The Italian Language

Italian, one of the most studied languages in the world, belongs to the family of Romance languages, and, therefore, derives from vulgar Latin. The first written document where traces of Italian can be found is the “Veronese Riddle”, a text written by hand on the side of a manuscript of Spanish origins, and dated back to the end of the VIII and the beginning of the IX century A.D. Nevertheless, the document considered as the first of the Italian language tradition is a notarial deed of 960 A.D.- the well known “Placito Capuano”.

Modern Italian has developed from the Florentine dialect, which was used in the XIV century A.D. in the writings of famous authors such as Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. Little by little, the dialect began to be used by all the literati, and, by the second half of the XVI century, it was adopted as the common written language for the whole country. As a matter of fact, though, Italian became the vernacular language only near the end of the XIX century.

In the course of time, Italian acquired many “borrowings” and “calques” from numerous other languages: these are ancient Greek (for scientific terminology), Hebrew (for Christian rituals vocabulary), Arabic (for commercial, administrative, scientific and mathematical words), medieval French, Spanish, Portuguese and last, but not least in importance, English. The “borrowings” coming from the English language are fairly recent compared to the others, and they can be dated to near the end of the XVIII century. However, they increased after the Second World War, and they are still growing in number; they mostly concern financial matters, IT, sports and technological development vocabulary (e.g. budget, mouse, goal, film).

Italian is the official language in Italy, in San Marino, in Vatican City (together with Latin), in Switzerland (along with German and French), as well as in some areas of Slovenia and in Croatia. In regard to Switzerland, Italian is mainly spoken in the Canton Ticino and in the Canton Grigioni. However, the language is quite diffused also in other areas, even if in a non-official capacity. It is widely spoken and understood in Malta, for example, thanks to broadcasting and academic teaching; the same applies also for Albania, where a further incentive is given by the fact that the Albanian community at the moment constitutes the majority of immigrants in Italy. Italian spread also into some areas of France, due to historical and geographical reasons, and in a few African countries at the time of the Italian colonies, as is the case in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Libya. It is also relevant, here, to remember that Italians migrated in great numbers in the past, and it is for this reason that conspicuous Italian communities can be found in the United States of America, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland and Belgium.

In Italy, many Romance languages exist, which are spoken along with “standard” Italian, but they differ from it in vocabulary and grammar: these are called “dialects”. Most of these dialects are languages to all intents and purposes: it is therefore hard, if not impossible, for a person from Milan, for example, to understand a person who is speaking the dialect of Naples. However, dialects are not normally used in mass communication and are usually employed only in oral form among native speakers of the area and in informal situations. In the past, the people who would speak dialects were considered as belonging to the lower social class and of limited education. Recently, dialects are not used as much as in the past (even though this statement cannot be applied to every region of Italy), but generally speaking, it can be said that dialects are facing the risk of disappearing. Nevertheless, differences in pronunciation, locution, as well as vocabulary are still widespread.

The Italian language works with 21 letters of the Latin alphabet; as a matter of fact, the letters “k”, “j”, “w”, “x” and “y” are used very rarely, and only with words of foreign origin and place-names. The grammar can be considered fairly complicated because of its numerous exceptions and irregularities: therefore the process of learning Italian, in terms of written language, can be said to be difficult as well. On the other hand, the musical sounds of Italian can make the procedure simpler and enjoyable. The pronunciation does not require too much effort either because, given a few basic rules, the text is pronounced as it is written (see table below). For example, one pronunciation rule is that the sign “C” is pronounced as /k/ if it precedes the vowels “A”, “O” and “U” and any consonant: however, it is pronounced as /tch/ if it precedes the vocals “E” and “I”.

One last element must be considered when engaging with the Italian language, that is to say the formal and informal way of addressing. In the English language, whether a person is speaking to his/her sister or to an unknown man in the street, he/she will talk to the interlocutor addressing them with the pronoun “you”. In Italian, this is not the case: the informal way of addressing is “tu” and the formal one is “Lei”, according to which also the verb declination will also change. This information can be considered relevant, here, because, the misuse of “tu” might be interpreted as impoliteness or lack of respect. Of course, it would not be the case with a foreign speaker, who would certainly be “excused”.

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