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Italian is used as the official language of Italy and San Marino. It is also used as one of the two official languages of the Vatican (the other being Latin) and as one of the three official languages of Switzerland (the others being German and French). Italian is further used as a language of commerce in the former Italian colonies of Ethiopia, Somalia, Libya, and Tunisia. Italian is currently spoken by some 66 million people, mostly in peninsular Italy, but with some spillover in the Ticino canton of Switzerland; in the southeastern border regions of France; and in small communities in Slovenia and Croatia. Dialects of Italian are also spoken, but not as official languages, in Corsica and in overseas immigrant communities in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. Dialect-users outside of Italy often do not know standard Italian, and, overseas, the use of dialect tends to die out among later generations.
History of Italian Language
Standard modern Italian belongs to the group of so-called “Romance” languages. Descended from Latin, these languages may be said to represent living shadows of the ancient Roman empire, reflecting the divergent histories of regions formerly unified under Roman rule.
The source of modern Italian (and of the other Romance languages) was a spoken, popular version of the Latin tongue that was spread throughout the Empire by conquering Roman legions, beginning with the Italian peninsula and Sicily, followed by Gaul (later France) and the Iberian peninsula (later Spain and Portugal), and soon including the British isles, the Rhine valley (later western Germany and Switzerland), the Danube valley (later southern Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Romania), as well as the northern shore of Africa (later Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia).
Most of these territories formed what became known, after Christianity was made the official religion in 312 A.D., as the “Western Roman Empire” (thenceforth administratively distinct from the “Eastern Roman Empire”, ruled from Constantinople, consisting of provinces originally conquered by Alexander the Great, where Greek continued, even under Roman rule, to be used as the principal lingua franca).
The invasion of Gaul, the Iberian peninsula, North Africa, and the Italian peninsula itself in the 400’s A.D. by Germanic tribes fleeing nomadic attackers from central Asia resulted in collapse of the government of the Western Roman Empire and led to the establishment of provincially-based centers of power, dominated by “barbarian” ruling classes whose mother tongue was not Latin. In the Italian peninsula itself, these rulers came to include, among others, the Germanic “Longobard” tribe, whose domain included not only the modern Italian province of Lombardy (centered around the city of Milan), but also the so-called Duchy of Spoleto in the south-central portion of the peninsula. The city of Rome itself having already long since been abandoned by the government of the Western Roman Empire (in favor of the less turbulent and militarily more defensible Adriatic city of Ravenna), the Latin-speaking portion of the Empire now lost any central linguistic political authority, retaining only the written examples of the old Roman civil law code and the text of the so-called “Vulgate” bible translated (A.D. 385-404) from the Greek by Saint Jerome for use in the Latin-speaking portions of the Empire.
The adaptation of the new “barbarian” ruling classes to the speaking of popular Latin by the indigenous populations tended to impose, by authoritative example, a pronunciation that was in some ways alien to the one handed down from the period of Roman rule. However, the impact of such foreign influence on the sound of popular, spoken Latin was less strongly felt in the Italian peninsula than it was in outlying regions (most especially, for example, in the former provinces of Gaul [later France] and Dacia [later Romania]).
The grammar of the spoken, popular Latin language from which standard modern Italian descended was already a good deal simpler than that of the Latin of classical literature. Even so, the emergence, over time, of specifically “Italian” regional languages from spoken Latin carried the simplification much further. Much of what Latin had communicated by inflectional modification of words was now communicated by separate words or phrases, and especially by word order (which in Latin had been extremely flexible because logical relations between words could be detected from word endings alone, regardless of word order).
The changes in grammar gradually made it harder and harder for speakers of the current regional languages of the Italian peninsula and Sicily to understand the Latin language still used in Christian religious services and in legal documents. Ultimately, the desire to ennoble and to give prestige and literary permanence to current speech moved certain classically educated writers in Florence (in the Tuscan region of what is today Italy) to create a new “Italian” written language by polishing and enriching (using neologisms and turns-of-phrase borrowed from classical Latin) the spoken Tuscan language of the late 1100’s and early 1200’s that was their familiar vernacular. This new written language became the literary vehicle of Dante and later of Ariosto, Boccaccio, Tasso and the other authors of the Italian Renaissance.
The post-Roman political fragmentation of the Italian peninsula, however – which persisted well into the 19th century, as a result of occupation by neighboring powers determined to forestall perceived military and ideological threats (Islam, Protestantism) to the Catholic Christian ecclesiastical status quo in Western Europe – long militated against the universalization of any single Italian regional language as the standard spoken language of Italy. Nonetheless, the achievements of the Florentine writers of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance were sufficient from the outset to permanently establish literary Tuscan as the standard written language.
The unification of Italy as a Kingdom in 1860 – and, soon afterward, the spread of railways – encouraged the use of standard written Italian as a model for speech that would be convenient for commercial and political purposes throughout the territory.
The elegant ideal for spoken standard Italian became “la lingua toscana in bocca romana” (“the language of Tuscany as pronounced by a native of Rome”).
The imperial adventures of the modern Kingdom of Italy spread the use of standard Italian as a language of administration and commerce to nearly-contiguous North Africa (Tunisia and Libya) as well as to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Somalia, bordering the Red Sea. Although the misadventures of the Mussolini government brought this would-be “modern Roman empire” to an early end (as well as precipitating the fall of the monarchy and its replacement by a republic in 1946), the fund of knowledge of standard Italian thus implanted in these former colonies continues to prove an asset to Italian business in the post-colonial era.
However, the massive emigration of Italian dialect-speakers from the motherland to the Western hemisphere, set off after 1860 by the upheavals of industrialism, rural overpopulation, and fiscal centralization in the new Kingdom of Italy, did not create a comparable new, commercially valuable overseas base for standard Italian. The dialect-speakers (many illiterate in Italian) arrived not as conquerors whose language had to be learned by the host population, but rather as newcomers who had to adapt to the established English-, Spanish-, or Portuguese-speaking cultures of their adopted countries.
Italian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Italiano
Language Family: Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Italo-Dalmatian
Spoken by Approximately 61,490,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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