The Neapolitan Dialect


on September 13, 2010 | 3:07 pm | 3 Comments

Napoli Unplugged Contributor Elisabetta De RosaBy Elisabetta De Rosa

In Italy there are many dialects, but only Sardinian, Friulian, and Ladin are recognized by the Italian State as official minority languages. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger however lists Neapolitan as one of 31 endangered languages in Italy which includes among others, Piedmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, Sicilian, Venetian, and Emilian-Romagnol. Neapolitan, like these other Italian dialects, is not a variant of Italian, but rather has its own grammar, orthography, pronunciation, and vocabulary, the base born from Latin to which was mixed the languages of the people who inhabited and dominated the city of Naples: the Greeks, Normans, French, and Spanish.

For a short time from 1442 until 1458, Neapolitan was the official language of the Kingdom of Naples. It was replaced by Tuscan which became the model for Italian literature starting around 1500. Centuries of debate among scholars about a common language ended in 1525 with Pietro Bembo’s Prose della volgar lingua  or Prose of a Common Language. The common Tuscan of Petrarca, Boccaccio and Dante was deemed the most valid among all of the languages present in Italy to become the model of one common literary language across the entire peninsula. 

There exists vast literature in the Neapolitan dialect, as there is in almost all Italian dialects. In 1339, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Epistola napoletana – the Neapolitan Epistle, which can be considered the first work in Neapolitan. The work i Ricordi or The Memories by Loise De Rosa of 1470 is in dialect. Also during this century some Neapolitan authors, among which is Jacopo Sannazzaro, drew from the monologues of the gliommeri – composers or street performers, using and imitating the language of the people.

Literature in dialect greatly developed in the 1600s, the two major works of this period are laVaiasseide by Giulio Cesare Cortese (1612) e Lo cunto de li cunti di Giovan Battista Basile (1634) that were considered examples for anyone who wanted to write in Neapolitan.  

In 1728 Francesco Oliva wrote the first grammar for Neapolitan. During the 19th century and early 20th century there were many authors that wrote poems and especially plays in dialect: Salvatore Di Giacomo, Ferdinando Russo, Eduardo Scarpetta, Raffaele Viviani, Eduardo De Filippo. 

Notwithstanding this long and prestigious literary tradition, and not to speak of the famous musical tradition, the dialect was considered the language of the ignorant, those who that, after Italian unification, did not understand Italian and for whom the newspapers wrote in Neapolitan so they could understand the laws of Kingdom of Italy.

Even 150 years after Italian Unification, speaking in dialect is not considered a good thing. It is spoken in the home, but not in all families, and often, those who speak Neapolitan don’t speak proper Italian. That is why Neapolitan will forever remain the language of the people.


Elisabetta De Rosa was born in Naples in 1981; in 2004 she earned her degree in Modern Literature at the University of Naples Federico II with a thesis on the Study of Italian Philology. She teaches the Italian language at a school for foreigners and High School Literature. See all of Elisabetta De Rosa’s Articles on Napoli Unplugged. 

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Passionate about my adopted home, for me Naples is the perfect canvas. From its breathtaking vistas to its rich cultural heritage, I could live here a lifetime and never see it all, photograph it all, or write about it all.

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3 reviews

  1. MICHAEL SCALERRA II, June 24, 2012 3:36 pm - The Neapolitan Dialect


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  2. Tom Alberte, March 25, 2015 4:51 pm - The Neapolitan Dialect

    Very nice article. I’m learing the song called Santa Lucia Luntana, which is written in Neopolitan and I was wondering what the correct pronunciation is for the word “sponta”. I have heard some recordings where the singer pronounces it Shponta. Please let me know what you think.


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  3. A. Parthenopean Anachronism, July 13, 2015 9:31 am - The Neapolitan Dialect

    “Dialect:a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.” The government of Italy does not officially recognize Neapolitan as a language, yet by definition, Neapolitan is not a dialect. It is not a “form of a language”. It IS a language. As you explain it is chronologically parallel to Italian, not a descendant of it. As you also explain, it is not a descendant of Italian, but of Vulgar Latin of which “Italian” (and I put it in quotes because it’s like calling a variety of Inuit “Arctic” as if an entire massive geographic region can be represented by one of its languages) is merely ONE of the Italic peninsula’s many languages, descended from a particular strain of the ancient Italic peoples who were diverse, one lineage of which became Latins, one group of them which (Romans) conquered and Latinized all of the Italic Pen. and beyond. Wikipedia lists: “Italo-Romance: Corsican, Italian, Neapolitan, Sicilian.” Assuming this is accurate, again it would seem that Neapolitan is a separate language based on the international body of linguists language sorting scheme. I have a feeling that Neapolitan as a “dialect” has a historical-social-political cluster of meanings unique to Italy that cannot be translated into the English word “dialect”. In Italian, for complex reasons, Neapolitan is called a dialect, to call it that in English is jarringly illogical. I understand that there is no simple alternative. Perhaps just stating the complexity upfront and then eschewing the language/dialect designation altogether in the rest of the text may be a solution. I raise this issue because in America the older generation of immigrants/immigrant-descended were raised to believe that Neapolitan was a dialect. The younger generation having access to much more information, can see a fuller picture. Your use of the phrase “Neapolitan dialect” to your immigrant/immigrant-descended American audience may be highly confusing and even divisive.

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