A HISTORY OF THE ITALIAN LANGUAGE
The assertion that the Italian language has changed
little from Latin may sound a little far-fetched, but it is
nonetheless one that is shared by most scholars today. The Florentine
dialect, on which Italian is largely based, "has preserved with good
accuracy the morphological and phonetic traits [and] (...) such
closeness to Latin has historical roots: the fact that Tuscan emerged
relatively late and the pre-humanistic environment in which it
flourished" (Segre: 1978).
Il Sommo Poeta, Dante Alighieri
Il Sommo Poeta, Dante Alighieri
Sì come chiarissima fama per
tutto il mondo suona, messer
Cane della Scala, al quale in assai cose fu favorevole la fortuna, fu
uno de' più notabili e de' più magnifici signori
che dallo imperatore Federico secondo in qua si sapesse in Italia. Il
quale, avendo disposto di fare una notabile e maravigliosa festa in
Verona, e a quella molte genti e di varie parti fossero venute, e
massimamente uomini di corte d'ogni maniera, subito, qual che la cagio
si fosse, da ciò si ritrasse, e in parte provvedette coloro
che venuti v'erano, e licenziolli.
Proprio come dice la grandissima fama
che tutto il mondo ha di lui, il
nobile Cangrande della Scala, al quale in molte cose fu favorevole la
fortuna, fu uno dei più famosi e più magnifici
signori che dall'imperatore Federico secondo in qua si conoscessero in
Italia. Il quale, avendo disposto di fare una sontuosa e magnifica
festa a Verona, e lì erano venute molte genti di varie
parti, soprattutto uomini di corte di ogni genere, poco dopo, qual che
fosse la causa, da ciò si ritirò, e in parte
compensò coloro che vi erano venuti, e li
licenziò. Solo uno, chiamato Bergamino, inauditamente
spigliato e colto nel parlare, rimase senza essere compensato di alcuna
cosa né essere licenziato, sperando che ciò
dovesse essere stato fatto non senza sua futura
"Thus begins the seventh tale of the first day in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Here Cangrande della Scala, king of Verona cancels a party to which he had invited a number of notable guests from the courts of some Italian Italian States, probably prompted by the feudal wars that threatened his city state, and bids goodbye to his guests but not before lavishing them with presents. Unfortunately, he forgets to reward Bergamino, the ambassador of the Duke of Calabria who had made quite a long trip on horseback from Tuscany: feeling he had been shortchanged by Camgrande, he tells him the story about Primasso and the Abbot of Cluny, known to have been a wealthy man. When Primasso arrived, the abot had him wait all day in the monastery without giving even showing up, and thus had forced his guest to eat his own bread he had brought with him on his journey. Cangrande was widely known in Europe for his generosity and tolerance, and on hearing the tale he also gave Bergamino a new horse, much money and one of his most expensive suits, as had happed to Primasso in the story." (Boccaccio, Decameron, I:7)
Three facts must be taken into account if we are to understand why the Italian language is so conservative:
1. most linguistic traits of Latin are also shared with the Tuscan dialect for historical reasons, i.e. the domination by Etrurian Kings and therefore the influence of their families in Rome’s earlier times before it became a Republic. The Etrurian substratum is a feature of both Latium and Tuscany.
2. Italian scholars amd writers long held the Italian language to be inferior to Latin and therefore indebted it heavily with classical sources, and until the 13th century insisted to write in Latin rather than relying on their romance language(s)
3. As a result of this attitude and a lack of political unity the Italian language developed more than one century later than most romance languages: though the Indovinello Veronese (9th c. A.D.) shows traces of Italian, scholars generally place it in that gray area called vulgar Latin.
The earliest documents in the Italian language date back to about 960 A.D. and come from a deed signed by a Capuan notary, not by a head of state. It is worth noting that at the time of the deed it was not recognized as a national language and was by means an event of national importance,, whereas in other countries the emergence of romance languages has a much stronger political significance.
Taken together, such factors may help explain the oddly archaic traits of the Italian language and its incredible resistance to change throughout the centuries. For a romance language, Italian enjoys a flexibility in word order nconceivable in other romance tongues, only comparable to a that of a flexive language, like Latin, Greek or German.
Looser word-order with frequent subject-verb-object inversions is best preserved in Southern Italian. Take a few sentences from Giovanni Verga’s masterpiece novel I Malavoglia. After young ‘Ntoni is drafted into the Italian army the sadness about his departure is expressed in such terms:
Ma pure ci pensavano sempre, nella casa del nespolo, o per certa scodella che le veniva tutti i giorni sotto mano alla Longa nell’apparecchiare il deschetto…
If it were translated in its exact order, it would sound like this: “And yet they always thought about it, in the House of the Medlar Tree, whether on account of a certain dish that under her hands happened to be every day to Longa as she dressed the table…” (Mondadori, c. 1939, p.11).
The Italian spoken in Sicily goes even farther: “Bella era quella cantante!” (“beautiful was that singer!”) “Che, l’hai incontrata, tu?” (“What, her meet did you?”) ”Sì, alla Scala di Milano cantava!” (“Yes, at the Scala di Milano sang she”).
The approximate rendering I have given in parenthesis is only given by way of illustration of how loose the Italian sentence structure can afford to be. Though standard Italian does not employ such "mannerisms" and Northern non-standard Italian seems to even stricter standards (S-V-O) even where variations are allowed, Tuscan seems to indulge in many of the liberties indulged in by southern dialects.
Word order is often O-V-S in the center-south, instead of the S-V-O pattern insisted upon by northern speakers, even where context actually suggests O-V-S for emphatical reasons. The O-V-S order can be used for emphasis by standard Italian speakers, although how and when to use it is subjective.
If I want to show off my brand new car to you, I'd rather say, "quest'auto l'ho comprata io", not "ho comprato quest'auto". English, which cannot alter word order in the same way, would have "I did buy this car", but Italian scrambles the words instead of using extra auxiliaries.
If something were not considered worthy of attention, a native Italian might well want to switch to the regular S-V-O order: "Ho comprato quest'auto" does not imply a sense of pride on my part. Some shifts are therefore important since they give different twists in tone.
The indebtedness of Italian to Latin reavealed by such unusual scrambling of words is also present in synthax and grammar: learning Italian may alleviate a student’s dependence on the Latin dictionary and grammar and vice versa.
At a morphological and lexical level, though, Romanian is surprisingly close: 75% of its vocabulary is made of Latin words, while Slavic terms account for less than 15%. This is the Ethnologue's comment:
Romanian has 77% lexical similarity with Italian, 75% with French, 74% with Sardinian, 73% with Catalan, 72% with Portuguese and Rheto-Romance, 71% with Spanish.
and Spain and Portugal are not far behind, while the distance of French is mostly apparent, since it is written in a much more familiar spelling to Latin than it is pronounced (pronunciation being affected by the Celto-Germanic substratum). A special place deserves Sardinian with a remarkable conservative phonetics that hads preserved many of the original sounds of classical Latin thanks to its geographic isolation.
We are unlikely to exaggerate by saying that the romance world still speaks Latin today. Much as Latin descends from proto-Indoeuropean, romance languages were in the beginning, just local Latin dialect or regional varieties of the same language. The fall of the empire separated all their people, who then developed their dialects into fully-fledged languages. But how many romance languages are there? It is almost impossible to make a count if we stray beyond national standards.
The romance language world includes the following families: Sardinian, Asturo-Leonese, Castilian (eg. Spanish), Portuguese-Galician (eg.Portuguese), Catalan-Valencian-Balear (eg. Catalan), Occitan (the language of the ancient troubadour poetsis the archaic version), Raetian, Langues d’Oil (eg. French), Pyrenean, Mozarabic, Romanian (eg. Romanian), Italo-Dalmatian eg.(Italian, but Dalmatian went extinct in the late 19th century).
Each of these families is divided into several languages, some of which have acquired national status (as those listed between parentheses) while many more are only spoken and commonly known as dialects or local vernaculars.
All these languages reveal far more similarities than one would assume on listening: pronunciation can only mask them to some extent, but a closer look at the texts shows remarkable uniformity in syntax, grammar and lexicon. In Italy, where power changed hands several times the language of foreign settlers never prevailed as they were soon assimilated into the fabric of society, though northern Italy, like France, kept a small Celtic substratum that pre-dates Roman times.
For all the political and cultural upheavals in Europe, Latin is still with us today: Latin words occur less frequently than in formal or written contexts, but romance terms used in conversation exceed 90% of the vocabulary in romance languages. While the 1,000 / 2,000 words most frequently used in ordinary English speech are of Germanic origin, the difference between colloquial/non colloquial lexicon is not as clear-cut in Italian.
The historical divide produced by the Norman Invasion in Britain has in fact no equivalent in Italy. The Normans who settled in Southern Italy at around the same time found a language relatively similar to their own French: much of their languge d’oil passed into the Southern dialects with relative ease.
The Gothic language brought by Teodoric did not survive in northern Italy either, though we know some of it from Wulfila’s Bible. It had more luck in Spain, while the Lombard left some small traces in toponyms and surnames.
On a close tie with the Italian language for its exceptional adherence to Latin is, as we said, Rumenian, which still preserves much of the old flexive system and lexicon, despite its geographic closeness to the Slavic world, the attempts by the Soviet Union in the Cold War to impose its cultural models on the Eastern Block, and some contamination from its Hungarian neighbors.
The Latin heritage should, then, be reason enough to take the first steps of our journey from Ancient Rome. After that, in order to explain the shift to Italian, we are going to dwell a while upon that foggy area (9th-11th centuries) when Italians start to speak what sounds like a curious blend of Latin and dialect.
While the “decay” of classical Latin starts in the 3rd century A.D., it remains relatively uncospicuous until we approach the end of the first millennium. It is at this time that new languages come of age thoughout the 'Romania' (the romance world), the former Imperial provinces.
Our survey is going to require another pit stop as we reach the 14th century: Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are the Holy Trinity without whom modern Italian would have never existed. We are going to explain how these masters of literature turned Florentine into Italian by writing immortal works that are the staple of school curricula.
After the golden age of literature we are going to speed through the 15th century to stop in the 16th when Renaissance scholars draft the first guidelines to regulate the spelling and the grammar of the new language in the following centuries. To enforrce such norms, the Accademia della Crusca is also founded and its dictionary is the watershed that marks the presence of this new entity, a unified language that stretches from North to South, though writers will not agree on spelling variants and articles for a while.
While the 17th and 18th century do not witness any noticeable progress in standardization, the 19th century rekindles the old debate: what exactly is Italian? What rules should govern an Italian grammar for the schools? Establishing a new national standard the layman could use becomes of dramatic importance as the country’s drive to political unification gains momentum.
Though many questions remain unsolved until after 1861 (Italy's Unification), compulsory education, the military draft and the civil service create an unprecedented mobility of personnel throughout the country that brings much fresh blood to the texture of Italian from the very dialects that the purist elites had shunned. These are finally faced with a new language shaped as much by the people as the wrtiters.
The 20th century spreads the knowledge of the new standard even among the people who have least access to education, thanks to radio and television, but after a good start (50s-70s) the media fails to impose a unified standard, since Rai TV (public) veers more and more to a southern, Rome based accent while private television, headed by Lombard media-magnate Silvio Berlusconi is chiefly staffed by Lombards.
Popular access to the internet (1990s) and cell phones introduce many new words and even invent quite a revolutionary orthography to use behind the desktop. But words and fads rise and fall so fast on the web that it is far from easy to envisage what lies ahead for the Italian language of the 3rd millennium. The economic and social divide, however, is now further extended by the presence of these two local varieties.
Bur let us take a step back to the time of Ceasar to explore its best-kept secret including the actual pronunciation, which has been restored thanks to the painful research of comparative linguistics....>> NEXT