Italian Language

General Overview
Area of Distribution and Number of Speakers

Italian (Italiano) is a Romance language currently spoken by some 66,000,000 people, of whom the vast majority live in peninsular Italy (including the Republic of San Marino). France, including Corsica, has about 260,000 Italian speakers and Switzerland more than 500,000 (the canton of Ticino). For a large, if decreasing, proportion of these speakers, standard Italian is not the language of the home, where dialectal forms are used.

Overseas (e.g., in the United States, where it is estimated that there are some 1,500,000 Italian speakers; in Brazil, with about 700,000 and in Argentina, with about 600,000) speakers sometimes do not know the standard language and use only dialect forms.

Standard Italian is widely used in the countries of Malta and Somalia. A pidgin Italian can still be heard in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but has little extension. In Libya , also, its use is now dying out. Relics of a Jewish Italian (see Italkian) survive within Italy; an entire colony of 6,000 Corfu Jews, who used a Venetan dialect (see Venetan language) as a home language, was exterminated during World War II.

Origin and History

Italian dialects developed from Vulgar Latin, the colloquial language of the late Roman empire. The early texts, reflecting the spoken language of Italy, are written in dialects. Possibly the very first text is a riddle from Verona, dating from perhaps the 8th century, but its interpretation is obscure and its language Latinized. More surely Italian are some 10th-century documents from Monte Cassino, after which there are three Central Italian texts of the 11th century. The first literary work of any length is the Tuscan Ritmo Laurenziano ("Laurentian Rhythm") of the late 12th century, followed soon by other compositions from the Marches and Monte Cassino. In the 13th century, lyric poetry was first written in a conventionalized Sicilian dialect that influenced later developments in central Italy.

Standard language and Dialects

Standard Italian began to be developed in the 13th and 14th centuries as a literary dialect. At first basically a Florentine dialect, stripped of local peculiarities, it has since acquired some characteristics of the dialect of Rome in particular and has always been heavily influenced by Latin. It overlies a wide variety of dialects, which are sometimes considered to represent a fundamental differentiation between northern and southern Italy that dates from Roman times.

Today, however, these variant dialects form a continuum of intelligibility, although geographically distant dialects may be radically different. The northern dialects include what are often called the Gallo-Italian dialects (Piedmontese, Lombard, Ligurian, Emilian-Romagnol); as the influence of a Celtic (Gaulish) substratum is discernible, some linguists consider them separate languages pertaining to the Gallo-Romance Subgroup. The other northern group of dialects, spoken in northeastern Italy, is called Venetan (including Venetian, Veronese, Trevisan, and Paduan dialects, etc.). Istrian, which is spoken on the peninsula now divided between Croatia and Slovenia, with a tiny portion belonging to Italy, is sometimes considered yet another northern Italian dialect, or an independent language of the Balkano-Romance Subgroup. The Tuscan dialects (including those of Corsica) are often held to form a linguistic group of their own, while in the south and east three broad dialect areas are grouped loosely together: (1) the dialects of the Marche (Marchigiano), Umbria, and Rome; (2) Abruzzian, Apulian, Neapolitan, Campanian, and Lucanian; and (3) Calabrian, Otrantan, and Sicilian, which are believed by some to be influenced by the Greek once spoken there (which still survives in isolated pockets on the extreme southern portion of the peninsula).

In modern Italy dialects are still the primary spoken idiom, though the standard Italian is virtually the only written language. Speakers of an Italian dialect, even one as superficially different as Sicilian, can with effort understand standard Italian, however, and can even learn it by such means as listening to radio programs. For most Italians their first contact with the standard language comes in primary school, in which until recently it was the only dialect used; standard Italian is virtually the only dialect of culture in modern Italy, and with immigration from the south to the industrial north it is becoming increasingly the language of intercommunication.


The sound system of Italian did not evolve further than that of Vulgar Latin. The vocal system consists of 7 vowels and is considered triangular (as that of Classical Latin and modern Spanish):

The consonant system is characterized by the palatalization of c, g, t, d in front of e and i (cf. CL hodie => It. oggi) and the intervocal gemination (cf. CL legere => It. leggere); the palatalization of Latin c to [t] is similar to that in the Balkano-Romance languages. The consonantic i [=j] became [d] (written g) (cf. CL justus => It. giusto). The clusters cl, fl, pl were transformed to chi [ki], fi, pi (cf. CL clamâre => It. chiamare, CL flama => It. fiamma, CL plangere => It. piangere). A lot of assimilations occurred to alleviate the pronunciation (cf. CL administratione(m) => It. amministrazione, CL sexus => It. sesso). The intervocal voiceless consonants tended to become voiced (cf. CL apothêca => It. bottega).
See also


Italian orthography is rather simple as it follows a phonetic (like Spanish) and not an etymologcal pattern (like French and English).


Italian grammar is like that of the other Western Romance languages, especially similar to the modern French grammar. It shows agreement of adjectives and nouns, the use of definite and indefinite articles, loss of noun declension for case, two genders (masculine and feminine), and an elaborate system of perfect and progressive tenses for the verb. As in French (see...), the compound tenses are constructed with the verb 'to be' (essere) for the intransitive (as morire to die, nascere to be born, partire to depart, venire to come etc.) and pronominal verbs (as lavarsi to wash myself etc.) or with the verb 'to have' (avere) for the transitive verbs. Similar to French, Italian has a partitive article and uses pronominal adverbs.

The most notable difference between Italian and French or Spanish is that it does not use -s or -es to form the plural of nouns but instead uses -e for most feminine words and -i for masculine words (and some feminine words). There is a theory that Italian formed in its earliest times the plural mainly with -s as other Romance languages, but a palatalisation phenomenon caused the passages: *-as => -e; *-es => -i.


The Italian vocabulary is derived mainly from Latin. The basic words are inherited from Vulgar Latin and often are marked by some slang bias as compared with Classical Latin, cf.:

There was a permanent tendency not only to borrow new words from Classical Latin, but also to remake the words of the spoken language on Latin pattern: French contributed largely to the Italian vocabulary (the first steps of Italian literature were to imitate the French ballades): accetta hatchet (F hachette), cavaliere knight (F chevalier), corvetta corvette (F corvette), dardo dart (F dard), sciampagna champagne (F champaign), ventaglio fan (F éventail) etc. The suffix -aggio in viaggio voyage etc. is borrowed from French -age.

There are numerous German (see Germanic languages) borowings from the late Antiquity and Middle ages (a lot of them were adopted via French): gaio gay, garantire to guarantee, guadagnare to gain, guerra war, especially the world directions (nord, sud, est, ovest). The Arabic words (see Arabic languages) (like arancia orange) reached Italian mainly via Spanish and French.

The Greek words were inherited from Latin (ballare to dance, governare to govern, parola word), but their mass introduction was connected with the development of the scientific literature in Italian during the Renaissance.

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