italian language solidified under the influence of which dialect
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  Italian (italiano, or lingua italiana) is a Romance language spoken by about 63 million people, primarily in Italy. In Switzerland, Italian is one of four official languages. It is also the official language of San Marino and Vatican City. Standard Italian, adopted by the state after the unification of Italy, is based on Tuscan dialect and is somewhat intermediate between Italo-Dalmatian languages of the South and Northern Italian dialects of the North.

Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian has retained the contrast between short and long consonants which existed in Latin. As in most Romance languages, stress is distinctive. Of the Romance languages, Italian is considered to be one of the closest resembling Latin in terms of vocabulary, though Romanian most closely preserves the noun declension system of Classical Latin, and Spanish the verb conjugation system (see Old Latin), while Sardinian is the most conservative in terms of phonology.


The history of the Italian language is long, but the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts which can definitely be called Italian (as opposed to its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae from the region of Benevento dating from 960-963. Italian was first formalized in the first years of the 14th century through the works of Dante Alighieri, who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan in his epic poems known collectively as the Commedia, to which Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina. Dante's much-loved works were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the "canonical standard" that others could all understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language and, thus, the dialect of Tuscany became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy.

Italy has always had a distinctive dialect for each city, since the cities were until recently thought of as city-states. As Italian came to be used throughout the nation, features of local speech were naturally adopted, producing various versions of Regional Italian. The most characteristic differences, for instance, between Roman Italian and Milanese Italian are the gemination of initial consonants and the pronunciation of stressed "e", and of "s" in some cases (e.g. va bene "all right": is pronounced [va b'bεne] by a Roman, [va 'bene] by a Milanese; a casa "at home": Roman [a k'kasa], Milanese [a 'kaza]).

In contrast to the dialects of northern Italy, southern Italian dialects were largely untouched by the Franco-Occitan influences introduced to Italy, mainly by bards from France, during the Middle Ages. Even in the case of Northern Italian dialects, however, scholars are careful not to overstate the effects of outsiders on the natural indigenous developments of the languages.

The economic might and relative advanced development of Tuscany at the time (Late Middle Ages), gave its dialect weight, though Venetian remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life. Also, the increasing cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of 'Umanesimo (Humanism)' and the Rinascimento (Renaissance) made its volgare (dialect), or rather a refined version of it, a standard in the arts. The re-discovery of Dante's De vulgari eloquentia and a renewed interest in linguistics in the 16th century sparked a debate which raged throughout Italy concerning which criteria should be chosen to establish a modern Italian standard to be used as much as a literary as a spoken language. Scholars were divided into three factions: the purists, headed by Pietro Bembo who in his Gli Asolani claimed that the language might only be based on the great literary classics (notably, Petrarch, and Boccaccio but not Dante as Bembo believed that the Divine Comedy was not dignified enough as it used elements from other dialects), Niccolò Machiavelli and other Florentines who preferred the version spoken by ordinary people in their own times, and the Courtesans like Baldassarre Castiglione and Gian Giorgio Trissino who insisted that each local vernacular must contribute to the new standard. Eventually Bembo's ideas prevailed, the result being the publication of the first Italian dictionary in 1612 and the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca.

Italian literature's first modern novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni further defined the standard by "rinsing" his Milanese 'in the waters of the Arno" (Florence's river), as he states in the Preface to his 1840 edition.

After unification a huge number of civil servants and soldiers recruited from all over the country introduced many more words and idioms from their home dialects ("ciao" is Venetian, "panettone" is Milanese etc.).


Italian is most closely related to the other two Italo-Dalmatian languages, Sicilian and the extinct Dalmatian. The three are part of the Italo-Western grouping of the Romance languages, which are a subgroup of the Italic branch of Indo-European.

Geographic distribution

Italian is the official language of Italy and San Marino, and one of the official languages of Switzerland, spoken mainly in Ticino and Grigioni cantons, a region referred to as Italian Switzerland. It is also the second official language in the Vatican City and in some areas of Istria in Slovenia and Croatia with an Italian minority. It is widely used and taught in Monaco and Malta.[5] It is also widely understood in Corsica, Savoy and Nice (areas that historically spoke Italian dialects before annexation to France), and Albania.

The geographic distribution of the Italian language in Europe.

The geographic distribution of the Italian language in Europe.

Italian language education

Italian is widely taught in many schools around the world, but rarely as the first non-native language of pupils, in fact Italian generally is the fourth or fifth most taught second-language in the world.

In anglophone parts of Canada, Italian is, after French, the third most taught language. In the United States and the United Kingdom, Italian ranks fourth (after Spanish-French-German and French-German-Spanish respectively). Throughout the world, Italian is the fifth most taught non-native language, after English, French, Spanish, and German.

In the European Union, Italian is spoken as a mother tongue by 13% of the population (64 million, mainly in Italy itself) and as a second language by 3% (14 million); among EU member states, it is most likely to be desired (and therefore learned) as a second language in Malta (61%), Croatia (14%), Slovenia (12%), Austria (11%), Romania (8%), France (6%), and Greece (6%). It is also an important second language in Albania and Switzerland, which are not EU members or candidates.

Influence and derived languages

From the late 19th to the mid 20th century, thousands of Italians settled in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, where they formed a very strong physical and cultural presence.

In some cases, colonies were established where variants of Italian dialects were used, and some continue to use a derived dialect. An example is Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, where Talian is used and in the town of Chipilo near Puebla, Mexico each continuing to use a derived form of Venetian dating back to the 19th century. Another example is Cocoliche, an Italian-Spanish pidgin once spoken in Argentina and especially in Buenos Aires, and Lunfardo.

Rioplatense Spanish, and particularly the speech of the city of Buenos Aires, has intonation patterns that resemble those of Italian dialects, due to the fact that Argentina had a constant, large influx of Italian settlers since the second half of the nineteenth century; initially primarily from Northern Italy then, since the beginning of the twentieth century, mostly from Southern Italy.

Lingua Franca

Starting in late medieval times, Italian language variants replaced Latin to become the primary commercial language for much of Europe and Mediterranean Sea (especially the Tuscan and Venetian variants). This became solidified during the Renaissance with the strength of Italian banking and the rise of humanism in the arts.

During the period of the Renaissance, Italy held artistic sway over the rest of Europe. All educated European gentlemen were expected to make the Grand Tour, visiting Italy to see its great historical monuments and works of art. It thus became expected that educated Europeans would learn at least some Italian; the English poet John Milton, for instance, wrote some of his early poetry in Italian. In England, Italian became the second most common modern language to be learned, after French (though the classical languages, Latin and Greek, came first). However, by the late eighteenth century, Italian tended to be replaced by German as the second modern language on the curriculum. Yet Italian loanwords continue to be used in most other European languages in matters of art and music.

Today, the Italian language continues to be used as a lingua franca in some environments, for example within the Catholic ecclesiastic hierarchy, Italian is known by a large part of members and is used in substitution of Latin in some official documents as well (the presence of Italian as the second official language in the Vatican City indicates not only use in the seat in Rome, but also in the whole world where an episcopal seat is present). Other examples can be found in the sports (football, motor race) and arts (music, opera, visual arts, design, fashion industry).


In Italy, all Romance languages spoken as the vernacular , other than standard Italian and other unrelated, non-Italian languages, are termed "Italian dialects". Many Italian dialects are, in fact, historical languages in their own right. These include recognized language groups such as Friulian, Neapolitan, Sardinian, Sicilian, Venetian, and others, and regional variants of these languages such as Calabrian. Though the division between dialect and language has been used by scholars (such as by Francesco Bruni) to distinguish between the languages that made up the Italian koine, and those which had very little or no part in it, such as Albanian, Greek, German, Ladin, and Occitan, which are still spoken by minorities.

Dialects are generally not used for general mass communication and are usually limited to native speakers in informal contexts. In the past, speaking in dialect was often deprecated as a sign of poor education. Younger generations, especially those under 35 (though it may vary in different areas), speak almost exclusively standard Italian in all situations, usually with local accents and idioms. Regional differences can be recognized by various factors: the openness of vowels, the length of the consonants, and influence of the local dialect (for example, annà replaces andare in the area of Rome for the infinitive "to go").

Writing system

Italian is written using the Latin alphabet. The letters J, K, W, X and Y are not considered part of the standard Italian alphabet, but appear in loanwords (such as jeans, whisky, taxi). X has become a commonly used letter in genuine Italian words with the prefix extra-. J in Italian is an old-fashioned orthographic variant of I, appearing in the first name "Jacopo" as well as in some Italian place names, e.g., the towns of Bajardo, Bojano, Joppolo, Jesolo, Jesi, among numerous others, and in the alternate spelling Mar Jonio (also spelled Mar Ionio) for the Ionian Sea. J may also appear in many words from different dialects, but its use is discouraged in contemporary Italian, and it is not part of the standard 21-letter contemporary Italian alphabet. Each of these foreign letters had an Italian equivalent spelling: gi for j, c or ch for k, u or v for w (depending on what sound it makes), s, ss, or cs for x, and i for y.

  • Italian uses the acute accent over the letter E (as in perché, why/because) to indicate a front mid-close vowel, and the grave accent (as in , tea) to indicate a front mid-open vowel. The grave accent is also used on letters A, I, O, and U to mark stress when it falls on final vowel of a word (for instance gioventù, youth). Typically, the penultimate syllable is stressed. If syllables other than the last one are stressed, the accent is not mandatory, unlike in Spanish, and, in virtually all cases, it is omitted. In some cases, when the word is ambiguous (as principi), the accent mark is sometimes used in order to disambiguate its meaning (in this case, prìncipi, princes, or princìpi, principles). This is however not compulsory. Rare words with three or more syllables can confuse Italians themselves, and the pronunciation of Istanbul is a common example of a word in which placement of stress is not clearly established. Turkish, like French, tends to put the accent on ultimate syllable, but Italian doesn't. So we can hear "Istànbul" or "Ìstanbul". The correct one, of course, is the Turkish one: "Istanbùl". Another instance is the American State of Florida: the correct way to pronounce it in Italian is like in Spanish, "Florìda", but since there is an Italian word meaning the same ("flourishing"), "flòrida", and because of the influence of English, most Italians pronounce it that way.

  • The letter H at the beginning of a word is used to distinguish ho, hai, ha, hanno (present indicative of avere, 'to have') from o ('or'), ai ('to the'), a ('to'), anno ('year'). In the spoken language this letter is always silent for the cases given above. H is also used in combinations with other letters, but no phoneme [h] exists in Italian. In foreign words entered in common use, like "hotel" or "hovercraft", the H is commonly silent.

  • The letter Z represents /ʣ/, for example: zanzara /dzan'dzaɾa/ (mosquito), or /ʦ/, for example: nazione /natˈtsjone/ (nation), depending on context, though there are few minimal pairs. The same goes for S, which can represent /s/ or /z/. However, these two phonemes are in complementary distribution everywhere except between two vowels in the same word, and even in such environment there are extremely few minimal pairs, so that this distinction is being lost in many varieties.

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