Italian Etymology: A Guide
to Italian Word Origins
Italian vocabulary is largely based on Latin, which survived until the Imperial decline and was one of the most important languages spoken in the Peninsula. Since Latin is at the base of Italian, it is also true that many other languages gave Italian their imprint. Native pre-Latin idioms like Oscan, Etruscan and Sabine disappeared with Roman domination, but left some words that passed to Latin and subsequently from Latin to Italian. Some of these words can still be found in the modern Italian vocabulary today.
Italian also contains many loanwords (that is, words borrowed from one language and incorporated into another) and calques (words or expressions borrowed from another language by literal translation) from foreign languages. This phenomenon of "borrowed" words has been happening since language began to evolve, but it has increased tremendously in more recent decades, especially in the case of English loanwords. Very often, loanwords are used with the arrival of a new object coming from abroad, for which there is no name in the receiving language.
A number of idioms came in contact with Italian because of commercial exchanges and invasions. Regular contacts with foreign cultures contributed to the widening of Italian word choices: Greek, Arab, French, Spanish, German and English all left something in the Peninsula, contributing to the creation of a language rich of variations and sounds. Etymology is useful in discovering some of these "foreign" words.
Greek, together with Latin, has a special place in Italian dictionaries, especially for the concerns of science, politics and religion. The analysis of some words will clarify this point:
- Angelo (angel) from the Greek "Anghelos" (messenger)
- Pneumologia (the branch of medicine which studies lungs) from "Pneuma" (breath)
- Democrazia (democracy) from "Demos" (population) and "Kratos" (power)
Arab domination in Sicily, the frequent commercial contacts with the Middle East, and the Crusades gave Italian many words used in everyday language, like:
- Zucchero (sugar) from the Arabic "Sukkar"
- Caffè (coffee) from "Qahwa"
- Algebra (Algebra) from "Al-ğabr"
- Limone (lemon) from "Limu"
From Hebraic, Italian took terms linked to Christianity and to its rituals and festivals, like:
- Sabato (Saturday) from "Shabbat" (the Jewish day of rest)
- Pasqua (Easter) from "Pesach" (Passover)
From Medieval French and Provençal/Occitan dialect, once spoken in the courts, Italian received:
- Affanno (breathlessness, effort) from Provençal "Afan"
- Ambasciatore (ambassador) from Provençal "Ambaisador"
- Dama (lady) from French "Dame"
- Saggio (wise man) from French "Sage"
Some French words entered Italy as loanwords and are still commonly used in everyday language: "menù" (menu), "reportage" (press report), "purè" (mashed potatoes), "cinema" (cinema), "dècolletè" (dècolletage), "prêt-à-porter" (ready-to-wear clothes), "crêpe" (pancake), toilette (toilet), "garage" (garage), "bijoux" (jewels), "papillon" (bow tie) and many more.
A few words from ancient German also seeped into Italian language:
- Guerra (war) from ancient German "Werra"
- Zanna (fang) from "Zahn"
- Albergo (hotel) from "Heriberga"
- Schiena (a person's back) from "Skena"
Italian also presents German loanwords like "strudel"(the typical German apple pie), "würstel" (Vienna sausage), "blitz" (a quick military action), "lager" (concentration camp), "muesli" (cereals, granola), "diktat" (orders), "kitsch" (trashy), "leitmotiv" (leitmotif, a short repeated tune or idea in a work of art) and "krapfen" (a typical doughnut filled with jam or custard).
Spain ruled part of Italy during several different periods of history, so Spanish words entered the Italian vocabulary during the 16th and 17th centuries, with minimal modifications in morphology and pronunciation. This is clear in the following examples:
- Compleanno (birthday) from "Cumpleaños"
- Amaca (hammock) from "Amaca"
- Creanza (manners) from "Crianza"
- Etichetta (label) from "Etiqueta"
- Macho (very masculine male) from "Macho"
Some Spanish words are of more recent usage and are used in the original form, like "Desaparecido" - "s/he who disappeared", which refers to people arrested or accused for political reasons and who are never heard from again.
"Pasionaria" – originally indicating a type of flower, this word was adopted as a nickname by Dolores Ibárruri, a Spanish Republican leader of the Spanish Civil War. It is now used to describe a woman who fights for an ideal.
English has a very strong influence on the Italian lexicon, and most of the Anglicisms used in Italian are a relatively recent introduction.
This is a phenomenon which started at the end of the 18th century and is still ongoing. Especially after the Second World War, some terms linked to technology, culture, fashion and economic development like "jeans", "ok", "baseball", "meeting", "business", "mouse", "click", "software", "computer", "chat", "blog" and "goal" entered the everyday vocabulary.
Linguists note that Italy is very passionate about Anglicisms, up to the point that some Latin-based words, and sometimes foreign words, are read as if they were English, with hilarious effects. It is the case of "media" (as in, "mass media") which should be read ['media] and not ['midi«]. Moreover, Italians tend to use English words because they sound cool and professional, avoiding Italian terms in favor of English ones. So "location" is preferred to its Italian matching part "luogo", "weekend" instead of "finesettimana", "feedback" instead of "riscontro" and so on.
It is true, then, that Italian comes from Latin, but it can actually be considered, at present, a sort of colorful linguistic patchwork still in progress.