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The Italian Language: Its History & Defining Characteristics

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Published:
May 16, 2019

The following article is a guest post by one of the resident translators at Drops. You can find more information about the writer at the end of the article.

Italy. After hearing this word, there are a few things that probably immediately come to mind. The country’s superb traditional cuisine, the proverbial hospitality of its inhabitants, or maybe the picture-perfect views of Venice and Florence. You’ve also likely heard of the glorious deeds of Italian explorers and the brilliant inventions of Italian scientists, and undoubtedly, have found yourself contemplating the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel on your art history book in high school.

But how much do you actually know about the language of the so-called Bel Paese?

Let me take you on a journey to the origins of modern Italian. While learning about the evolution and standardization of the language up to modern times, you will gain a deeper understanding of many of its nuances and contextualize the linguistic diversity in today’s Italy. Off we go!

History of the Italian Language

The History of the Italian Language

Romance languages such as Italian, Spanish and French have a common ancestor: Vulgar Latin. In contrast to Classical Latin--the language used in poetry and prose, Vulgar Latin was the vernacular language spoken by common people (the vulgus) across the Roman Empire. Its local variants eventually gave rise to modern Romance languages, now estimated to have around 800 million native speakers worldwide.

Among them, Italian is not only in many respects the closest to Vulgar Latin, but also the one that most frequently had contact with Classical Latin, from which it borrowed a great number of words and grammatical constructs at different stages of its evolution.

Italian as we know it today begins in 14th-century upper-class Florentine, as used by in the works of the three great writers of the time--Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Therefore, in Italy, the foundations for the linguistic standardization were laid by literature, not by the existence of a centralized power (which was the case for monarchies such as France and England).

It was not until 1861 that Italy, previously divided into smaller states, was unified into a single country and Italian was adopted as its official language. But at the time, only a minor percentage of the population could speak it!

The consequences of Italy’s political fragmentation and history of foreign rule can still be seen--or rather heard--today. The country is home to a colorful variety of dialects with their own individual peculiarities in terms of vocabulary and phonemic system. They can be so dramatically different from one another that they’re not mutually intelligible. Some of them have a large community of speakers. Neapolitan, for example, is spoken by over five million people.

Strictly speaking, these varieties did not develop from the national language (even though they interact with it in very interesting ways) but are instead direct descendants of Vulgar Latin. Therefore, the most appropriate way to define them would be as independent languages.

After this brief historical overview of the Italian language, let’s now have a look at its international spread and status: it’s time for some facts and figures!

History of the Italian Language

Fun Facts About the Italian Language

Did you know that Italian is spoken in over 30 countries around the world?

Even though the majority of speakers reside in Italy, Italian also holds official language status in Switzerland and in the states of San Marino and Vatican City. Moreover, it is recognized as a minority language in the neighboring countries Croatia and Slovenia.

It is also spoken in a number of other countries including the US, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil--all hosts to some of the largest Italian expat communities. It is also one of the official languages of the European Union as well as one of the working languages of the Council of Europe.

In total, it is estimated that there are 64 million Italian native speakers worldwide, plus 3 million second language speakers. But most importantly, Italian is one of the most studied languages in the world – quite impressive for such a small country (more precisely, the 71st in the world ranked by size)!

Defining Features of the Italian Language

You have always been fascinated by the sound of this beautiful language, but you are unsure whether learning it would be too daunting a challenge? Here is the extra motivation you need. You can start right away with this rundown of Italian’s most distinguishing characteristics:

  • Italian can be defined as a phonetic language. This means that each letter corresponds to a distinct sound and there is a high degree of correspondence between pronunciation and spelling. However, surprisingly enough, there is no agreed national standard in terms of phonology, so pronunciation and accents vary considerably from one region to another.
  • Most Italian words end in a vowel. Along with the modulation of syllables and the use of double consonants, this is one of the reasons for the intrinsic musicality of this language.
  • Italian, like English and most Romance languages, is an SVO language. In other words, the word order in its sentences is usually subject-verb-object as in: “I (subject) eat (verb) pasta (object)”. Adjectives can either precede or follow the nouns they refer to.
  • Italian is a pro-drop language. This means subject pronouns are usually dropped since the verb ending itself provides information on the subject of the action. So instead of saying “I want to eat pizza for dinner tonight”, you can say “want to eat pizza for dinner tonight” because the verb is doing the work for you.
  • Stress placement in Italian words varies. Fret not--as a general rule, it usually falls on the second-last syllable.
  • You don’t need to worry about cases. Nouns and adjectives are not marked for case and the only remainder of the complex Latin case system can be found in pronouns (similar to English’s “I” versus “me”).

Start learning and practicing new vocabulary on Drops! Comment here below if you have any questions or requests for the next topics on Italian--we are all ears!

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About the Author: Viola Librenti is a translator who, as part of her work, translates for Drops.

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