Monday, January 14, 2013

Language Profile: Italian

Salve! This week's language profile is on Italian, a Romance language with 61.7 million native speakers. It's used as an official language in Italy and Switzerland, as well as the enclave countries of San Marino and Vatican City. Like all other Romance languages, Italian descended from Latin. Not surprisingly, Italian is more lexically similar to Latin than any other Romance language. It makes sense given that Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, the heart of which was found in present-day Italy. Italian is written using the Latin alphabet, but only has 21 letters. The letters j, k, w, x and y are generally only found in loanwords. Italian also has geminate (meaning "double") consonants, unlike other Romance languages.

A statue of Dante in Florence.
The earliest texts considered to be modern Italian and not its predecessor, Vulgar Latin, are from the late 10th century. However, standard Italian's origins are often said to be from a few centuries later. Many scholars credit Dante Alighieri, writer of the Divine Comedy, as being the "Father of the Italian language". His epic poem is considered to be one of the most important works in Italian literature, and was especially influential since he was one of the first to publish in Italian as opposed to Latin, the literary standard at the time. His use of the vernacular in his work helped show that Italian was a language worthy of use in literature, and helped create a basis for the standardization of the Italian language.  

In the late medieval period, Italian replaced Latin as the lingua franca of Europe. It was the main commercial language of the Mediterranean region. The Renaissance gained the language even more notoriety as Italy's art and culture became the focus of the whole continent. Loanwords from Italian became prominent in most European languages, especially in the domains of music and art. It eventually fell out of favor, but the Italian language is still an important language used in music (especially opera) and the fashion industry, as well as the Catholic Church.

Each color represents a distinct dialect or language.
Italian is yet another language with many distinct dialects. Most major Italian cities have their own dialect due to the fact that Italy was divided into city-states for most of history. There are even varieties of these dialects, which shows you just how linguistically diverse the Italian Peninsula is. Neapolitan (spoken in Naples), Sicilian (spoken on the island of Sicily), and Venetian (spoken in the region around Venice) are just a few of the many dialects... or perhaps languages. There's quite a bit of dispute as to which of these "Italian varieties" are full-blooded languages and which are merely dialects, but as it stands only two have been granted language status by the Italian government. Sardinian (spoken on the island of Sardinia) and Friulian (spoken in the northeast) are both considered official regional languages in their respective areas. If you look at the linguistic map of Italy on the right, all of the colors shown in the left column of the legend correspond to Romance languages. That's quite a bit of variety!

There are also several dialects derived from Italian that can be found in small pockets of South America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Italians moved to various South American countries and started their own settlements. For example the Talian dialect, which is a mix of Venetian and Portuguese, is spoken in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. But that's a story for another day...