Who speaks Italian?
Italiano is the official language of the Republic of Italy. Within the territory of the State some minorities, mostly bilingual and small in number, exist: Franco-Provençal dialects are spoken in Aosta Valley, and Provençal in various valleys of Western Piedmont; German dialects are spoken in various locations of the Alps and Pre-Alps, from Aosta Valley to Carnia, and especially in Südtirol, in the seven municipalities of the Asiago Plateau and in some municipalities of the province of Verona; Slavic dialects (Slovenian) are spoken in the area of Gorizia, in the upper Isonzo and in the Resia Valley, and in some small towns in the Southern region of Molise; Albanian dialects are spoken in several towns of Molise, Apulia, Calabria and Sicily; Greek dialects are spoken in some places of Calabria and Salento; Catalan is spoken in Sardinia (Alghero).
The Italian constitution expressly says (Article 6) that: “The Republic protects linguistic minorities with special rules”. Today, in regions where French (Aosta Valley), German and Ladin (Trentino and Südtirol) and Slovene (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) are spoken, these languages are accepted, beside Italian, in official acts and in school.
On the contrary, outside the boundaries of the country, Italian is used in the Republic of San Marino and in the Vatican City, in Canton Ticino (it is an official language of the Swiss Confederation), and in some areas of Istria and Dalmatia, which belonged to Italy between the First and Second World War and are now part of Slovenia; in Malta as a language of culture; it is also spoken in some villages of the Italian ex-colonies in Africa (Ethiopia, Somalia, Libya), where there remain groups of emigrants; Tuscan dialects are spoken in Corsica.
However, until very recently Italian was just the language of literature and high culture in most of the national territory, while the local dialects were used in everyday life. Italian dialects, resulting from the differentiated historical paths of the different individual regions of Italy, can be divided into three main groups:
1.- Northern dialects, including the Gallo-Italic dialects (Piedmontese, Ligurian, Lombard, Emilian-Romagnol) and Venetian dialects;
2.- Tuscan dialects, in their local varieties, headed by the Florentine; to this group also belong the dialects of Northern Corsica and Sardinia;
3.- Central and Southern dialects, in their turn divided into a sub-group including the varieties of Marche, Umbria and Lazio (the region of Rome), a sub-group including Abruzzi, Molise, Northern Apulian, Northern Calabrian, Basilicata and Campania (the region of Naples), and a sub-group including Southern Apulian (Salento), southern Calabrian and Sicilian.
Ladin and Sardinian are to be considered aside, not as dialects but as languages on their own.
What are the main linguistic features of Italian?
Common Italian is essentially the literary Italian, which, originally based on the dialect of Florence used by Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, has taken its present shape through the revisions, additions and refinements made by various writers over the centuries. It is a neo-Latin language, but compared to other Romance languages Italian has a greater adherence to the features of the mother language, especially as concerns phonetics:
- it has no indistinct or evanescent vowels (which are, on the contrary, present in the dialects), or phenomena of Umlaut;
- normally it retains the final vowels (except for apocopate forms, for the words used in proclitic position and for few other cases). As a consequence, almost all words end in vowel;
- Latin final consonants have normally fallen, except in monosyllables;
- it has geminate consonants with phonological function, that is to say, with distinctive value between otherwise identical words (pala-palla; caro-carro; fato-fatto).
With regard to morphology, the Latin cases were lost, their function being endorsed by prepositions and word order; periphrastic forms were introduced in the verbal system, based on the use of auxiliaries.
In syntax, as already mentioned, the loss of Latin inflection for case caused the fixing of the basic order Subject-Verb-Object.
Which family does Italian belong to?
The first documents written in Italian are some legal acts dating from the end of the XI century AD. As a literray language, its first flourishing took place in the XIII century, also as a result of the general development of local culture and on the example of the new lliterary traditions developed in France and in Provence, making it possible to progressively abandon Latin for the composition of some literary works.
After the experience of the Sicilian School (first half of the XIII century), the new trend was especially present in Tuscany. The causes that led to the success of Tuscan on other dialects outside of Tuscany are different: Tuscan appeared closer to Latin than the other dialects; Florence had already gained a strong prestige in the craft and commercial activities, so it dialect was known outside the borders of the region; but the main cause that led to the unstoppable success of the Florentine was the fact that Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio wrote in this dialect. The greatness of their works immediately become popular and the practical demonstration of the great powers of expression of this language determined its unchallenged acceptance. However Latin did definitely not disappeared as a written language, maintaining an important role, beside minor literature, in scientific writing and as the language of international diplomacy throughout Europe.
The renovation made by Alessandro Manzoni during the XIX century replaced the old literary model based on the works of (mainly) Petrarca and Boccaccio with a new one: the language actually spoken by educated people in Florence. But it was the XX century and especially the post World War II that contributed to the creation of a truly "common" Italian. The spreading of a common language was due to political unity, to traveling through the country due to military service and internal emigration, to the school and, last but not least, by television. The often impoverished and stereotyped language of broadcasted programs contrasts with the vibrancy and creativity of the popular language. Hence the tendency to re-evaluate the dialects, formerly considered an obstacle to the success of the “good” Italian.
- Enciclopedia Grolier