In 1861, the year the Kingdom of Italy was born, it has been calculated that one Italian in 40 (2.5 per cent of the population of the peninsula) spoke Italian: just over 630,000 people — mainly Tuscans speaking what was after all their own dialect — out of a total of 25 million. Even if we add others who had some familiarity with the language, such as those who had read it at secondary school, it is difficult to push the figure beyond 10 per cent… Most of the early statesmen of united Italy came from Piedmont and had to learn Italian as a new language: the best of them, Camillo Cavour, was happier speaking French and was so ignorant of how people talked in the south that he thought Sicilians still spoke Arabic.

David Gilmour, “The Pursuit of Italy”.

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