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|Spoken in:||Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Vatican City, San Marino, Argentina, Somalia, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and various other countries in Europe and the Americas|
|Total speakers:||65-70 million|
|Ranking:||19–20 native (in a near tie with Turkish and Urdu)|
|Official language of:||Italy, Switzerland, European Union, San Marino, Slovenia, Somalia (regional language), Vatican City, Istria county of Croatia|
|Regulated by:||Accademia della Crusca|
|Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA chart for English for an English-based pronunciation key.|
Italian (Romance language spoken by about 70 million people, primarily in Italy. Standard Italian was strongly influenced by the Tuscan dialect and is somewhat intermediate between Italo-Dalmatian languages of the South and Gallo-Italian languages of the North. Like many languages written using the Latin alphabet, Italian has double consonants. However, contrary to, for example, French and Spanish, double consonants are pronounced as long (geminated) in Italian. As in most Romance languages (with the notable exception of French), stress is distinctive. Out of the Romance languages, Italian is generally considered to be the one most closely resembling Latin in terms of vocabulary, though Romanian most closely preserves the declension system of Classical Latin while Sardinian is the most conservative in terms of phonology., or lingua italiana) is a
The history of the Italian language is quite complex 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 formalised 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.
Italian has always had a distinctive dialect for each city, since the cities were up until recently city-states. A well-known Italian dictum has it that the best spoken Italian is lingua toscana in bocca romana - 'the Tuscan tongue, in a Roman mouth' (Tuscan dialects spoken with Roman inflection). The Romans are known for speaking clearly and distinctly, while the Tuscan dialect (supposedly influenced by Etruscan and Oscan) is the closest existing dialect to Dante's now-standard Italian.
In contrast to the dialects of northern Italy, the older southern Italian dialects were largely untouched by the Franco-Occitan influences introduced to Italy, mainly by bards from France, during the Middle Ages. (See La Spezia-Rimini Line.) 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' and Rinascimento (Renaissance) made its vulgare (dialect) a standard in the arts.
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.
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. It is also the second official language in Vatican City and in some areas of Istria in Slovenia and Croatia with an Italian minority. It is also widely known and taught in Monaco and Malta. It is also widely spoken in Corsica and Nice (for both were former Italian possessions before being handed over to France), and Albania.
Italian is spoken in such parts of Africa as Ethiopia, Somalia, Libya, Tunisia and Eritrea. It is widely used by Italians living in Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia.
The presence of Italian people is very substantial above all in Latin America. In this case the presence of Italian language, most of all its northern dialects, is abundant in Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, and Argentina. Here the Spanish and the Portuguese languages are influenced by Italian particularly in some parts of these countries (i.e. Rio Grande do Sul, Cordoba, Chipilo etc.).
In the United States, Italian speakers are most commonly found in five cities: Boston (90,000), Chicago (60,000), Miami (75,000), New York City (120,000), and Philadelphia (50,000). In Canada there are large Italian-speaking communities in Montreal (100,000) and Toronto (70,000). In Australia, Melbourne reputedly has the largest number of Italian speakers (300,000) of any city outside of Italy.
Italian is widely taught in many schools around the world, but rarely as the first non-native language of pupils. 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 .
The Italian language is also used as a lingua franca in some environments. For example, in 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 Vatican City indicates not only use in the seat in Rome, but also in the whole world where an episcopal seat is present.
Dialects and regional languages of Italy
- See Italian dialects
- Valdôtain (Valdoten)
- Tuscan (the base of modern Standard Italian)
- Central Italian dialects
- Inner Southern Italian dialects
Cultural acceptance of dialects
The dialect of Tuscany became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy, by way of the famous Tuscan author Dante Alighieri. Dante and other Tuscan poets were inspired by the Sicilian koine, promoted by the Sicilian School under the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. His project (in which Giacomo da Lentini invented the sonnet) was accomplished by enriching the Sicilian language with new words adapted from French, Latin, and Apulian. The Sicilians produced a collection of love-poems which can be considered the first standard Italian ever produced, though it was only used for literary purposes until Guittone d'Arezzo. When the Svevs dynasty ended the Tuscans and Dante re-discovered the standard (see De Vulgari Eloquentia and Vita Nova) and integrated the Sicilians into Florence's linguistic heritage.
The dolce stil novo, the platonic school of courtly love, can be considered the link between the old southern school and Tuscan poetry which aimed to express the new intellectual sensibility and fervor of the newly-born city-states, as Florence. Dante's work, Divina Commedia was the first of its kind to be written in a dialect (though sensibly enriched compared with its spoken counterpart), as opposed to the traditional Latin. The success of his work spread the Florentine dialect, and gave it prestige and acceptance. For this he is referred to as the father of the Italian language.
By the time Italy was unified 1861, the Italian standard had further been influenced by Florentine through the work of the Accademia della Crusca (Cardinal Pietro Bembo and followers). Bembo laid the foundation for what is today's modern standard. But Bembo was a purist and had accepted no other influence than that from Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. As time went on, the language was losing touch with linguistic change, and could not put up with technology and science. The much-needed update would have to wait a little longer until, in what is commonly regarded as the first modern novel of the Italian literature, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), Alessandro Manzoni further refined his widely read novel by "rinsing" it in the waters of the Arno (Florence's river), as he states in his 1840 edition Preface.
However, Manzoni refused the Crusca's purist, written Florentine-only attitude and admitted a certain influence from other dialects, though he reduced it as compared to the first edition of 1821. After unification the 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.), in fact confirming Manzoni's linguistic views.
Tuscan has thus become one of the twenty official dialects of Italy. Though technically speaking the division between dialect and language is purely conventional, it has been used by scholars (e.g., 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, as Albanian, Greek, Südtirolean, Ladin, Friulian and Occitan, which are still spoken by small minorities.
Dialects are generally not used for general communication (e.g., on TV), but are limited to native speakers in informal contexts. Dialect is 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. Different accents can be recognised from various factors: the openness of vowels, the length of the consonants, and influence of the local dialect (for example, annà for andare in the area of Rome).
Dialects have their share of enthusiasts, but in most areas of Italy this is a small niche of the population. The promotion of dialects by political forces such as the Lega Nord has possibly damaged rather than promoted their status. Throughout Italy, some singers and actors use dialects as their language, but the language they use is, in most cases, strongly influenced by Italian.
Dialects and accents are often used in movies to provide comic relief or to produce stereotypes: northern dialects can be connected to self-made entrepreneurs; a Roman accent is associated with arrogant, simple-minded bullies; Neapolitan reminds of dishonest slackers, or of people living from hand to mouth; and, even in Italy, Sicilian is often associated with the Mafia.
There is a presence of different varieties of Italian language most of all in South America. From the early 19th to the 20th century, thousands of Italians, specially from the North of Italy, settled in Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico and Brazil, both in urban areas and in the vast countryside, where they created many rural colonies.
A proof is the presence of Talian in Brazil. Talian is a distinctive variety of Italian derived and strongly influenced by Venetian. In any case, there is a brave discussion on considering Talian as a creole language or a variety of dialect with external influences (i.e. from Portuguese).
Italian has seven vowel phonemes: /a/, /e/, /ɛ/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /u/. The pairs /e/-/ɛ/ and /o/-/ɔ/ are seldom distinguished in writing and often confused, even though each variety of Italian employs both phonemes consistently. Compare, for example: /per'kɛ/ (because) and /ˈsenti/ (you listen), employed by some northern speakers, with /per'ke/ and /ˈsɛnti/, as pronounced by most central and southern speakers. As a result, the usage is strongly indicative of a person's origin. The standard (Tuscan) usage of these vowels is listed in vocabularies, and employed outside Tuscany mainly by the more educated people, especially actors and (television) journalists. These are truly different phonemes, however: compare /ˈpeska/ (fishing) and /ˈpɛska/ (peach), both spelled "pesca" ( ). Similarly /ˈbotːe/ (barrel) and /ˈbɔtːe/ (beatings), both spelled as "botte", discriminate /o/ and /ɔ/ ( ).
In general, vowel combinations usually pronounce each vowel separately. Diphthongs exist (e.g. "uo", "iu", "ie", "ai"), but are limited to an unstressed "u" or "i" before or after a stressed vowel.
The unstressed "u" in a diphthong approximates the English semivowel "w", the unstressed "i" approximates the semivowel "y". E.g.: buono, ieri. As a semivowel, "j" is an alternate spelling of i, currently obsolete but common until early 20th century and preserved in specific words like "Jesi" (a town) or "Jacopo" (a first name).
Triphthongs are limited to a diphthong plus an unstressed "i". (e.g. miei, tuoi.) Other sequences of three vowels exist (e.g. noia, febbraio), but they are not triphthongs; they consist of a vowel followed by a diphthong.
Two symbols in a table cell denote the voiceless and voiced consonant, respectively.
|plosive||p, b||t, d||k, g|
|fricative||f, v||s, z||ʃ|
|affricate||ʦ, ʣ||ʧ, ʤ|
The phoneme /n/ undergoes assimilation when followed by a consonant, e.g., when followed by a velar (/k/ or /g/) it's pronounced [ŋ], etc.
Italian plosives are not aspirated (unlike in English). Italian speakers hear the difference as a foreign accent.
Italian has geminate, or double, consonants, which are distinguished by length. Length is distinctive for all consonants except for /ʃ/, /ʦ/, /ʣ/, /ʎ/ /ɲ/, which are always geminate, and /z/ which is always single. Geminate plosives and affricates are realised as lengthened closures. Geminate fricatives, nasals, and /l/ are realised as lengthened continuants. Geminate /ɾː/ is realised as the trill [r].
Italian has few diphthongs, and so most unfamiliar diphthongs heard in foreign words (in particular, those with a first vowel that is not "i" or "u", or a first vowel that is stressed), will be assimilated as the corresponding dieresis (i.e., the vowel sounds will be pronounced separately). Italian phonotactics do not usually permit words to end on consonants, so foreign words may receive extra terminal vowel sounds.
- See also IPA chart for Italian
Italian is written using the Latin alphabet. The letters J, K, W, X and Y are not part of the standard Italian alphabet, but are seen in imported words (such as jeans, whiskey, taxi). J may also appear in many words from different dialects. Each of these foreign letters had an Italian equivalent spelling: gi, ch, u (or v), cs or s, and i, but these are now obsolete from the formal alphabet, though still used in spelling to create the sounds they represent.
- Italian uses the acute accent over the letter E (as in perché, why/because) to indicate a mid-close vowel, and the grave accent (as in tè, tea) to indicate a mid-open vowel. The grave accent is also used on letters A, I, O, and U to mark the stress position when it is on the last letter of a word (for instance gioventù, youth). Typically, the penultimate syllable is stressed. If other syllables than the last one are stressed, marking an accent is not mandatory, as is instead done in Spanish, and, in virtually all cases, no accent is marked. In some cases, when the word is ambiguous (as principi), the accent is sometimes marked in order to disambiguate the 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 whose accent is not clearly established.
- 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 written language. In the spoken language this letter is always silent for the cases given above, eventually providing an almost imperceptible difference in pitch or exhalation for the vowel that follows. H is also used in combinations with other letters (see below), but the /h/ sound as itself does not exist in Italian.
- The letter Z is pronounced /dz/, for example: Zanzara /dzanˈdzara/ (mosquito), or /ts/, for example: Nazione /naˈtsjone/ (nation), depending on context, though there are few minimal pairs. The same goes with S, which can be pronounced /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, therefore this distinction is being lost in most accents.
- The letters C and G are affricates: /ʧ/ as in "chair" and /ʤ/ as in "gem", respectively, before the front vowels I and E. They are pronounced as plosives /k/, /g/ (as in "call" and "gall") otherwise1. However, an "H" can be added between C or G and E or I to make the consonant a plosive, and an "I" can be added between C or G and A, O or U to make the consonant an affricate. For example:
Before back vowel (A, O, U) Before front vowel (I, E) Plosive C cara (ˈkara) CH china (ˈkina) G gallo (/ˈgallo/) GH ghiro (/ˈgiro/) Affricate CI ciao (/ˈʧao/) C Cina (/ˈʧina/) GI giallo (/ˈʤallo/) G giro (/ˈʤiro/)
- Note that, apart from changing the sound of the consonant, the H is silent. The I in "cia", "cio", "ciu" and even "cie" is not pronounced as a separate vowel, unless it carries the primary stress. For example, it is silent in ciao (/ˈʧa.o/) and cielo (/ˈʧe.lo/), but it is pronounced in farmacia (/ˌfar.ma.ˈʧi.a/) and farmacie (/ˌfar.ma.ˈʧi.e/).
- 1(Front/back vowel rules for C and G are similar in French, Romanian, and to some extent English (including Old English). Swedish and Norwegian have similar rules for K and G. See also palatalization.)
- There are three special digraphs in Italian: GN, GL and SC. GN is always pronounced /ɲ/ and GL is pronounced /ʎ/ only before i, and never at the beginning of a word, except in the personal pronoun and definite article gli. (Compare with Spanish "ñ" and "ll", Portuguese "nh" and "lh".) SC is pronounced /ʃ/ before i and e.
- In general, all letters are clearly pronounced and always in the same way. The only notable allophonic variations in the pronunciation of phonemes in standard Italian are; the assimilation of /n/ before consonants and vowel length (vowels are long in stressed open syllables, and short elsewhere) — compare with the enormous number of allophones of the English phoneme /t/. Spelling is clearly phonetic and difficult to mistake given a clear pronunciation. Exceptions are generally only found in foreign borrowings. There are fewer cases of dyslexia than in other languages such as English.
Usage among younger generations
Some variations in the usage of the writing system may be present in practical use. These are scorned by educated people, but they are so common in certain contexts that knowledge of them may be useful.
- Usage of x instead of per: this is very common among teenagers and in SMS abbreviations. The multiplication operator is pronounced "per" in Italian, and so it is sometimes used to replace the word "per", which means "for"; thus, for example, "per te" ("for you") is shortened to "x te" (compare with English "4 U"). Words containing per can also have it replaced with x: for example, perché (both "why" and "because") is often shortened as xché or xké (see below). This usage might be useful to jot down quick notes or to fit more text into the low character limit of an SMS, but it is considered unacceptable in formal writing.
- Usage of foreign letters such as k, j and y, especially in nicknames and SMS language: ke instead of che, Giusy instead of Giuseppina. This is curiously mirrored in the usage of i in English names such as Staci instead of Stacey, or in the usage of c in Northern Europe (Jacob instead of Jakob). It should also be noted that the use of "k" instead of "ch" or "c" to represent a plosive sound is documented in some historical texts from before the standardization of the Italian language; however, that usage is considered incorrect in modern Italian writing. Possibly because it is associated with the German language, the letter "k" has sometimes also been used in satire to suggest that a political figure is an authoritarian or even a "pseudo-nazi": Francesco Cossiga was famously nicknamed Kossiga by rioting students during his tenure as minister of internal affairs. [Cf. the politicized spelling Amerika in the USA.]
- Inexperienced typists often replace accents with apostrophes, such as in percheˈ instead of perché. Uppercase È is particularly rare, as it is absent from the Italian keyboard layout, and is very often written as E', but not in books or other professionally typeset material. There are several ways of producing the uppercase È on a computer. Few are aware of the distinction between grave and acute accents, so it is also common to see perchè.
- Cheers (generic toast): cin cin tʃin tʃin
- English: inglese /inˈgleze/
- Good-bye: arrivederci /arriveˈdertʃi/
- Hello: ciao /ˈtʃao/ (informal); buongiorno /bwonˈdʒorno/ (good morning/good day), buona sera /bwonaˈsera/ (good evening)
- Yes: sì /si/
- No: no /nɔ/
- How are you? : Come stai /ˈkome ˈstai/ (informal); Come sta /ˈkome sta/ (formal)
- Sorry: mi dispiace /mi disˈpjatʃe/
- Excuse me: scusa ˈskuza (informal); scusi ˈskuzi (formal)
- Again: di nuovo, /di ˈnwɔvo/; ancora /aŋkora/
- Always: sempre /ˈsɛmpre/
- When: quando /ˈkwando/
- Why/Because: perché /perˈke/
- How much: quanto /ˈkwanto/
- Thank you!: grazie! /ˈgratːsie/
- Bon appetit: buon appetito /ˌbwɔn appeˈtito/
- You're welcome!: prego! /ˈprɛgo/
- I love you: Ti amo /ti ˈamo/; Ti voglio bene /ti ˈvɔʎjo ˈbɛne/
Counting to ten:
- One: uno /ˈuno/
- Two: due /ˈdue/
- Three: tre /tre/
- Four: quattro /ˈkwatːro/
- Five: cinque /ˈʧiŋkwe/
- Six: sei /ˈsɛi/
- Seven: sette /ˈsɛtːe/
- Eight: otto /ˈɔtːo/
- Nine: nove /ˈnɔve/
- Ten: dieci /ˈdjɛʧi/
From the Holy Bible, Luke 2:1-7
You can listen to a rendition of this text as recorded by an Italian native speaker from Milan.
2:1 In quei giorni, un decreto di Cesare Augusto ordinava che si facesse un censimento di tutta la terra. 2 Questo primo censimento fu fatto quando Quirino era governatore della Siria. 3 Tutti andavano a farsi registrare, ciascuno nella propria città. 4 Anche Giuseppe, che era della casa e della famiglia di Davide, dalla città di Nazaret e dalla Galilea si recò in Giudea nella città di Davide, chiamata Betlemme, 5 per farsi registrare insieme a Maria, sua sposa, che era incinta. 6 Proprio mentre si trovavano lì, venne il tempo per lei di partorire. 7 Mise al mondo il suo primogenito, lo avvolse in fasce e lo depose in una mangiatoia, poiché non c'era posto per loro nella locanda.
For a full text of the Bible and other works of the Roman Catholic Church in Italian, see the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/archive/index_it.htm
Vatican Radio (la Radio Vaticana) also hosts daily morning news broadcasts in Italian (http://www.oecumene.radiovaticana.org/ram-us/rg_italiano_08_00_0800_b_1.ram).
- Italian phonology
- Sicilian School
- Veronese Riddle
- Italian grammar
- Italian spelling
- List of English words of Italian origin
- Swadesh list of Italian words
- Guide to phonetic transliteration of Italian
- Learn and listen to useful expressions in Italian
- Italian English and English Italian Dictionary
- All free Italian dictionaries
- Italian English Dictionary
- Free Italian Language Test
- ^ It served as Malta's official language until Maltese language was enshrined in the 1934 Constitution.
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