Italian is a major European language, with 65 million native speakers, which makes it the third most widely spoken first language in the European Union. It is also the fourth or fifth most widely taught foreign language around the world. Italian is spoken by large communities of expatriates across the Americas as well as minorities in Crimea, France, Montenegro and Tunisia. It used to have official status in Albania, Malta and Monaco, where Italian is still widely spoken, and in former colonies in Eastern and Northern Africa.
Regulated by the Academia della Crusca, Italian is the main working language of the Holy See and serves as the lingua franca of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Italian has long been known as the language of music, through its long use in opera and also musical terminology. Modern Italian as it is seen today has only been in existence since unification.
Interpreting: We were able to provide two Italian interpreters for a two-day conference taking place in Milan last month at very short notice. After the event, the client credited both the professionalism and stamina of our interpreters. We also regularly provide Italian interpreters to the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions and more.
History of the Italian Language
Modern Italian as we know it came into being only after the unification of the Italian state, a process that began in 1848 and was finalised by 1870. It is based on Tuscan, a language which previously had been spoken mostly by the upper classes of Florentine society. Its development was influenced by other Italian languages as well as the Germanic languages of post-Roman invaders. Interestingly, unlike other Romance languages Italian retains the original contrast between short and long consonants from Latin.
Whilst the earliest traces of what is now called Italian can be traced back to Tuscan writers of the twelfth century, it is Dante Alighieri who is credited with the formal standardisation of the Italian language. Writing in the fourteenth century, works including the Divine Comedy were read widely across Italy, and his written dialect rapidly became the canonical standard which all educated Italians understood. The relative dominance of the Tuscan dialect can be attributed to the economic success and advanced developments of Tuscany at the time.
Starting in late medieval times across much of Europe and the Mediterranean, Italian regional variants (especially Tuscan and Venetian) replaced Latin as the primary language of commerce. During the Renaissance, these variants were consolidated with the artistic strength of Italy, which held artistic sway over Europe for close to 300 years. It became expected for all educated gentlemen to make the Grand Tour, viewing the great historical monuments and works of art, and thus many learnt some Italian. In England, whilst classical Greek and Latin were taught first, Italian became the second most common language after French. English poet John Milton wrote early poetry in Italian.
The conquest of Italy by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century further pushed the Italian language into lingua franca used in commerce, whilst from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, thousands of Italians settled in Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil and Venezuela, where a strong community remains. In some cases, whole colonies formed around regional dialects of spoken Italian.
Pre-unification, a survey revealed that 78% of the population were illiterate, and the majority of people communicated in their respective regional dialects, whilst only 3% of Italians spoke standard Italian. Even after WWII, with the advent of radio and television and the increasing level of education amongst the population, only one-third of Italians spoke Italian.
Rioplatense Spanish, and in particular the speech of residents of Buenos Aires, has distinctive intonation patterns that resemble those of Italian languages owing to a continuous influx of Italian settlers since the second half of the nineteenth century.
Regional dialects are still in active use, and many with their own distinct vocabulary – for example, in the north of Italy, the word for watermelon used is anguria, whilst in the centre of Italy it is cocomero, and in the south simply melone.