Italian is also an official language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City and western Istria (in Slovenia and Croatia). It used to have official status in Albania, Malta and Monaco, where it is still widely spoken, as well as in former Italian East Africa and Italian North Africa regions where it plays a significant role in various sectors. Italian is also spoken by large expatriate communities in the Americas and Australia. It has official minority status in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and Romania. Many speakers are native bilinguals of both standardized Italian and other regional languages. Italian is a major European language, being one of the official languages of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and one of the working languages of the Council of Europe. It is the third most widely spoken first language in the European Union with 65 million native speakers (13% of the EU population) and it is spoken as a second language by 14 million EU citizens (3%). Including Italian speakers in non-EU European countries (such as Switzerland and Albania) and on other continents, the total number of speakers is around 85 million.
Italian is the main working language of the Holy See, serving as the common language in the Roman Catholic hierarchy as well as the official language of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Italian is known as the language of music because of its use in musical terminology and opera. Its influence is also widespread in the arts and in the luxury goods market. Italian has been reported as the fourth or fifth most frequently taught foreign language in the world.
Italian was adopted by the state after the Unification of Italy, having previously been a literary language based on Tuscan as spoken mostly by the upper class of Florentine society. Its development was also influenced by other Italian languages and to some minor extent, by the Germanic languages of the post-Roman invaders. The incorporation into Italian of learned, or “bookish” words from its own ancestor language, Latin, is arguably another form of lexical borrowing through the influence of written language and the liturgical language of the Church. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, most literate Italian speakers were also literate in Latin; and thus they easily adopted Latin words into their writing—and eventually speech—in Italian. Its vowels are the second-closest to Latin after Sardinian. Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin’s contrast between short and long consonants. As in most Romance languages, stress is distinctive.
During the Middle Ages, the established written language in Europe was Latin. With the great majority of people illiterate, however, only a handful were well versed in the language. In Italy, as in all other countries, the majority would instead speak the vernacular (native tongue) of their region. These dialects (as they are commonly referred to as) were derived from Vulgar Latin over the course of centuries, evolving naturally unaffected by formal standards and teachings. These Languages of Italy are not truly “dialects” of Standard Italian, evolving independently (and alongside) of the predecessor of Standard Italian. They are often mutually unintelligible, and are better classified as distinct languages.
The standard Italian language has a poetic and literary origin in the writings of Tuscan writers of the 12th century, and, even though the grammar and core lexicon are basically unchanged from those used in Florence in the 13th century, the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. However, Italian as a language spoken in Italy and some surrounding regions has a longer history. In fact, the earliest surviving texts that can definitely be called Italian (or more accurately, vernacular, as distinct from its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae known as the Placiti Cassinesi from the Province of Benevento that date from 960–963, although the Veronese Riddle, probably from the 8th or early 9th century, contains a late form of Vulgar Latin that can be seen as a very early Italian dialect. What would come to be thought of as Italian was first formalized in the early 14th century through the works of Tuscan writer Dante Alighieri, written in his native Florentine. Dante’s epic poems, known collectively as the Commedia, to which another Tuscan poet Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina, were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the “canonical standard” that all educated Italians could understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language. In addition to the widespread exposure gained through literature, the Florentine language also gained prestige due to the political and cultural significance of Florence at the time and the fact that it was linguistically an intermediate between northern and southern dialects. Thus the dialect of Florence became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy.
Italian often was an official language of the various Italian states predating unification, slowly replacing Latin, even when ruled by foreign powers (such as the Spanish in the Kingdom of Naples, or the Austrians in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia), even though the masses spoke primarily vernacular languages and dialects. Italian was also one of the many recognised languages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Italy has always had a distinctive dialect for each city because the cities, until recently, were thought of as city-states. Those dialects now have considerable variety. As Tuscan-derived Italian came to be used throughout Italy, features of local speech were naturally adopted, producing various versions of Regional Italian. The most characteristic differences, for instance, between Roman Italian and Milanese Italian are the gemination of initial consonants and the pronunciation of stressed “e”, and of “s” in some cases: e.g. va bene “all right”: is pronounced [va ˈbːɛne] by a Roman (and by any standard-speaker), [va ˈbene] by a Milanese (and by any speaker whose native dialect lies to the north of the La Spezia–Rimini Line); a casa “at home” is [a ˈkːasa] for Roman and standard, [a ˈkaza] for Milanese and generally northern.
In contrast to the Gallo-Italic languages of northern Italy, the Italo-Dalmatian Neapolitan language and its dialects were largely unaffected by the Franco-Occitan influences introduced to Italy mainly by bards from France during the Middle Ages, but after the Norman conquest of southern Italy, Sicily became the first Italian land to adopt Occitan lyric moods (and words) in poetry. Even in the case of Northern Italian languages, however, scholars are careful not to overstate the effects of outsiders on the natural indigenous developments of the languages.
The economic might and relatively advanced development of Tuscany at the time (Late Middle Ages) gave its language weight, though the Venetian language remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life, and Ligurian (or Genoese) remained in use in maritime trade alongside the Mediterranean. The increasing political and cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of the rise of the Banco Medici, Humanism, and the Renaissance made its dialect, or rather a refined version of it, a standard in the arts.
The Renaissance era, was seen as a time of “rebirth”, which is the literal meaning of both renaissance (from French) and rinascimento (Italian).
During this time, long-existing beliefs stemming from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church began to be understood from new a perspectives as humanists—individuals who placed emphasis on the human body and its full potential—began to shift focus from the church to human beings themselves. Humanists began forming new beliefs in various forms: social, political, and intellectual. The ideals of the Renaissance were evident throughout the Protestant Reformation, which took place simultaneously with the Renaissance. The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther‘s rejection of the selling of indulgences by Johann Tetzel and other authorities within the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in Luther’s eventual break-off from the Roman Catholic Church in the Diet of Worms. After Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, he founded what was then understood to be a sect of Catholicism, later referred to as Lutheranism. Luther’s preaching in favor of faith and scripture rather than tradition led him to translate the Bible into many other languages, which would allow for people from all over Europe to read the Bible. Previously, the Bible was only written in Latin, but after the Bible was translated, it could be understood in many other languages, including Italian. The Italian language was able to spread even more with the help of Luther and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. The printing press facilitated the spread of Italian because it was able to rapidly produce texts, such as the Bible, and cut the costs of books which allowed for more people to have access to the translated Bible and new pieces of literature. The Roman Catholic Church was losing its control over the population, as it was not open to change, and there was an increasing number of reformers with differing beliefs.
Italian became the language used in the courts of every state in the Italian peninsula. The rediscovery of Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia and a renewed interest in linguistics in the 16th century, sparked a debate that raged throughout Italy concerning the criteria that should govern the establishment of a modern Italian literary and spoken language. This discussion, known as “questione della lingua” (i. e., the problem of the language), ran through the Italian culture until the end of the 19th century, often linked to the political debate on achieving a united Italian state. Renaissance scholars divided into three main factions:
- The purists, headed by Venetian Pietro Bembo (who, in his Gli Asolani, claimed the language might be based only on the great literary classics, such as Petrarch and some part of Boccaccio). The purists thought the Divine Comedy was not dignified enough because it used elements from non-lyric registers of the language.
- Niccolò Machiavelli and other Florentines preferred the version spoken by ordinary people in their own times.
- The courtiers, like Baldassare Castiglione and Gian Giorgio Trissino, insisted that each local vernacular contribute to the new standard.
A fourth faction claimed the best Italian was the one that the papal court adopted, which was a mix of Florentine and the dialect of Rome. Eventually, Bembo’s ideas prevailed, and the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca in Florence (1582–1583), the official legislative body of the Italian language led to publication of Agnolo Monosini‘s Latin tome Floris italicae linguae libri novem in 1604 followed by the first Italian dictionary in 1612.
The continual advancements in technology plays a crucial role in the diffusion of languages. After the invention of the printing press in the fifteen century, the number of printing presses in Italy grew rapidly and by the year 1500 reached a total of 56, the biggest number of printing presses in all of Europe. This allowed to produce more pieces of literature at a lower cost and as the dominant language, Italian spread.
So we come to the “modern era”, an important event that helped the diffusion of Italian was the conquest and occupation of Italy by Napoleon in the early 19th century (who was himself of Italian-Corsican descent). This conquest propelled the unification of Italy some decades after and pushed the Italian language into a lingua franca used not only among clerks, nobility, and functionaries in the Italian courts, but also by the bourgeoisie.
Italian literature’s first modern novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni, further defined the standard by “rinsing” his Milanese “in the waters of the Arno” (Florence‘s river), as he states in the Preface to his 1840 edition.
After unification, a huge number of civil servants and soldiers recruited from all over the country introduced many more words and idioms from their home languages (“ciao” is derived from Venetian word “s-cia[v]o” (slave), “panettone” comes from Lombard word “panetton” etc.). Only 2.5% of Italy’s population could speak the Italian standardized language properly when the nation was unified in 1861.
Italian is a Romance language, and is therefore a descendant of Vulgar Latin (the spoken form of non-classical Latin). Standard Italian is based on Tuscan, especially its Florentine dialect, and is therefore an Italo-Dalmatian language, to which Sicilian and the extinct Dalmatian also belong, among a few others.
Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin’s contrast between short and long consonants. As in most Romance languages, stress is distinctive. In particular, among the Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin in terms of vocabulary. Lexical similarity is 89% with French, 88% with Catalan, 85% with Sardinian, 82% with Spanish and Portuguese, 78% with Rhaeto-Romance, and 77% with Romanian.
One study analyzing the degree of differentiation of Romance languages in comparison to Latin (comparing phonology, inflection, discourse, syntax, vocabulary, and intonation) estimated that among the languages analyzed the distance between Italian and Latin is only higher than that between Sardinian and Latin.
Geography of Italian Language
Italian is an official language of Italy and San Marino and is spoken fluently by the majority of the countries’ populations. It is noteworthy that Italian is official, together with French, German and Romansch in Switzerland, with most of the 0.5 million speakers concentrated in the south of the country, in the cantons of Ticino and southern Graubünden (predominately in Italian Grigioni). Italian is the third most spoken language in Switzerland (after German and French), and its use has modestly declined since the 1970s. Italian is also used in administration and official documents in Vatican City.
Italian is widely spoken in Malta, where nearly two-thirds of the population can speak it fluently. Italian served as Malta’s official language until 1934, when it was abolished by the British colonial administration amid strong local opposition. Italian is also recognized as an official language in Istria County, Croatia, and Slovenian Istria, where there are significant and historic Italian populations.
It is used as the official language of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic chivalric order which, while not a nation per se, is still recognized as a sovereign subject of international law.
In Albania, it is one of the most spoken languages. This is due to the strong historical ties between Italy and Albania but also the Albanian communities in Italy, and the 19,000 Italians living in Albania. It is reported as high as 70% of the Albanian adult population has some form of knowledge of Italian. Furthermore, the Albanian government has pushed to make Italian a compulsory second language in schools. Today, Italian is the third most spoken language in the country after Albanian and Greek.
Italian is also spoken by a minority in Monaco and France (especially in the southeast region of the country).
Due to heavy Italian influence during the Italian colonial period, Italian is still understood by some in former colonies. Although it was the primary language in Libya since colonial rule, Italian greatly declined under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, who expelled the Italian Libyan population and made Arabic the sole official language of the country. Nevertheless, Italian continues to be used in economic sectors in Libya. In Eritrea, Italian is at times used in commerce and the capital city Asmara still has one Italian-language school. Italian was also introduced to Somalia through colonialism and was the sole official language of administration and education during the colonial period but fell out of use after government, educational and economic infrastructure were destroyed in the Somali Civil War. Italian is still understood by some elderly and other people. The official languages of the Somali Republic are Somali (Maay and Maxaatiri) and Arabic. The working languages during the Transitional Federal Government were Italian and English.
Although over 17 million Americans are of Italian descent, only a little over one million people in the United States speak Italian at home. Which is another compelling reason for COIHC to focus upon the language in order not to lose our historical link to the past:
It is also interesting to note that although a small market, an Italian language media market does exist in the country. On the other hand, although technology allows for the Italian language to spread globally, there has been a decrease in the number of Italian speakers in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Italian speakers in 1980 was 1,614,344. In 1990, the number of Italian speakers in the United States dropped to 1,308,648. In 2000, the number of speakers decreased to 1,008,370, and finally, in 2010, the number of Italian speakers plummeted to 725,223. The percent change from 1980–2010 was a negative 55.2.
In Canada, Italian is the second most spoken non-official language when varieties of Chinese are not grouped together, with over 660,000 speakers (or about 2.1% of the population) according to the 2006 Census.
In Australia, Italian is the second most spoken foreign language after Chinese, with 1.4% of the population speaking it as their home language.
Italian immigrants to South America have also brought a presence of the language to that continent. Italian is the second most spoken language in Argentina after the official language of Spanish, with over 1 million (mainly of the older generation) speaking it at home, and Italian has also influenced the dialect of Spanish spoken in Argentina and Uruguay, mostly in phonology, as well as the Portuguese prosody of the Brazilian state of São Paulo which itself has 15 million Italian descendants. This form of Spanish is known as Rioplatense Spanish. Italian bilingual speakers can be found in the Southeast of Brazil as well as in the South. In Venezuela, Italian is the second most spoken language after Spanish, with around 200,000 speakers. Smaller Italian-speaking minorities on the continent are also found in Paraguay and Ecuador.
In Costa Rica, Central America, Italian is one of the most important immigration community languages, after English. It is spoken in the southern area of the country in cities like San Vito and other communities of Coto Brus, near the south borderline with Panama.