Dalmatian is variably described as a language or as a subfamily of languages belonging to the Italo-Dalmatian branch of the Romance languages. In their mediaeval heyday, they were spoken in city-states along the Dalmatian coastline of what’s now Croatia and Montenegro. “Dalmatian proper” went extinct in 1898 with the death of its last native speaker, Tuone Udaina,1 in a railroad accident; however, in 2017 it was determined that a language spoken by 400 people in two villages of Istria, Croatia, Istriot, was in fact a member of the Dalmatian subfamily.
There are two major dialects of Dalmatian that we have records of: Vegliot, in the north (which is what Tuone Udaina spoke), and Ragusan, in the south. The latter of these is the better-attested prestige variety that was the official language of the mediaeval Republic of Ragusa (centred on modern-day Dubrovnik). That said, almost every town along the coast had its own subtly different dialect, and in many cases the only trace we still have of their unique dialectal forms is borrowings into local varieties of Croatian.
With the Venetian Republic exerting heavy influence over the whole Adriatic Sea for many centuries, the Dalmatian dialects came under matchingly heavy influence by Venetian, which ended up supplanting it as the dominant Romance language. With Serbo-Croatian being the main language of the “hinterlands” further inland from the coast, Dalmatian also experienced linguistic influence from that, and of course over time became supplanted by Serbo-Croatian entirely.
Grammatically, Dalmatian has similarities to the Gallo-Italian subfamily as well as the Italo-Dalmatian family of which it is obviously a namesake. Similarly to the Gallo-Italian languages, it sees some collapsing of verb conjugations (e.g. first-person and third-person singular and third-person plural all share the same endings) which make it much less pro-drop than, say, Italian. It also has no continuous aspect (i.e. the “is doing” form). Like other Italo-Dalmatian languages, though, it uses vowel endings rather than -s to signify the plural: -i for masculine and -e for feminine. Grammatically it is not particularly similar to the Eastern Romance languages at all, having lost noun cases and the neuter gender and lacking Balkan sprachbund influences like definite articles postpended to the noun (in Dalmatian, like in most other Romance languages, definite articles are placed before the noun). Indeed, it is more analytic than many of the more conservative Western Romance languages, like Italian or Spanish.
Phonetically, Dalmatian shares a few more similarities with Eastern Romance. Some things that both groups share in common include:
- Latin /kt/ became /pt/ (cf. Italian /tt/)
- Latin /ŋn/ became /mn/ (cf. Italian /ɲ/)
- Latin /ks/ became /ps/ (cf. Italian /ʃ/)
- Latin /mn/ remained /mn/ (cf. Italian /nn/)
Dalmatian is almost unique among Romance languages in palatalising /k/ only before /i/ and not also before /e/; thus, Vegliot had cituot “city” but kenur “to dine”. I believe the only other branch that did this was the also-now-extinct African Romance. If you look at lists of (Vegliot) Dalmatian words, its fondness for diphthongising what were (in Latin) simple vowels is also very noticeable, particularly /a/ → /uo/, /o/ → /ua, au/. For example, you have Vegliot tuota “father”, buask “forest” and naun “not”.
Some examples of Ragusan words include pen “bread”, teta “father”, chesa “house” and fachir “to do”. Some further words, which are cognate to their equivalents in Eastern Romance languages but not shared with Italian or languages further west, include jualb “white”, basalca “church” and inteliguar “understand”.
If I’m understanding Wikipedia properly, perhaps it would be better to describe him as a heritage speaker; Vegliot Dalmatian is reportedly the language his grandparents spoke to him in and that his parents spoke with each other, but his own mother tongue was really Venetian. ↩︎