Italian (or lingua italiana) is spoken by almost 70 million people in Italy, the tiny Republic of San Marino and Vatican City. It is also one of the four official languages of Switzerland.
According to recent census data, Italian is also considered a second or cultural language by an additional 50 million people worldwide. For instance, Italian is spoken in selected areas of Croatia, Slovenia, France, Albania, Monaco and Malta. To a more limited extent, it is still spoken in some of the former Italian colonies in Africa, especially Eritrea. And finally, Italian and its many dialects are widely spoken by Italian immigrants and their descendants in many areas of Western Europe, North and Latin America, and Oceania.
A prolonged presence of Germanic peoples in the Italian Peninsula beginning in the 5th century A.D., however, has also infused the language with many non-Latinate influences. Modern-day standard Italian was officially adopted in 1860’s after the unification of the geographically splintered Italian Peninsula into the Kingdom of Italy. It is largely based on Tuscan, and especially the dialects spoken in Florence, Pisa and Siena. It was famed poet Dante Alighieri who called “Italian” the idiom he used in his acclaimed Divine Comedy in the early 1300’s. This vernacular was mostly based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, but contained many Latinate elements along with borrowings from other local idioms like Sicilian.
In spite of its official language, Italy has retained many dialects—and some of them, like Neapolitan, Venetian, Sardinian and Sicilian, are considered historical in nature. Increasingly, however, younger generations of Italians spoke only standard Italian, albeit with local accents and variations in the pronunciation of vowels and consonants. The standards of the Italian language are monitored, regulated and upheld by the Accademia della Crusca.
Italian is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It is written using the Latin alphabet and, to this day, is closest language to Latin. Today, Italian retains much lexical similarity with other Romance languages: 89% with French, 87% with Catalan Spanish, 82% with Castilian Spanish, 78% with Portuguese and 77% with Romanian.
With the publication of works by Dante Alighieri and humanist scholar Petrarch in the 1500’s, publisher Aldus Manutius, himself the creator of the italic typeface style, popularized the standards of modern Italian. For centuries thereafter, Italian literature produced groundbreaking literary schools of thought and an impressive body of works. The fortunes of emerging genres were inextricably linked to the socio-politico-cultural conditions of a given era. Modern Italian literary production has yielded works no less remarkable than those of previous centuries. Luigi Pirandello in 1934, Salvatore Quasimodo in 1959, and Eugenio Montale in 1975 received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“La pratica vale più della grammatica” – Practice is the best teacher.
“La lingua non ha l’osso ma rompe l’osso” – The tongue has no bone but it breaks bones.