Italian is considered one of the most beautiful and romantic languages in the world and there are a lot of people who’ve fallen in love with the language and would like to learn it.
The history of the Italian language is a history shared with Italy itself as well as the unification of the Italian people.
Did you know that Italian is the 19th most spoken language in the world and, in addition to Italy, is spoken in the Vatican, San Marino, Swizterland, Slovenia, Croatia, and Malta? It’s also one of the EU’s official languages.
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The Story of the Italian Language
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Both Italy and Italian underwent a huge number throughout their history.
Do you like history? If so, you’re probably going to enjoy this article.
There’s a lot to get through so let’s get started with the first inhabitants of Italy’s various regions.
Our story starts in 800BC. At the time, the area that currently corresponds to Italy and Corsica was inhabited by various different peoples.
The Etruscans (in Tuscany)
The Greeks (in the South and in Sicily)
The Celts (in the North of Italy)
And various other ethnic Italian groups
These peoples didn’t have or share a single language. However, despite their differences, their languages were relatively similar and there were around 40 of them spoken in the region.
Latin descended from the languages spoken by the Italic peoples. Classic Latin is different to the Italic languages.
The Creation of Rome
The foundation of Rome in 753BC by the Etruscans, Sabines, and Romans changed everything.
Wars followed and the region was subsequently conquered. This resulted in a unified and Romanised Italy during the reign of Augustus from 27BC to 14BC. The Romans would later go on to conquer a large number of the surrounding regions, too.
By 200AD, the Roman Empire stretched across Western Europe, North Africa, England, Armenia, and Arabia. You should check out a map of the Roman Empire from the time. It's massive!
Thus, Latin was exported all over Europe with the exception of few places on the edges of the empire. The Romans also brought their culture and their religion, Christianity, with them.
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The Growth of Latin and the Decline of Greek
In 200AD, thanks to oral tradition, there were two main languages spoken across the Roman Empire, Latin and Greek. The rest were largely ignored.
Local leaders attempted to impose Latin across the empire by limiting the use of Greek and suppressing those who tried to speak it.
Latin was left and it split into two: Classical Latin (used by aristocrats) and Vulgar Latin (spoken by soldiers and colonists). Over time, Vulgar Latin (or Common Speech) took over and would become the foundation for Italian, Spanish, and French.
Italian’s Diverse Influences
Bit by bit, the Roman Empire was weakening. It’s neighbours saw this as a great opportunity to move in.
The Barbarian Invasions took place between the 4th and 8th centuries.
First the Huns started moving into the Roman Empire in 375. Originally from Central Asia, they were led by Attila (the Hun) and really upset the geopolitical situation in the area when they arrived. With their arrival from the east, the Huns pushed various populations westwards and weakened the Western Roman Empire and its capital, Rome. Only the walls of Constantinople saved the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) from the Huns.
Among the people driven west, we find the Visigoths whose siege of Rome led it to eventually fall in 410. Other Germanic peoples also made the most of the situation including:
By the end of the 5th century, the Germanic Kingdoms had replaced the Roman Empire.
The Lombards: Between the 6th to 8th Centuries
In 568, the Lombards, who originated in Scandinavia, took over Milan, Pavia, Tusany, and Venice. They progressively conquered the rest of Northern Italy and part of the south (which was also held by Byzantine Empire who had expanded the Eastern Roman Empire). Italy would remain shared by the Lombards and the Byzantine Empire until the 8th century.
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Invasions by Francs and Muslims: 8th and 9th Centuries
Charlemagne, the King of the Francs at the time, capitalised on the various rivalries between the Lombards Duchies by invading Lombardy and Italy. He became King of both the Francs and Lombards and subsequently the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Italy was split into two: Roman Italy and Germanic Italy. Not to mention the Muslims that had made their way into Sicily and had conquered the whole island leaving the mainland up to Genoa. By the end of the 9th century, Italy was divided by several political entities:
The Kingdom of Italy
The Byzantine Empire
The End of the 10th Century and the Arrival of the Normans
In 999, the Normans (who originated in Scandinavia) took to the seas and arrived in Southern Italy. They were very quickly able to defeat the Byzantines and the Arabs and conquer the south of Italy. In 1154, they created the Kingdom of Sicily which was comprised of Sicily and Southern Italy.
Various conquests brought with them linguistic diversity. In fact, these conquests caused Italy to have a huge mix of languages (over 1,000). While all of them originated from Latin, none of them were able to impose themselves over any of the others.
The Latin used by the Church was always influential in terms of culture in the region. However, the various peoples and the languages they spoke influenced Italian as we know it today. This began with Germanic tribes, the Lombards, and the Francs and was influenced by the Arabic, Norman, and Sicilian languages.
Furthermore, Italians also borrowed a lot of Medieval French words during the Middle Ages.
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The Creation of the Kingdom of Italy
The Start of Linguistic Unification through Literature
By the end of the Middles Ages, Italy was divided into two: the Principalities in the North (the Republic of Siena and the Republic of Florence) and the Kingdom of Naples in the South.
During the Renaissance in 16th century, Italy became hugely popular in terms of culture and science. It gained linguistic unification thanks to the writers of the time. Most of the famous writers of the time wrote in Florentine, a sub-dialect of the Tuscan dialect.
These writers included Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.
This didn’t stop Ecclesiastic Latin from hanging around for a number of years, though. When printing came around and Pope Benedict XIV allowed the Bible to be read in a common language (Florentine in this case), the language spread even further.
In the 16th century, Italy was subject to Spanish cultural influence from Spain via Charles V. He became the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as well as King of Naples and Sicily and Jerusalem. This resulted in the Italian language being bolstered with plenty of words from Spanish and Portuguese.
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The French Revolution and Influence on Italy
After the French Revolution, Napoleon came to power in France. In 1796, General Bonaparte arrived in Italy.
This invasion resulted in the Italians wanting a unified country. This is why many historians consider the Napoleonic period as the start of Modern Italy. Between 1796 and 1861, Italy underwent several drastic changes including:
A redrawing of territories following the 1815 Congress of Vienna.
Almost total domination of Italy by the Austrian Empire.
A war between France and the Piedmontese against Austria which brought with it a unitarian movement across Italy.
The Italian Kingdom grew progressively over time. By 1861, there were various languages spoken across Italy. Including:
However, Florentine was seen as the national Italian language.
Between 1922 and 1945, Mussolini’s fascist government imposed Italian across all of Italy. Learning Italian (and only Italian) was of highest priority.
Minority languages were driven out under Mussolini. The goal was to scare them into extinction. Teachers would teach only Italian. The administration itself was also fully Italian.
The linguistic rights of minority language speakers were eradicated in order to strengthen Italian as the sole official language.
Certain words that were considered “exotic” were also removed from the Italian lexicon. Thus, there were hundreds of words (expressions, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc.) from French, English, Arabic, and German that were transformed or given an Italian translation. It wasn’t until 1948, following the Second World War, that a culture of minority languages was able to be reborn.
Nowadays, Modern Italian doesn’t bear too much resemblance to the Italian used by Dante and his peers. Just like the English language, Italian went through a number of significant changes. According to data from the ISA (Instituto Nazional di Statistica), the number of people using only their regional dialect to communicate at home decreased from 32% to 19.1% between 1987 and 2000.
Italian is starting to take over the other languages both in terms of writing and speaking. Some of them are no longer even being spoken in everyday conversation. In any case, you’ll notice that Modern Italian has a diverse and rich history.
If you’d like to learn more about its grammar, conjugations, structures, and expressions during your courses, learning about the language’s history and roots is a good place to start. It’s also your gateway to Italian and European culture.
To gain a deeper understanding of Italian and improve your speaking and pronunciation, you know what you need to do. Why not consider looking for free Italian tutorials online, going to a language school, or getting a private tutor to help you?
What about a trip to Italy? There’s nothing better for learning a language than being in the country where it’s spoken. Learn the Italian basics with our blog for beginners.