Italian Language History

The Italian language is the official language of Italy. There are around 80 million native Italian speakers worldwide, predominantly living in the country. This makes the Italian language the 21st most spoken native tongue globally. The Italian language is also the 5th most-taught foreign language, with 150 million non-native speakers – a figure that is only increasing! But where did the Italian origin begin, and how has the Italian language become such a popular choice for learners today?

Italian is a Romance language that belongs to the Indo-European language family, meaning it is a direct descendent of Latin. In fact, the Italian language is of particular importance because of its similarities to Latin. While other Romance languages have diverged from this ancestor substantially, the language of Italy has retained its close ties to the significant and historical Latin language.

The only other language that holds substantial significance to Latin is Sardinian, one of the Italian language “dialects” spoken in Sardinia. Sardinian is one of many regional languages spoken by Italian speakers, with 28 indigenous languages in total. The different languages spoken in Italy play a crucial role in Italian origin, with the Tuscan dialect forming the basis of the modern Italian language spoken and used as the official language of Italy today.

In fact, most Italian language speakers live in Italy, but many use regional dialects for everyday conversation. There are also many Italian speakers in Malta, San Marino, Switzerland, Vatican City, Slovenia, France, and Croatia. Non-native language speakers include people in former Italian colonies in Africa, like Libya and Eritrea. This article looks more closely at the history of the Italian language, from its Italian origin up to the present landscape.

Origins & Roots of the Italian language

Like all Romance languages, Italian origin can be traced back to Latin. The Italian language first started to diverge from Latin in the 5th century after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, this was a slow process! It wasn’t until around the 10th century that texts were written in the Italian language, gradually becoming more popular through the use of Italian in literature and poetry.

By the 14th century, the number of Italian speakers had increased further. Yet the country was split into several distinct states, and different dialects emerged in each region. The Tuscan dialect was considered the language of Italy, predominantly thanks to the works of three important 13th-century poets – Alighieri, Boccaccio, and Petrarch – and the region’s central position within Italy.

Nevertheless, there were still debates over which version of the Italian language should be used for centuries to follow. Latin was also used as a primary literary language until the 16th century, making the situation more confusing! Gradually Latin became less popular, and the Tuscan dialect was officially made the official language of Italy in 1861 during the Unification of Italy. This provides the foundation for the modern Italian language used today.

Modern “Italian Language”

After the Tuscan dialect of the Italian language started being treated as the language of Italy, other dialects were slowly phased out. However, this took some time due to the divided Italian origin. In 1861, only 2.5% of the population spoke the Tuscan dialect. Besides, high illiteracy rates meant Italian speakers predominantly used regional dialects until the 1950s.

The First World War was the first real opportunity to form a unified Italian language, as soldiers from across the country were coming together and needed to communicate. The Italian Consitution was also set up in 1948 and gave everyone the right to education, helping improve literacy. The introduction of television was another main driver. Between 1958 and 1968, cultural and educational shows were broadcast throughout the country.

By the 1970s, the modern Italian language was well established. However, Italian was not officially made the language of Italy until 2007! It is understood by 93% of the Italian population today, yet there is still controversy over language standardisation. Even now, around 50% of Italians speak regional dialects, which are mainly incomprehensible to people from different regions.

Alphabets & Writing System of the Italian language

The Italian language started to appear in written documents during the 10th century. These original texts are known as the Placiti Cassinesi and provided proof of Italian origin – they are widely considered the first extant documents written in the Italian language. As a descendant of Latin, it is no surprise that these texts were written in the Roman alphabet.

Unlike the English alphabet, the traditional Italian alphabet consists of only 21 letters; j, k, w, x, and y were excluded. However, these letters are used in modern Italian to write loanwords borrowed from other languages. Examples include words such as taxi and whiskey. However, the spelling of loanwords is often altered to phonetically equivalent Italian digraphs or letters.

Writings in the Italian language are essential not only for communications today, but historically in establishing Italian as the language of Italy. A notable iconic piece is the 1320 La Divina Commedia (“The Divine Comedy”) by Dante Alighieri. This piece and other famous works were used as a source of standardised Italian. It helped many Italian speakers learn to read and write and has since been translated into many different languages for populations worldwide to enjoy.

Italian Language Dialects

The Italian language serves as the official language of Italy, but there are many regional forms and local dialects. As Standard Italian is based on the Tuscan dialect, other Romance languages of Italy are technically classified as separate languages that have evolved from Latin rather than dialects of Standard Italian. Nevertheless, dialects of Standard Italian have also emerged since the 20th century.

This has resulted in language diversity across the country, with 28 indigenous languages in Italy with their own Italian origin. The five significant Italian language variations to be aware of are Neapolitan, Sicilian, Friulian, Catalan, and Sardinian. These are not all mutually intelligible. As independent languages, they have substantial differences in vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation.

Whether or not Italians can understand each other largely depends on distance. For example, Italian speakers in the North will not easily understand Italian speakers in the South. Moreover, most Italians are proud of their regional dialects and use them to communicate over the official language. Travelling across the country, you’ll hear multiple ways of speaking, with substantial differences even from one town to the next!

Italian Translation Services

The Italian language is the official language of Italy, one of the industrial democracies in the world. This means it holds immense significance, despite the language not being as popular or widely spoken as others. It also means that the need for translation into the Italian language is as alive as ever as businesses expand into the lucrative market.

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