There are over 6,900 languages & dialects in the world, and in Italy they speak 33 of them! (From the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica)
We're not talking, say, the Southern-style American English which is linguistically pretty much the same language with just some different vocabulary and a twang.
Instead, the Ethnologue project by SIL International recognizes that true dialects operate practically like different languages. (Even still, the U.S. could boast at one time over 230 languages and dialects, but 73 of those are now extinct and nearly 70 are "nearly extinct"!)
Dialects in Italy slowly mutate every few miles or so, so the farther Italians live from one another, the less likely they'll be able to understand each other's dialect. You can see the major dialectical groupings and what I mean here.
Some dialects are more important to people in some regions than in others. For example, Venetians speak dialect a lot, and I hate to say that some have rather the bad habit of switching to dialect and talking about other people right in front of them, since they count on most folks not understanding...
(BTW, FYI: the world record for the most native dialects and/or languages in a single country is apparently held by Papua Nuova Guinea... with 820!!)
For more info in Italian on dialects, see Dialettando.com.
Categories: Italy, Language, Southern