The Origins of The Italian Language

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Deriving from the Vulgar Latin spread across Europe and beyond by the Roman Empire, Italian has become the language of art and culture in many parts of the world.

But what are the full origins of the Italian language? Where is it spoken, and by whom?

Here is everything you need to know about Italian, who speaks it, where it comes from, and the interestingly diverse situation with dialects in modern Italy.

Where is Italian spoken?

Italian is spoken mainly on the Italian peninsula in Europe. The vast majority of the world’s 66 million Italian speakers reside in Italy, including the islands Sardinia and Sicily that are part of the country.

You will also find well over half a million Italian speakers in the south of Switzerland (where Italian is an official language, alongside German, French, and Romansh) and in San Marino, where Italian is the sole official language.

A Tuscan variety of Italian is spoken on the island of Corsica in France and Italian is used as a common language in other parts of the country – especially the Alps and the Côte d’Azur. There are also several small Italian-speaking communities along the Adriatic coast.

The Italian speakers you can find in some parts of the US, Argentina, and Brazil tend to use dialect forms of the language.

Which language family is Italian from?

Italian is part of the Indo-European language family on the well-known Romance branch. It shares the same origin as the other Romance languages – the colloquial Vulgar Latin that was spoken broadly across the Roman Empire.

All of the Romance languages share common features. It’s not uncommon for speakers of Italian and Spanish, Catalan, French, Portuguese, and others to be able to decipher or spot similarities in vocabulary in another language on the same branch.

All of these languages derive from the Vulgar Latin that the Romans spread across their broad territory, though Italian remains closest to it.

The origins of the Italian language

Starting with Latin

Vulgar Latin was the language spoken in everyday life by most common citizens of the Roman Empire. It was imposed on top of existing languages as the shared tongue (or madra franca) of the Empire.

Yet the languages that Latin was supposed to override didn’t all completely disappear. Nor was Vulgar Latin itself immune to spawning often very different regional dialects and variants.

After the fall of the Empire from the fifth century onwards, many of these dialects and variants grew in importance and use in the regions in which they were spoken.

During this time, Latin became the language of education and culture across Europe. It was taught at all major European Universities and educated persons from all parts of Europe were likely to be able to converse in Latin to at least some degree.

This state of affairs would continue for centuries, well into the Middle Ages and beyond.

Unification of Italy

Italy was not a unified country until 1861 (arguably not until the Capture of Rome in 1871, or even following Italian victories post-1918 depending on your definition).

Before the Risorgimento (the “Resurgence”, Italian Unification), almost every Italian region – of which there were dozens of city-states, republics, and minor independent entities – had its own preferred dialect.

People in each region had their own local version of a tongue derived from Vulgar Latin. Use of these often crossed official political borders.

By 1861 however, one dialect had become the most prominent in wider Italian society. This was the Tuscan dialect used chiefly in the Republic of Florence. The main reasons for this are often suggested to be:

  1. Florentine hard power – the economic power and central geographical location of Florence.
  2. Florentine soft power – the Republic also had what today would be called cultural “soft power” in the form of the literary works of giants like Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio.

These writers wrote in the Tuscan or Florentine dialect which led to its eventual unofficial adoption as the go-to dialect for literature to be published in. At Unification, the Tuscan dialect was adopted as the official language of all of Italy.

Standard Italian

Yet despite the official adoption of one main dialect, most Italians continued to speak their local dialect in daily life. Even as recently as the 1950s, less than 1 in 5 people in Italy were fluent speakers of Italian and illiteracy was a major issue in the country.

This would gradually change over the next few decades. The Italian Constitution of 1948 established the right to education for all, even if the delivery was more than a little patchy for all but the comfortably off.

The spread of radio and television shows in the Florentine dialect (now officially “Italian”) also brought standardised Italian into the front rooms of more and more people. For many years there was only a single state TV channel. In the 1960s, the afternoon TV show Non è mai troppo tardi (“It’s never too late”) taught many Italians to read and write.

However, it has been commented that the positive impact of television on the Italian language may have started to decline as early as the 1980s. Some linguists argue that more popular shows aimed at a younger audience adopted simpler word choices and grammar and this may have shrunk the accepted vocabulary.

Italian dialects in modern Italy

A unique situation

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the local dialects of Vulgar Latin spoken became predominant in certain regions. Eventually, these would become dialects of Italian that persist even to the present day.

It is important to understand that these dialects are not derivatives or variations of Italian in the way that the standard English understanding of a “dialect” might imply. Many Italian “dialects” are actually older than standard Italian and are sometimes referred to as “Regional Italian” to make this clearer.

This is a linguistic situation that is close to unique, at least in Europe. Even today, dialects are widely used in most Italian regions (as much as half of the people in Veneto, a prosperous region, use the local dialect at home). Not just by older people either – most young people can speak or understand their local dialect even if they don’t always prefer to use it.

Growing and evolving languages

It is also important to note that these dialects are not stagnant. Nor are they backwards. They continue to evolve, just like any language in use, and are a source of intriguing cultural depth across Italy.

Words from certain regional dialects sometimes grow in popularity, often after being featured in key works of literature or being used in film or on TV, and many are then adopted into standard Italian.

The dialects of modern Italy have a kind of continuum of intelligibility, with those spoken in nearby regions often similar or mutually intelligible and the differences growing larger the more distant the two regions are from each other.

Dialect and accent

There is also the question of accent. Some cities within the same region – such as Pisa and Arezzo in Tuscany – have large and noticeable accent differences.

Other regions use standard Italian with dialect words thrown in or a regional accent that changes the locally accepted pronunciation of certain sounds.

What language do Italians speak?

Most Italians speak standard Italian as well as at least one of the many local Italian dialects, most of which stem from the Vulgar Latin spoken in ancient Rome and are part of the wider Romance group.

However, some local languages of Italy evolved from other branches of the Indo-European language family. Some examples of this include:

  • Arbëresh – Albanian
  • Cimbrian – Germanic
  • Griko – Greek
  • Slavomolisano – Slavic

There are twelve officially recognised minority languages (Albanian, Catalan, Croatian, Franco-Provençal, French, Friulian, German, Greek, Ladin, Occitan, Sardinian, and Slovene), many of which have sizeable populations of speakers.

The Italian language

Italy has an incredibly diverse linguistic heritage. The “standard” form of Italian is not the oldest dialect of the language. At the time when the country was being unified, it was merely the most “popular” of a wide range of closely related languages that evolved from the same source.

These older – often mutually intelligible, but not always – languages are not dialects in the traditionally accepted meaning. They continue to exist and are commonly used, often by people of all ages, in the part of Italy they evolved in.

Standard Italian, with its origins as the dialect of the Florentine region evolved from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, is the official language of Italy. Today, the overwhelming majority of Italians understand it. Yet there are many minority languages and many people will use their local dialect in their daily life.

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