The History of the Italian Language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Italy, San Marino, Switzerland and Vatican City, and in other countries as a mother tongue by 65 million people in the European Union only. Is it one of the official languages spoken in the EU and presents a wide variety of regional dialects and accents.
Italian derives mainly from Latin, which was imposed by Romans on the conquered Italian native populations, and ancient Greece, as some of the Southern regions of Italy were part of Magna Grecia. Italian vocabulary is characterized by a high percentage of words and verbs from these two languages.
The Italian alphabet consists of 21 letters (5 of which are vowels), plus the letters j, k, w, x, y for loanwords only. Stress is a very important feature which can be decisive in understanding the meaning of words that are written and read in the same way.
First Written History of the Italian Language
The first document written in what can be called "Vernacular Italian" is a legal document called "Placito Cassinese
", which is still kept in the Abbey of Montecassino. The text is a testimony given by a man about the ownership of a piece of land, over which there was a fight between the Benedictine friars of the Abbey and the liege lord of the nearby fief. It is quite famous and reads:
"Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini que ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti"
. It can be translated as "I know that those lands, that here (in this document) are registered, and everything that they contain, have been property of the Abbey of Saint Benedict for thirty years".
Linguists affirm that the language used in this document is not Latin any more. Latin word endings and cases disappeared (apart from the genitive "Sancti Benedicti"), and the fragment is similar to modern Italian language- double consonants and conjunctions are clearly evident. This first document is the result of a process of vulgarization of Latin that started at the end of the Roman Empire.
With the advent of the major poetic schools in Tuscany and Sicily, Italian continued to further develop towards experimentation of more modern forms and sounds, and almost every linguist agrees in defining the language used in 16th Century Italy as "Italian". Nonetheless, the struggle between Latin (used by the high strata of society), Vernacular and Vulgar Latin (used by the rest of the population) had been intense and protracted for a long time.
The Modernization of the Italian Language
Modern Italian is based on the dialect used in Florence during the 13th and 14th centuries by Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio, who are considered the fathers of Modern Italian. They created the foundations over which other authors added new layers over the centuries. This dialect began to predominate thanks to its similarity to Latin and to the commercial power of Florence. It was not a pure language, as it was profoundly influenced by the Sicilian poetic school of Jacopo da Lentini, who is considered the creator of the courtly poetry. He introduced major innovations in style and word choice, and as a result, poetic language became rich, elegant and free from heavy dialectic characteristics once it arrived in Tuscany.
Soon a debate over the much-needed codification of the linguistic norms of the spoken and literary language itself was raging over the peninsula. In 1525 the Venetian Pietro Bembo set out his proposals in his work entitled "Prose della volgar lingua" (Proses of the vulgar language) for a standardization of style and language. His models were Boccaccio and Petrarca and his work was revolutionary.
The first edition of an official Italian dictionary was edited by the Accademia Della Crusca and was published in 1612, again on the basis of the works of Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. Interestingly, the Tuscan dialect is still considered one of the cleanest examples of Italian dialects, notwithstanding its many peculiarities. There is indeed a proverb saying "lingua toscana in bocca romana" (Tuscan language in Roman mouth) - this would set an ideal of elegance for spoken Italian: the language of Tuscany as pronounced by a native of Rome.
It was not until the 19th century that this variety of Italian spread to become the official language of the nation. The unification of Italy boosted an important transformation of the political, social, economical and cultural situation. The literacy rate increased with mandatory schooling and many speakers were able to abandon their native vernacular in favor of Italian.
With the advent of television in the second half of the 20th century, the literacy rate further increased, as people were able to follow news broadcasts and TV shows in which real teachers taught grammar and orthography. This did not cancel the many dialects of Italy that are still widely spoken now, but it certainly helped the expansion of an "official" language and its clear pronunciation.