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Italian Language

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Overview: With at least 85 million speakers around the world, Italian is the dominant language of the Italic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It has seen much standardization over the years after being formed from disparate dialects on the Italian Peninsula, some of which are now in danger of extinction. The Italian language has integrated to a certain extent with the languages of its neighbors, including France and Germany, and especially along its northern border. Political wrangling over dominant versus minority dialects has frequently been a source of unrest in the history of Italy.

The term lingua franca is itself an Italian term, meaning “free language” or “open language.” The term has come to refer to any language that is used by people of different origins to communicate with one another outside of their native dialects. It was originally coined to describe Sabir, an Italian-derived lingua franca that saw use all around the Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Roots of the language: Italian is the most similar out of all the Romance languages to the original Latin, and is probably the most direct descendant of that ancient tongue. During and after the time of the Roman Empire, a group of Latin-based vernaculars known collectively as Vulgar Latin were spoken throughout the continent. Many of these evolved into the later Romance languages, which is exactly what happened in the heart of Rome. By the Renaissance era, Latin had been almost entirely replaced by Italian dialects in both everyday and formal usages.

Modern-day Standard Italian is based on the dialect of the Tuscany area, but this was not implemented until the middle of the nineteenth century after the period of Italian Unification. Prior to that, what is now Italy was broken into a number of smaller regions and city-states, many of which had their own dialects which were often not mutually intelligible with one another. The Tuscan language was the prestige dialect spoken by much of the elite, but nowadays almost all Italians speak it, often in addition to a local variety.

Language characteristics: Italian grammar and pronunciation has a great deal in common with other Romance languages, but out of all of them is considered to have preserved the most forms from the original Latin. For instance, the plural form of an Italian noun is not marked by the addition of an “s” as in many other European languages, but instead by a change in the final vowel. Because the basis of modern-day Standard Italian was primarily a literary language for a few centuries, spelling conventions can sometimes appear inconsistent and divorced from colloquial usage.

Written form: Italian of course uses the Latin alphabet, although only 21 letters are included (j, k, w, x, and y are used only in foreign loanwords, although this situation might be slowly changing). Like Spanish and French, the Italian script uses accent marks when necessary to indicate a stressed syllable, but the use of these is not always mandatory. It is relatively easy to determine the correct pronunciation from a written word in Italian, but the reverse is not always as easy due to a number of spelling conventions.

Both secular and religious literature has flourished in Italy for thousands of years, creating a rich tradition and sheltering the ancient language of Latin even as it died out in the European vernacular. The city-states of Italy were home to some of the finest universities in Old Europe, attracting students and scholars from all around the continent. The classical lexicon of written Italian is rather vast, and has had a huge influence on the development of literature in other European countries.

Last Updated : April 20, 2015


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