Interregional encounters in Italy

Agnese Bresin   University of Melbourne

One of the many intriguing aspects of Italy is the diversity that characterises its regions: traditions, cuisines, political histories, economic dynamism and more. This variety includes language of course, not only the presence of Italian dialects – sister languages that developed parallel to Italian from Latin and often mutually unintelligible – but also the way Italian is spoken in different regions with the distinctive vocabularies, pronunciations and sentence structures that make up what linguists (e.g. D’Achille, 2002) call italiani regionali. So what happens when speakers move across regions, interacting with colleagues and customers who, for example, use different forms to express the same meanings or the same forms to express different meanings? How do personal experience, common knowledge and stereotypes help communication in those interregional encounters?      Between 2013 and 2016 I conducted a large-scale PhD study in Italy under the supervision of Prof John Hajek and Dr Leo Kretzenbacher based at the University of Melbourne. The project focused on regional variation in address practices in Italy, specifically on the way waiters and customers report addressing each other in the restaurants of five regions of Italy. Restaurants provide a valuable setting for exploring the pragmatics of everyday communication. Speakers of Italian, whether native or not, would have come across the complexity of Italian address practices. To put it in a slightly simplifying way, the Italian singular pronominal system of address comprises the informal tu, the formal lei and the regional/old fashioned voi. The research project compared the use of tu, lei and voi reported in the restaurants of Emilia, Umbria, Lazio, Salento and Sardinia.

Many variables were considered, including the interlocutors’ ages, the regularity of contact and the restaurants’ level of sophistication, but the primary focus of the study was on regional variation. Whilst the quantitative part of the investigation provided some indications as to which forms are more popular in which regions, it is in the qualitative analysis that the most interesting results emerged in terms of interregional encounters. In their comments, speakers reported on the differences they noticed when they went to restaurants in other regions. Participants who relocated within the country, as well as those who regularly visit other regions, had a clear perception of how address practices vary across regions. Many referred to the macro regions of north, centre and south.

So what are some of the key findings of this study? Firstly, waiters in Rome are more likely to address customers with tu than in other regions. From the waiters’ point of view, this practice was explained in terms of rapport building, as a way of creating a friendly atmosphere of complicità. From the customers’ perspective, this Roman practice seems to have mixed effects, with some Salentine customers appreciating the confidenza and the practicality of informal service, and some Sardinian customers feeling intruded upon by waiters’ unsolicited overfamiliarity.

Another finding involves Emilia, where many speakers prefer to be addressed with tu even if they are well into adulthood. One Emilian waiter in his 50s, for instance, reported feeling sad when addressed with lei by a visiting Calabrian customer, while another waiter reported that some regular customers aged 70 or above insist on being addressed with tu in his restaurant. The preference for tu in Emilia can be linked to a wish to project a youthful image of the self, typical of modern Western societies, but some participants also commented on the egalitarian and liberating effect of using tu with anyone.

Further findings confirm the complexity of singular voi, i.e. the use of the plural form voi to address one person. Singular voi is reported to be very common in some southern regions of Italy, such as Campania and Calabria (Orlando, 2015), but is mostly considered old fashioned or bureaucratic elsewhere (e.g. Serianni & Castelvecchi, 2006). A Neapolitan pizza maker, who grew up in a geographical area where the use of singular voi is predominant in service encounters (Timm, 2001), opened a pizzeria in Emilia and reported never using singular voi with his customers. It seems that voi was lost in migration in that case. In another case, a Salentine participant thought that voi was used mainly to address the elderly, since that was the use she was exposed to in her geographical area. When she moved to Naples as a young adult, she was surprised when waiters addressed her with voi in the local pizzeria. To her, it was like being called old, but, in fact, it was a matter of different regional practices coming together in an interregional encounter.

Lastly, many comments refer to the complex topic of dissimilarities and mutual perceptions between northern and southern Italy. Some participants report noticing a difference between a modern trend of informality (more tu) in the north compared to a more traditional and reverential (more lei or voi) style in the south. Other participants report the opposite: a more formal and distant north (more lei) compared to a friendly and relaxed south (more tu).

In summary, this study shows how the same language practices may be perceived differently in the various regions of Italy. In Italian interregional encounters, speakers moving to other regions find themselves in different communities of practice (Eckert, 2006), with specific language practices and cultural values associated with these. It is no wonder, then, if surprise, misunderstandings and subsequent adjustment can be the result in a country of such regional diversity as Italy.


D’Achille, P. (2002). L’italiano regionale. In M. Cortelazzo (Ed.), I dialetti italiani: storia, struttura, uso (pp. 26-42). Turin: UTET.

Eckert, P. (2006). Communities of practice. In K. Brown (Ed.), Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 683-685). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Orlando, A. M. (2015). Permettete una parola, Signora? Il voi allocutivo nell’italiano regionale di Calabria tra rispetto e identità. In F. Fanciullo (Ed.), L’Italia dialettale. Rivista di dialettologia italiana (Vol. 76) (pp. 149-162). Pisa: Edizioni ETS.

Serianni, L., & Castelvecchi, A. (2006). Grammatica italiana: italiano comune e lingua letteraria. Turin: UTET.

Timm, C. (2001). Das dreigliedrige Allokutionssystem des Italienischen in Neapel. Frankfurt/M: Peter Lang.

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One thought on “Interregional encounters in Italy

  1. Lalla vezzani says:

    Very interesting

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