Taking a stroll in the early morning market at Napoli Centrale, Naples’s main station, you’re liable to hear merchants jabbering in Neapolitan dialect, known as O Napulitano. “A quant’ vann’ i sciur’ ?” asks a casalinga (housewife) pointing to a case of zucchini flowers. “Pe’ vui? Sul’ inc’ eur’ signo’,” replies the aged vendor. English translation: “How much for the flowers?” “For you? Only five euros, miss.” Even if you speak Italian, you won’t understand.
As Lori Repetti, a linguistic professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, explains, “Today, what we call Neapolitan dialect is really the version of Latin that has had an uninterrupted history in southern Italy since the fourth century b.c.” Over time, the Latin of the Roman invaders mixed with the languages of the Umbrians, the Oscans and the Greeks, as well as the French and the Spanish. By far, of course, the most modern influence is standard Italian, actually a Tuscan dialect, which since 1861, when Italy became a nation, has been the official language of the country.
Though the dialect has suffered as general literacy (in standard Italian) has increased, according to a 2006 study, more Napoletani speak the dialect among friends and family than they speak Italian.