If you're learning Italian you might be curious about the history of the Italian language and how it connects to the history of Italy and the Italian people.
Italy has, after all, been the seat of culture for centuries: writing, painting, sculpture, film, music, photography…
The Renaissance, one of the most important movements in history, was born in Italy, not to mention its status as a superpower of trade and commerce. In the Middle Ages, Florence and Venice were two of the wealthiest, most influential cities when it came to doing business.
So, the history of Italian that goes into the Italian you know today, which isn’t really Italian at all, technically, but a variant of a dialect called Tuscan.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In this article, you'll discover the history of the Italian language, right from the beginning. Get ready to travel through time from the ancient Italian language to what you know today.
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The History Of The Italian Language: Ancient Rome & Latin
Like many things regarding Italy, the history of Italian language starts with the ancient Roman Empire and the language in Ancient Rome, Latin. Latin was one of the two most influential, most important languages in the world, next to ancient Greek. Even today, you come across Latin in the fields of medicine, biology, and other sciences.
Now, Italian, like all other Romance languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.) comes from Latin. But not the Latin of the medical encyclopedia.
The Italian language derives from a variant of Latin called “vulgar,” meaning the kind of Latin the average resident of ancient Rome spoke. Classical Latin, the more serious, refined version, was for academics and people in the political or religious sphere.
Latin was spoken from its first signs in the 8th century B.C. all the way up to 800 A.D. (A.D. stands for the Latin anno domini, which means “year of the Lord”, while B.C. stands for “before Christ”).
Even today, Latin has not disappeared entirely from Italian. The language has borrowed a great number of words directly from Latin (gloria, memoria, medicina, among countless others).
When Did Italian Become a Language? The Fall Of The Roman Empire & The Rise Of Tuscan
But, as things do, over time the Roman Empire weakened and fell. And the place we now know as Italy was split into different parts, all with their unique regional dialects, or languages.
Since the states of Italy were in such close contact and since the dialects were often very similar, the idea of a common language emerged, along with arguments about which dialect to choose as its base. A unifying, single language was needed. But most regional languages had been around for long enough to be able to lay claim on the title of Italiano.
Then, somewhere around the 14th century, the Tuscan dialect began to gain popularity. This was in part because of the convenient location of Tuscany within Italy. And partly because of the commercial activity of its first city, Florence.
Tuscan was also a front-runner in the competition for the Italian language because it was the most similar to Latin, not having been diverted all that far from the base language. It also had a strong written tradition that produced writers like Dante or Boccaccio.
Dante’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) is one of the most famous pieces of literature to this day. And at the time it was published, it served to show that great literary works could be written in dialect, and still be just as beautiful and complex as those written in Latin.
Finally, Tuscany was chosen as the place from which the rest of Italy was to learn Italian. But, just like with classical Latin before it, there were problems. Tuscan wasn’t accessible to the working classes. And it took the place of Classical Latin as the language reserved for those wealthy enough to receive an education, so that most people just stuck to their dialects.
The Unification Of Italy & Illiteracy
It wasn’t until much later, sometime around the 19th century, that Tuscan was able to spread to a degree that it could become the language of a new Italy. The unification of Italy, in 1861, was a big change for its people in every respect. Politics, the economy, society and culture changed and became something common. So the feeling was that the language had to follow suit.
When Italy was unified as one country, the majority of its citizens were still illiterate. And communicated only in their regional language (Sardo, Lombardo, Siciliano, and so on), with only around 3% of the people speaking a standard language in Italy – Italian.
But then, the Italian Constitution, written in 1948, gave every Italian citizen a right to education, which they did not have before. And after WWII, radio and television became more widely available. Because of this, more and more people learned to speak, read and write Italian in the decades after the war.
Still, it was a slow process: in 1950, only about 20% of the population spoke Italian fluently. Access to higher education and university was basically for children from wealthy families, while the parents of the working class didn’t think it important to educate children who would work on the family farm. Many of them didn’t even finish primary school.
It was actually a TV show that brought some welcome change to all of that. Rai, the Italian state broadcaster began showing a program called Non è Mai Troppo Tardi (it’s never too late), a show that taught thousands of Italians to read and write their own language.
Italian Today & Italian Dialects
Today, most people along the boot speak the language of Italian. And the dawn of the internet era had a lot to do with Italians of the most rural communities becoming more comfortable with the standard language, as well.
But dialects are still alive and thriving, even if the younger generations gravitate more towards standard Italian. As a result of this, some dialects melded with the standard Italian to form a sort of accent, rather than a separate language.
People emphasise words in a certain way (like casa, said with an s or a z, depending on location). And some words remain entirely different, like cocomero or anguria, both meaning watermelon.
Take Tuscany, for example. Even though standard Italian derives from the Tuscan dialect, that doesn’t mean that that’s what they speak in Tuscany.
People in Florence, for instance, speak a very, very particular dialect (characterized by, among other things, the lack of the letter “k” in the sound, as in ‘enjoy hoha hola’). And locals of Pisa sound completely different from those of Livorno or Lucca.
In Italy, the awareness of dialects is rather strong. For instance, someone from Milano could tell if someone is from Naples. And someone from Sardinia knows what the Florentine accent sounds like (quirky!).
And though some dialects are challenging even for Italians to understand, especially for people from a very different part of Italy, people understand one another in general terms, or can switch to a version of standard Italian easily.
The Evolution Of Dialects & Standard Italian
The variant of Tuscan that was made into Italian basically stagnated, remaining mostly unchanged because its rules were written down. And taught in school rather than passed in an oral tradition, while the rest of the Tuscan dialects had time and space to keep evolving.
However, some adaptation does happen to the main language, as well. Many regional terms, from Tuscany, Lombardy, Veneto, Naples, and Sicily have entered the Italian language over time.
Still today, there is a language reserved for a certain kind of Italian, just like there was with Latin. Something like legalese in English, this is an Italian that uses more than the 3000 words, on average, that regular people use in conversation.
In general speech and writing, Italians rarely use the passato remoto, the remote past, so to speak, a tense that’s common in literature.
You would see “fu” written far more frequently than you would hear it spoken, if at all. One way to get a sense of the passato remoto in the Italian language is by watching the detective show Commissario Montalbano, where the tense is used very frequently.
Final Thoughts On Italian Language History
In closing, about the history of the Italian language, it’s important to realize that while in Italy, people speak Italian, the history and tradition of all the other languages is much richer and more complex than just that.
The local dialects of Italy are a beautiful and essential part of Italian culture, and keeping them alive is important.
Finally, here is the beginning of Il Canto degli Italiani, the anthem of a unified Italy, which really emphasizes the beauty of a new togetherness:
Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)
L'Italia s'è desta, (Italy has awoken,)
Dell'elmo di Scipio (Has bound Scipio’s helmet)
S'è cinta la testa. (Upon her head.)
Dov'è la Vittoria? (Where is Victory?)
Le porga la chioma, (Let her bow down,)
Ché schiava di Roma (Because a slave of Rome)
Iddio la creò. (God has made her.)
Stringiamci a coorte (Let us join in a cohort)
Siam pronti alla morte (We are ready to die)
L'Italia chiamò. (Italy has called.)
Noi siamo da secoli (We were for centuries)
Calpesti, derisi, (Downtrodden, derided)
Perché non siam popolo, (Because we are not one People)
Perché siam divisi. (Because we are divided.)
Raccolgaci un'unica (Let one single)
Bandiera, una speme: (Flag, one hope:)
Di fonderci insieme (Gather us together)
Già l'ora suonò. (The hour has struck.)