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About Italian Language

Italian, though less widely spoken than other Romance languages, has perhaps been its most influential. Modern Italian developed in the 13th and 14th centuries from Latin and a variety of local dialects. Of the major Romance languages, which have all been derived from the Latin language, Italian remains closest to the original. The Tuscan city of Florence, home to authors such as Dante, was the center of Italian literature. Due to the prowess of Florentine arts and letters, the Florentine dialect has had the greatest influence on the formation of modern Italian. The greatest single influence leading to the establishment of this Tuscan dialect as the dominant force on the Italian peninsula is widely agreed to have been Dante's Commedia, to which during the 14th century Boccaccio affixed the title Divina making it "the Divine Comedy." Although standard Italian is used throughout the country in government, at all levels of the educational system and in the media, dialectical differences continue to be considerable. Neapolitan, for example, often can not be understood by speakers from other regions. It is interesting to note that today many Italians hold that the language at its best is "the lingua toscana in bocca romana" which means "the Tuscan tongue in a Roman mouth." Italian is spoken by about 70 million people, most living in Italy.

Italian is a Romance language, specifically one of the "Italo-Western" Romance languages, which include also French, Occitan, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese and several others. Italian is natively spoken by approximately 63 million persons worldwide. It is the official language of Italy and San Marino. It is an official language of Switzerland, and the main language spoken in Vatican City, a separate jurisdiction. Italian's closest linguistic cousins are also in the Italo-Dalmatian branch of the family tree. They are Sicilian and Dalmatian, the latter of which has become extinct.

Called "Italiano" in Italian, the language derives from Latin as it was spoken until the 4th century CE in Italy, but contains a bit of influence from the Germanic tribes that invaded Italy from the north thereafter. The local "Vulgar Latin" gradually became Italian starting in about the 9th century. Until the 19th century unification of Italy, the languages spoken in the various regions of modern Italy were quite distinct. Even today, many of them have retained their separate histories, vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, qualifying them as dialects that many linguists consider to be separate languages altogether.

"Standard Italian" in modern times -- the Italian of the national television news broadcasts -- is essentially a created tongue, decreed by the government. It is something of a compromise between Tuscan dialect (from the Northwest), the languages in the south, and the northeastern language of Venice, Verona and beyond, headed towards what is now Slovenia. Swiss Italian is considered a separate language, with considerably more Germanic and French influence than Standard Italian. Sicilian, too, is often classified as a separate language. A number of Italian-related languages (like Marilenghe spoken in Friuli in the northeast) are really local and regional languages that mixed early Italian with the languages of the invading tribes and neighboring peoples, and thus contain elements that sound also like modern German.

Of the Romance languages, Italian is regarded as the most rhythmic and lilting. Since the publication of Dante's Divine Comedy, Italian has been viewed in Europe as a language well suited to poetry and music. The reason is that Italian, unlike the other Romance languages, retained the concept of "long consonants." For example, in Spanish, each syllable is approximately the same length in terms of time or pace, and the stress follows whatever vowel that requires the emphasis. In Italian, syllables may take more or less time to produce, depending on whether there is a long or a short consonant in them. The vowel still determines the stress, as usual. For example, the word for "butterfly" is "farfalla." The vowel stress is on the second of the three "a"'s that appear in the word. However, the double "ell" in the penultimate syllable requires that a longer time be taken with the syllable than with the others, thus making the word lilt, somewhat like the butterfly itself. Linguists call this doubling of consonant length "gemination." Sometimes initial single consonants are pronounced long in the same way, as in "vado a casa" (I go home) in Roman accent, where the "c" in casa is prolonged, giving the sentence the characteristic Italian lilt. Thus, the presence of gemination may be simply aesthetic or decorative. But at times, the clear meaning depends on the pronunciation of the double consonants. For example, "bevve" (he drank) is the simple past (preterit) of "beve" (he drinks).

Italian is thought to be the modern Romance language most closely related to Latin. As such, it has a high degree of lexical similarity with other Romance languages: French, 89%, Catalan, 87%, Sardinian, 85%, and Spanish, 82%. Portuguese, 85% (est.). With a bit of study or experience, speakers of other Romance languages can find Italian intelligible, although the reverse is not always true (for reasons of pronunciation).


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