Modern Language: ITALIAN

Indo-European > Italic > Romance > Italian

As with German, it is often easy to forget that Italy is more of a mosaic of related dialects under the umbrella name of Italian, rather than a linguistically uniform entity. The language used by the media and taught in schools emerged from the need for a literary standard, and later as the official language of a unified state.

Modern Italian is a direct descendant of Latin, the mother of all the Romance languages. The standard is sometimes referred to as 'Tuscan', for it is closest to the speech of Tuscany. This is perhaps due to the choice made by Dante Alighieri to use a largely Florentine dialect when he wrote the Divine Comedy, a classic of Italian literature (though he nearly wrote it in Occitan, a far more renowned literary medium of the time).

It is the language of around sixty million people in Italy, but is also spoken officially in Switzerland, and can be found in parts of East Africa where Italy once held colonies. As in most Romance languages, the stress is distinctive, and usually falls on the penultimate syllable. Like German, Italian is pronounced as it is written; like Latin, but unlike French, Italian has long consonants (as in hanno).

Italian has given English many words, mostly relating to those fields in which Italians have usually excelled. Musical terms such as piano, allegro, opera, tempo; architectural terms such as cupola, balcony, fresco; culinary terms such as spaghetti, pasta, pizza, broccoli; and many more besides, such as ghetto, and perhaps most importantly for people in England, umbrella.

examples of italian

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!.
Dante Alighieri, 'Inferno', canto one, The Divine Comedy, c.1310-14. (Translation: "Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost. Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say what was this forest savage, rough and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear." Longfellow, Columbia Univ.)

Intra regni bene ordinati e governati, a tempi nostri, è quello di Francia: et in esso si truovano infinite constituzione buone, donde depende la libertа e sicurtа del re; delle quali la prima è il parlamento e la sua autoritа. Perché quello che ordine quel regno, conoscendo l'ambizione de' potenti e la insolenzia loro, e iudicando esser loro necessario uno freno in bocca che li correggessi.
Niccolo Machiavelli, 'The Prince', 1505. (Translation: "Among the best ordered and governed kingdoms of our times is France, and in it are found many good institutions on which depend the liberty and security of the king; of these the first is the parliament and its authority, because he who founded the kingdom, knowing the ambition of the nobility and their boldness, considered that a bit in their mouths would be necessary to hold them in." W.K.Marriot)

a short italian bibliography
  • Martin Maiden, A Linguistic History of Italian (Longman: 1995)
  • more to follow...

some italian links


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