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This particular resource links to the Wikipedia entry on the Italian language. This entry contains loads of information for the curious reader as well as for the serious Italian language learner, including historical and linguistic data.
Use this resource to become familiar with the Italian language and its context in today's world, to discover facts and linguistic data about Italian and its many varieties, access further information about and resources for learning Italian, and much more.
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. 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.
Italian has always had a distinctive dialect for each city, since the cities were until recently thought of as city-states. 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 "s" in some cases (e.g. va bene "all right": is pronounced [va ˈbbɛne] by a Roman, [va ˈbene] by a Milanese; a casa "at home": Roman [a ˈkkasa], Milanese [a ˈkaza]).
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 (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.).