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Italian Language

Italian (, or ''lingua italiana'') is a Romance language spoken by about 60 million people in Italy, and by a total of around 70 million in the world.[http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ita Ethnologue report for language code:ita (Italy)] - Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version In Switzerland, Italian is one of four official languages. It is also the official language of San Marino, as well as the primary language of Vatican City. Standard Italian, adopted by the state after the unification of Italy, is based on Tuscan (in particular on the dialects of the city of Florence) and is somewhat intermediate between the Italo-Dalmatian languages of the South and the Gallo-Romance Northern Italian languages. Its development was also influenced by the other Italian dialects and by the Germanic language of the post-Roman invaders.

Italian derives diachronically from Latin and is one of the closest languages to Latin. Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian has retained the contrast between short and long consonants which existed in Latin. As in most Romance languages, stress is distinctive. In particular, among the Romance languages, Italian is considered to be the closest to Latin in terms of vocabulary. Lexical similarity is 89% with French, 87% with Catalan, 85% with Sardinian, 82% with Spanish, 78% with Rhaeto-Romance and 77% with Romanian.

Writing system

Italian is written in the Latin alphabet. The letters ''J'', ''K'', ''W'', ''X'' and ''Y'' are not considered part of the standard Italian alphabet, but appear in loanwords (such as ''jeans'', ''whisky'', ''taxi''). ''X'' has become a commonly used letter in genuine Italian words with the prefix ''extra-''. ''J'' in Italian is an old-fashioned orthographic variant of ''I'', appearing in the first name "Jacopo" as well as in some Italian place names, e.g., the towns of Bajardo, Bojano, Joppolo, Jesolo, Jesi, Ajaccio, among numerous others, and in the alternative spelling ''Mar Jonio'' (also spelled ''Mar Ionio'') for the Ionian Sea. ''J'' may also appear in many words from different dialects, but its use is discouraged in contemporary Italian, and it is not part of the standard 21-letter contemporary Italian alphabet. Each of these foreign letters has an Italian equivalent spelling: ''gi'' or ''i'' for ''j'', ''c'' or ''ch'' for ''k'' (including ''chilometro'' for kilometer in prose), ''u'' or ''v'' for ''w'' (depending on what sound it makes), ''s'', ''ss'', or ''cs'' for ''x'', and ''i'' for ''y''. (In informal Internet usage and texts, it goes back the other way; for example, ''ch'' is replaced with ''k''.)


The history of the Italian language is long, but the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts which can definitely be called Italian (or more accurately, vernacular, as distinct from its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae from the region of Benevento dating from 960-963. What would come to be thought of as Italian was first formalized in the first years of the 14th century through the works of Dante Alighieri, who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan in his epic poems known collectively as the ''Commedia,'' to which Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title ''Divina''. Dante's much-loved works 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 and, thus, the dialect of Tuscany became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy.

Italian was often an official language of the various Italian states pre-dating unification, slowly usurping 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 since the cities were, until recently, thought of as city-states. Those dialects now have considerable variety, however. 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 by a Roman (and by any standard-speaker, like a Florentine), by a Milanese (and by any speaker whose native dialect lies to the north of La Spezia-Rimini Line); ''a casa'' "at home": Roman and standard , Milanese and generally northern ). (See Raddoppiamento fonosintattico).

In contrast to the Northern Italian language, southern Italian dialects and languages were largely untouched 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 language, however, scholars are careful not to overstate the effects of outsiders on the natural indigenous developments of the languages. (See La Spezia-Rimini Line).

The economic might and relatively advanced development of Tuscany at the time (Late Middle Ages), gave its dialect weight, though Venetian language remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life. Also, the increasing political and cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of the rise of Medici's bank, Humanism and the Renaissance made its dialect, or rather a refined version of it, a standard in the arts.

Middle Ages

The re-discovery of Dante's ''De vulgari eloquentia'' and a renewed interest in linguistics in the 16th century sparked a debate which raged throughout Italy concerning which criteria should be chosen to establish a modern Italian standard to be used as much as a literary as a spoken language. Scholars were divided into three factions: the purists, headed by Pietro Bembo who in his ''Gli Asolani'' claimed that the language might only be based on the great literary classics (notably, Petrarch and Boccaccio, but not Dante as Bembo believed that the Divine Comedy was not dignified enough as it used elements from non-lyric registers of the language), Niccolò Machiavelli and other Florentines who preferred the version spoken by ordinary people in their own times, and the courtiers like Baldassarre Castiglione and Gian Giorgio Trissino who insisted that each local vernacular must contribute to the new standard. A fourth faction claimed that the best variety of Italian was the one that the papal court adopted. Eventually Bembo's ideas prevailed, the result being the publication of the first Italian dictionary in 1612 and the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca in Florence (1582-3), the official legislative body of the Italian language.

Modern era

Two notable defining moments in the history of the Italian language came between 1500 and 1850. Both events were invasions. The rulers of Spain invaded and occupied Italy down to Rome and the Vatican in the mid-16th century (see the aftermath of the Italian Wars). This occupation left a lasting influence upon the formerly irregular Italian grammar, simplifying it to conform more with the dominant Spanish language. The second 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 and pushed the Italian language to a lingua franca, further reducing regional languages in order to compensate for the increased united nature of the people.

Contemporary times

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 Venetian, "panettone" is in the Milanese dialect of the Lombard language etc.). Only 2.5% of Italy’s population could speak standard Italian when the nation unified in 1861.


Italian is most closely related to the other two Italo-Dalmatian languages, Sicilian and the extinct Dalmatian. The three are part of the Italo-Western grouping of the Romance languages, which are a subgroup of the Italic branch of Indo-European.

Geographic distribution

The geographic distribution of the Italian language in the world: large Italian-speaking communities are shown in green; light blue indicates areas where it is still understood to some extent today.
The total speakers of Italian as a maternal language are between 70 and 80 million. The speakers who use Italian as a second or cultural language are estimated at around 150 million.

* Sovereign Military Order of Malta

* (Only in Slovenian Littoral)
* (Only in Istria County)

Significant / Historically official:
* (in Corsica and Nizzardo)
* (Dalmatia)
* (Only in Dodecanese 1912-1943)

Used by some immigrant communities in:
* 1,500,000
* 1,500,000
* 1,008,370
* 500,000-1,000,000
* 661,000[http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/data/topics/RetrieveProductTable.cfm?ALEVEL=3&APATH=3&CATNO=&DETAIL=0&DIM=&DS=99&FL=0&FREE=0&GAL=0&GC=99&GK=NA&GRP=1&IPS=&METH=0&ORDER=1&PID=89189&PTYPE=88971&RL=0&S=1&ShowAll=No&StartRow=1&SUB=705&Temporal=2006&Theme=70&VID=0&VNAMEE=&VNAMEF=&GID=837928 Statistics Canada 2006]
* 548,000
* 400,000
* 353,605
* 200,000
* 72,400

Speakers: Maternal language: 65 - 75 million [http://www.italia.fi/NR/rdonlyres/F057F198-FEEE-4304-BA26-D777AD7F4116/15279/Rapportotecnico1.pdf Microsoft Word - Frontespizio.doc]
Cultural language: c. 120-150 million

Italian is the official language of Italy and San Marino, and one of the official languages of Switzerland, spoken mainly in the cantons of Ticino and part of Graubünden (Grigioni in Italian), which together are a region referred to as Italian Switzerland. It is also official language with Croatian and Slovenian in some areas of Istria, where an Italian minority exists. It is the primary language of the Vatican City and is widely used and taught in Monaco and Malta. It served as Malta's official language until the Maltese language was enshrined in the 1934 Constitution. It is also spoken to a significant extent in France, with over 1,000,000 speakers (especially in Corsica and the County of Nice, areas that historically spoke Italian dialects before annexation to France), and it is understood by large parts of the populations of Albania and coastal Montenegro, reached by many Italian TV channels.

Italian is also spoken by some in former Italian colonies in Africa (Libya and Eritrea). However, its use has sharply dropped off since the colonial period. In Eritrea, Italian is widely understood . In fact, for 50 years, during the colonial period, Italian was the language of education, but , there is only one Italian-language school remaining, with 470 pupils. The name of the only Italian-language school in Eritrea is Scuola Italiana di Asmara, which was also the only Italian-language school in Ethiopia, when Eritrea was a province of Ethiopia. The number of Italian speakers may increase a little when the number of students at that school increases and because it is still spoken in commerce [http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/profiles/Eritrea.pdf], and Eritrea will be the only African nation where Italian is widely spoken and understood. In Libya, although Italian is mostly spoken by older generations, it is still taught, spoken, and understood in big cities. In Egypt and Tunisia, it is mostly spoken by Italian Egyptians and Italian Tunisians and some professionals of non-Italian descent. In all of the above former Italian African colonies, most of the fluent Italian speakers are people who grew up in officially Italian-speaking nations, most especially Italy, and returned to Africa.

Italian and Italian dialects are widely used by Italian immigrants and many of their descendants (see ''Italians'') living throughout Western Europe (especially France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg), the United States, Canada, Australia, and Latin America (especially Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela).

In the United States, Italian speakers are most commonly found in five cities: Boston (7,000), Chicago (12,000), the Miami region (27,000), New York City (140,000), and Philadelphia (15,000). According to the United States Census in 2000, over 1 million Italian Americans spoke Italian at home, with the largest concentrations (nearly half) found in the states of New York (294,271) and New Jersey (116,365).
In Canada, Italian is the fourth most commonly spoken language, with 661,000 speakers (or about 2.1% of the population) according to the 2006 Census. Particularly large Italian-speaking communities are found in Montreal (c. 179,000) and Toronto (c. 262,000).
Italian is the second most commonly spoken language in Australia, where 353,605 Italian Australians, or 1.9% of the population, reported speaking Italian at home in the 2001 Census. In 2001 there were 130,000 Italian speakers in Melbourne, and 90,000 in Sydney.

Italian language education

Italian is widely taught in many schools around the world, but rarely as the first foreign language; in fact, Italian generally is the fourth or fifth most taught foreign language in the world.[http://www.iic-colonia.de/italiano-2000/09.12%20Analisi%20generale%20dei%20dati.htm 9]

In anglophone parts of Canada, Italian is, after French, the third most taught language. In francophone Canada it is third after English. In the United States and the United Kingdom, Italian ranks fourth (after Spanish-French-German and French-German-Spanish respectively). Throughout the world, Italian is the fifth most taught foreign language, after English, French, German, and Spanish.

In the European Union, Italian is spoken as a mother tongue by 13% of the population (65 million, mainly in Italy itself) and as a second language by 3% (14 million); among EU member states, it is most likely to be desired (and therefore learned) as a second language in Malta (61%), Croatia (14%), Slovenia (12%), Austria (11%), Romania (8%), France (6%), and Greece (6%)., February 2006 It is also an important second language in Albania and Switzerland, which are not EU members or candidates.

Influence and derived languages

From the late 19th to the mid 20th century, thousands of Italians settled in Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil, and Venezuela, where they formed a very strong physical and cultural presence (see the Italian diaspora).

In some cases, colonies were established where variants of Italian dialects were used, and some continue to use a derived dialect. An example is Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, where Talian is used, and in the town of Chipilo near Puebla, Mexico; each continuing to use a derived form of Venetian dating back to the 19th century. Another example is Cocoliche, an Italian-Spanish pidgin once spoken in Argentina and especially in Buenos Aires, and Lunfardo.

Rioplatense Spanish, and particularly the speech of the city of Buenos Aires, has intonation patterns that resemble those of Italian dialects, due to the fact that Argentina has had a continuous large influx of Italian settlers since the second half of the 19th century; initially primarily from Northern Italy; then, since the beginning of the twentieth century, mostly from Southern Italy.

Italian as a lingua franca

Starting in late medieval times, Italian language variants replaced Latin to become the primary commercial language in much of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea (especially the Tuscan and Venetian variants). This was consolidated during the Renaissance with the strength of Italian and the rise of humanism in the arts.

During the Renaissance, Italy held artistic sway over the rest of Europe. All educated European gentlemen were expected to make the Grand Tour, visiting Italy to see its great historical monuments and works of art. It thus became expected that educated Europeans would learn at least some Italian; the English poet John Milton, for instance, wrote some of his early poetry in Italian. In England, Italian became the second most common modern language to be learned, after French (though the classical languages, Latin and Greek, came first). However, by the late 18th century, Italian tended to be replaced by German as the second modern language in the curriculum. Yet Italian loanwords continue to be used in most other European languages in matters of art and music. Within the Catholic church, Italian is known by a large part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and is used in substitution for Latin in some official documents. The presence of Italian as the primary language in the Vatican City indicates use, not only within the Holy See, but also throughout the world where an episcopal seat is present. It continues to be used in music and opera. Other examples where Italian is sometimes used as a means of communication is in some sports (sometimes in football and motorsports) and in the design and fashion industries.


In Italy, all Romance languages spoken as the vernacular, other than standard Italian and other unrelated, non-Italian languages, are termed "Italian dialects".

Many Italian dialects may be considered as historical languages in their own right. These include recognized language groups such as Friulian, Neapolitan, Sardinian, Sicilian, Venetian, and others, and regional variants of these languages such as Calabrian. The distinction between dialect and language has been made by scholars (such as Francesco Bruni): on the one hand are the languages that made up the Italian koine; and on the other, those which had very little or no part in it, such as Albanian, Greek, German, Ladin, and Occitan, which are still spoken by minorities.

Non-standard dialects are not generally used for mass communication and are usually limited to native speakers in informal contexts. In the past, speaking in dialect was often deprecated as a sign of poor education. In parts of Italy, the younger generations tend to speak standard Italian, rather than dialects, in all situations, albeit usually with local accents and idioms. Regional differences can be recognized by various factors: the openness of vowels, the length of the consonants, and influence of the local dialect (for example the contraction ''annà'' replaces ''andare'' in the area of Rome for the infinitive "to go").



Italian has seven vowel phonemes: , , , , , , , represented by five letters: "a, e, i, o, u". The pairs -, and - are seldom distinguished in writing and often confused, even though most varieties of Italian employ both phonemes consistently. Compare, for example standard "perché" (why, because) and "senti" (you hear), as pronounced by most central and southern speakers, with and , employed by most northern speakers. As a result, the usage is strongly indicative of a person's origin. The standard (Tuscan) usage of these vowels is listed in vocabularies, and employed outside Tuscany mainly by specialists, especially actors and very few (television) journalists.
These are truly different phonemes, however: compare (fishing) and (peach), both spelled ''pesca'' (). Similarly ('barrel') and ('beatings'), both spelled ''botte'', discriminate and ().

In general, vowel combinations usually pronounce each vowel separately. Diphthongs exist (e.g. ''uo'', ''iu'', ''ie'', ''ai''), but are limited to an unstressed ''u'' or ''i'' before or after a stressed vowel.

The unstressed ''u'' in a diphthong approximates the English semivowel ''w'', and the unstressed ''i'' approximates the semivowel ''y''. E.g.: ''buono'' , ''ieri'' .

Triphthongs exist in Italian as well, like "contin''uia''mo" ("we continue"). Three vowel combinations exist only in the form semiconsonant ( or ), followed by a vowel, followed by a desinence vowel (usually ), as in ''miei'', ''suoi'', or two semiconsonants followed by a vowel, as the group ''-uia-'' exemplified above, or ''-iuo-'' in the word ''aiuola''.

Mobile diphthongs

Many Latin words with a short ''e'' or ''o'' have Italian counterparts with a mobile diphthong (''ie'' and ''uo'' respectively). When the vowel sound is stressed, it is pronounced and written as a diphthong; when not stressed, it is pronounced and written as a single vowel.

So Latin ''focus'' gave rise to Italian ''fuoco'' (meaning both "fire" and "optical focus"): when unstressed, as in ''focale'' ("focal") the "o" remains alone. Latin ''pes'' (more precisely its accusative form ''pedem'') is the source of Italian ''piede'' (foot): but unstressed "e" was left unchanged in ''pedone'' (pedestrian) and ''pedale'' (pedal). From Latin ''iocus'' comes Italian ''giuoco'' ("play", "game"), though in this case ''gioco'' is more common: ''giocare'' means "to play (a game)". From Latin ''homo'' comes Italian ''uomo'' (man), but also ''umano'' (human) and ''ominide'' (hominid). From Latin ''ovum'' comes Italian ''uovo'' (egg) and ''ovaie'' (ovaries). (The same phenomenon occurs in Spanish: ''juego'' (play, game) and ''jugar'' (to play), ''nieve'' (snow) and ''nevar'' (to snow)).


Two symbols in a table cell denote the voiceless and voiced consonant, respectively.

Nasals undergo assimilation when followed by a consonant, e.g., when preceding a velar ( or ) only appears, etc.

Italian has geminate, or double, consonants, which are distinguished by length. Length is distinctive for all consonants except for , , , , which are always geminate, and which is always single.
Geminate plosives and affricates are realised as lengthened closures. Geminate fricatives, nasals, and are realized as lengthened continuants. The flap consonant is typically dialectal. The correct standard pronunciation is .

Of special interest to the linguistic study of Italian is the ''Gorgia Toscana'', or "Tuscan Throat", the weakening or lenition of certain intervocalic consonants in Tuscan dialects. See also Syntactic doubling.

The voiced postalveolar fricative is only present in loanwords. For example, ''garage'' .


Italian has few diphthongs, so most unfamiliar diphthongs that are heard in foreign words (in particular, those beginning with vowel "a", "e", or "o") will be assimilated as the corresponding diaeresis (i.e., the vowel sounds will be pronounced separately). Italian phonotactics do not usually permit verbs and polysyllabic nouns to end with consonants, excepting poetry and song, so foreign words may receive extra terminal vowel sounds.


Common variations in the writing systems

Some variations in the usage of the writing system may be present in practical use. These are scorned by educated people, but they are so common in certain contexts that knowledge of them may be useful.
* Usage of ''x'' instead of ''per'': this is very common among teenagers and in SMS abbreviations. The multiplication operator is pronounced "per" in Italian, and so it is sometimes used to replace the word "per", which means "for"; thus, for example, "per te" ("for you") is shortened to "x te" (compare with English "4 U"). Words containing ''per'' can also have it replaced with ''x'': for example, ''perché'' (both "why" and "because") is often shortened as ''xché'' or ''xké'' or ''x' ''(see below). This usage might be useful to jot down quick notes or to fit more text into the low character limit of an SMS, but it is unacceptable in formal writing.
* Usage of foreign letters such as ''k'', ''j'' and ''y'', especially in nicknames and SMS language: ''ke'' instead of ''che'', ''Giusy'' instead of ''Giuseppina'' (or sometimes ''Giuseppe''). This is curiously mirrored in the usage of ''i'' in English names such as ''Staci'' instead of ''Stacey'', or in the usage of ''c'' in Northern Europe (''Jacob'' instead of ''Jakob''). The use of "k" instead of "ch" or "c" to represent a plosive sound is documented in some historical texts from before the standardization of the Italian language; however, that usage is no longer standard in Italian. Possibly because it is associated with the German language, the letter "k" has sometimes also been used in satire to suggest that a political figure is an authoritarian or even a "pseudo-nazi": Francesco Cossiga was famously nicknamed ''Kossiga'' by rioting students during his tenure as minister of internal affairs. [Cf. the politicized spelling ''Amerika'' in the USA.]
* Use of the following abbreviations is limited to the electronic communications media and is deprecated in all other cases: nn instead of ''non'' (not), cmq instead of ''comunque'' (anyway, however), cm instead of ''come'' (how, like, as), d instead of ''di'' (of), (io/loro) sn instead of ''(io/loro) sono'' (I am/they are), (io) dv instead of ''(io) devo'' (I must/I have to) or instead of ''dove'' (where), (tu) 6 instead of ''(tu) sei'' (you are).
* Whenever ASCII characters are not available, or when they cannot be relied on, for example in emails, sometimes accents are replaced by apostrophes for convenience, such as in ''perche''' instead of ''perché'' (this was standard in the days of manual typewriters that had no accents, and is still common for upper case letters). Uppercase ''È'' is particularly rare, as it is absent from the Italian keyboard layout, and is very often written as ''E''' (even though there are several ways of producing the uppercase È on a computer). This never happens in books or other professionally typeset material. On the other hand, many people confuse the grave and the acute accent, and write ''perchè'' instead of ''perché'' or ''caffé'' instead of ''caffè'', since these two accents are usually written in the same way in handwriting.




Days of the week

Sample texts

There is a recording of Dante's Divine Comedy read by Lino Pertile available at http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/pdp/

Source: Wikipedia