans finally defeated the Gauls in that region in 194 BC. After that, the languages of the tribes mixed with the Latin and eventually evolved alongside Italian, making the languages related to, but not descended from, one another.

After the fall of the Roman empire, the various kingdoms of the region eventually formed into the Italian Kingdom, and the Emilia-Romagna became part of it around 1860. The language and culture began to decline after that due to emigration.

Between 1876 and 1976, approximately 1.2 million people left Emilia-Romagna and moved to other countries, where they mixed with those populations. By 2008, there were around 120 thousand people from this region living outside of Italy in places like Argentina, Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.


Young people on bicycles gather on the Piazza Maggiore of Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna Region in Italy.

The next Gallo-Italic language is Ligurian, which has around 500,000 speakers. It is mainly spoken in the northern Italy region of Liguria, of which Genoa is the capital. It is also referred to as Genovese.

The Ligurians once covered a far greater area than modem day Liguria, perhaps even encompassing as far west as the Greek colony of Masslia (modern day Marseille). The Ligurians were divided between Carthage and Rome during the first Punic Wars, and it was under Caesar Augustus that Liguria was first designated as an official region of Italy. Roads and ports helped build up the region with communication and trade.

During the Middle Ages, Liguria was dominated by several groups, including the Byzantines, the Lombards, and the Franks as well as being invaded by Saracen and Norman raiders. It was finally split into the three marches (militarised border regions used as defence against a rival power), of Obertenga, Aleramica, and Arduinica, which were then split further into fees (feudal landholdings) and their strength was greatly weakened. The primary Ligurian towns became city-states and fell under Genoa's rule.

Piazza di Ferrari, Genoa, Liguria

This Republic of Genoa gained huge political and commercial success, becoming one of the most powerful maritime republics of the Mediterranean between the 12th and 14th centuries, but internal factions fell into political conflict and the control of the republic went to the Visconti family of Milan, where it remained until 1435.

The Republic gained stability when admiral Andrea Doria became the ally of the powerful king of Spain in 1528 and brought Genoa under the control of the aristocratic government. However, the stability did not last, for King Louis XIV attacked Genoa in 1684 as an act of retaliation for its support of Spain. Genoa surrendered and apologized, but this attack helped solidify a growing view that France was too brutal and arrogant. After that, many states began to abandon their alliances with France, which then became more isolated from the rest of Europe.

In 1796, French general Napoleon Bonaparte led an army to invade Italy, and through that, France gained control of most of northern Italy. He transformed the Republic of Genoa into the Ligurian Republic, modelled after the French Republic. It was then annexed into the French Empire in 1805.

Oneglia, a town in northern Italy on the Ligurian coast

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna decided that Liguria should be annexed to the Kingdom of Sardinia. In 1821, a failed uprising in Genoa against the House of Savoy, the then ruling family of the region at the time, sparked national sentiment which eventually led to the unification of Italy, transforming the Kingdom of Sardinia into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Today, Liguria is a popular tourist region because of its is popular with tourists for its beaches, towns, and cuisine, but the Ligurian language is at risk of becoming extinct because of the dominance of Italian. There are a few groups dedicated to trying to preserve it, like the Associazione Culturale O Castello in Chiavari which offers Ligurian language courses. There are also a number of notable historical native speakers, such as the famous general Giuseppe Garibaldi, the explorer Christopher Columbus, and Italian journalist and author Italo Calvino.


Sunrise at Bergamo old town, Lombardy, Italy

Another Gallo-Italic language is Lombard. It is spoken in the same part of northern Italy, in a region called Lombardy as well as some parts of Piedmont and southern Switzerland. It has two dialects, Western and Eastern, which are usually mutually comprehensible. It is also structurally different from Italian and is not a descendent or dialect of Italian. As of 2007, it had roughly 2.9 million native speakers, making it the strongest of the four languages in this article, but it is still considered endangered.

The Lombardy area has evidence of settlements going back to the 2nd millennium BC, with rock drawings, ceramics, axes and carved stones being found there. Over the centuries, different people and tribes inhabited the region. One of them was the Etruscans who founded the city of Mantua there. Gallic tribes invaded the area around 5th century BC and ruled there for many years, expanding their territory.

The Romans were also expanding, however, and overtook them, making the region a Roman province named Gallia Cisalpina in 194 BC. The Roman culture and Latin language overwhelmed the residents. The area became very developed with better roads and trade, the same as Liguria.

Via Zuavi in Melegnano, a town in Milan, Lombardy, Italy

After the fall of the Roman empire, Lombardy fell under more invasions from various tribes, the last one being from the Germanic Lombard tribes, who ruled most of the Italian region for roughly 200 years, between 600 and 800 AD. The tribe had their own language, Lombardic, which is now extinct and not related to Lombard. The region did take its name from the tribe, though.

In 774, Lombard rule came to an end when the Frankish king Charlemagne conquered them and annexed this Kingdom of the Lombards, which was mostly northern and central Italy, to his empire. While the centuries saw more fighting of control for the Italian peninsula, it finally became a unified country, with Lombardy part of it.

Lombard has never been an official language and is not currently taught in schools, but some people are working to have it introduced into primary schools. It is spoken primarily by older people which contributes to its decline, since the younger generation isn't learning it, choosing instead to use Italian. There has been an attempt at a revival in the last few years, using Lombard as a way to express local identity and distance people from the mainstream Italian culture, but it is unclear whether this will help or hurt its effort to survive.


Victor Amadeus II, duke of Savoy, King of Sicily and King of Sardinia

Piedmontese is spoken by around 1.6 million people in Piedmont, located in the northwest part of Italy, adjacent to Liguria and Lombardy. Like the others, it is an independent language of Italian, not a dialect.

Piedmont was actually inhabited for many years by Celtic-Ligurian tribes, but became part of the Roman Empire in 220 BC. After that empire fell, it was invaded many times by more tribes, such as the Goths, Burundians, Byzantines, Lombards, and Franks. It became part of the Holy Roman Empire in the 10th century, then in 1046 it became part of the Savoy family territories.

Bra, a town and comune in the northwest Italian region of Piedmont

In 1720, the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, became King of Sardinia, and in 1792, Piedmont and Sardinia joined the First Coalition against the French First Republic, which was also founded the same year. The French First Republic was born out of the French Revolution and was meant to establish a new government. The First Coalition was an attempt by several European monarchies to control the expansion of France. They failed, however, being beaten in 1796 by Napoleon, and Piedmont was annexed by France in 1801. The Congress of Vienna restored the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1815.

Piedmontese became recognized as Piedmont's regional language by its own regional parliament, but the Italian government did not recognize it. It is supposed to be taught in schools, but that is only happening on a limited scale. Piedmontese courses and publications for teaching have been developed, but the usage of the language has declined very rapidly. It is unsure exactly how many know it, since many can understand it but not speak it natively.


All of these languages are dying out, not because of any overall oppression but simply because they cannot compete with the national language of Italian. They are likely to be completely gone within the next two generations if something drastic isn't done to revive them. With that requiring the younger generation to start learning them along with the dominant Italian, it seems to be an impossible task.

Languages in Peril - Decline of the Gallo-Italics
Writer: Lucille Martin
Martina Rathgens: Ligurian village (title)
Susana Freixeiro: Linguistic map of Italy
Joe Mabel: Young people on bicycles
Hpschaefer: Piazza di Ferrari
Jk4u59: Oneglia, Imperia
hozinja: Sunrise at Bergamo old town
Friedrichstrasse: Via Zuavi in Melegnano
Peter Broster: Bra of Piedmont
Petey: Victor Amadeus II
• "Emiliano-Romagnolo language" Wikipedia <>
• "Emiliano-Romagnolo" Lingua Emiliano-Romagnola By Michael San Filippo <>
• "Emilia-Romagna" Wikipedia <>
• "Ligurian (Romance language)" Wikipedia <>
• "Liguria" Wikipedia <>
• "Lombard language" Wikipedia <>
• "Lombardy" Wikipedia <>
• "Piedmontese language" Wikipedia <>
• "Piedmont" Wikipedia <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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