When you think of Italy, do you think of Italian food like spaghetti, pizza, and gelato? Or do the images of Venetian canals, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Roman Colosseum come to mind? Or maybe you dream of being lost among the wine regions of Tuscany?
Italy is a diverse region home to one of the original Romance languages and the remains of the heart of the Roman Empire. It’s language, Italian, is a reflection of that rich cultural history. And if you’re eager to know how to learn Italian easily, then you want to know more about the language before you pick the best language learning program. These are 10 facts about the Italian Language.
Italian is one of the famous “Romance Languages” or languages that descended from the Vulgar Latin. Vulgar Latin is the term given to the Latin used outside of academia and writing. This form of Latin as a common tongue spread throughout Europe as a result of the Roman conquests and changed over time. And out of all the Romance languages, Italian shares the most similarities to the original Vulgar Latin.
Italian is quite similar to the other Romance languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Romanian. French and Catalan are nearly 90 percent similar to Italian, and Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian are still very close sharing roughly 80 percent of similarity to Italian. The consequence of this is that many people who speak one of these languages as their native language have an easier time learning Italian.
Italian has a fascinating origin story. It was not created and developed as a single language under Italian as many would initially think. This is because Italy was not unified as a country until 1861, during the Unification of Italy. At that time, only 2.5 percent of the nation spoke what would be used as the basis for a standardized Italian, the Tuscany dialect. Today over 97 percent of the country speaks Standard Italian.
To fully understand Standard Italian, you need to understand what the Italian’s dialects are. As previously mentioned, Italy was only recently unified in 1861. Before that, Italy was a collection of nation-states, each with their own “dialect.”
However, in this case, “dialect” is a misnomer as the regions of Italy have what would more accurately be described as “regional languages.” This is because these languages vary in being inter intelligible depending upon the proximity of other regions. In other words, a dialect in the north would likely not be understood by someone in the very south of Italy. Of these many dialects, there six main ones: Milanese, Venetian, Florentine, Romanesco, Neapolitan, and Sicilian. The most widely used of these is Neapolitan with more than 5 million speakers.
Despite all of these dialects, there is a Standard Italian that is taught in school and used in media. The Standard Latin comes from the Tuscan Dialect as a result of three influential writers. Alighieri, Boccaccio, and Petrarch wrote popular literature that was shared among the upper class throughout Italy. Alighieri, the author of the Divine Comedy, is one of the more influential authors. It also helped that many of the grammatical rules of the Tuscan dialect had already been written down.
Still, it wasn’t a smooth transition. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in 1321, and the Unification of Italy was in 1861, but by the 1950s, there were still complications with spreading Standard Italian throughout Italy. This was a result of widespread illiteracy. Since the 1950s, efforts have been made to improve literacy in Italy which has allowed for rapid growth in Standard Italian throughout the country.
The Italian language is now an official language of San Marino, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Switzerland, and of course, Vatican City. Brazil, Croatia, and Slovenia recognize Italian as a minority language as well. And it is one of the 24 languages that make up the EU.
Located in Florence, Italy, the Accademia della Crusca is the institution responsible for the preservation of the Italian language. It initially started off as an institution created to support the Tuscan dialect in 1582. In 1612, it carried out its main accomplishment, creating the Vocabolario, or dictionary, which remained reprinted up until 1923. Currently, the Academy focuses its attention on the study and preservation of the Italian language throughout the world.
If you have ever listened to or studied classical music, then you know that Italian has had more than a little impact on the art form. This is because classical music originated in Italy during the Renaissance. Words like “staccato,” “forte,” “crescendos,” and “diminuendos” illustrate to the artist how to perform a piece. Even many of the instruments we use get their name from Italian: “Cello,” “piano,” and “Violin,” for instance. There are also the types of singers, “soprano” and “alto.” Something to remember the next time buy a ticket to a famous “opera.”
Italian uses a slightly smaller alphabet than the English language. Its 21 letters leave out the j, k, w, x, and y. If you’ve been to Italy and can swear you’ve seen them, this is most likely because they do exist as part of loanwords from other languages. And as with any language, there are exceptions. Some of the Italian “dialects” do use these letters in their regional language, and travelers can find these words when they visit those regions.
Clusters of consonants are prevalent in the creation of Italian words. Many words have double consonants in them like, “bello” for beautiful or “gatto,” for a cat. This can create problems for beginners studying the language as each consonant must be pronounced otherwise a word can change completely. “Pala” means shovel and “palla” means ball, for instance. To help make sure your pronunciation is accurate, it helps to pick up an Italian language tape so you can hear the language appropriately spoken.
Reading numbers in Italian is a little different than English as well. Numbers like one, two, three or “uno,” “due,” “tre,” etc., are fairly easy to figure out. It’s when you arrive at a number like 78,034. At first glance, it can look a little intimidating: “settantottomilatrentaquattro.” This is because Italian doesn’t use spaces or hyphens between numbers. However, if you break the number apart, you can see that the translation is fairly straightforward.
Italian exists throughout the world. It’s the 20th most spoken language with a population of speakers that continues to grow. Because it’s approachable and viewed by many as one of the easier Romance languages to learn, it tends to be a popular choice in language classrooms and programs. With a little patience and the right language program, you start working your way to Italian fluency today.