Dilit Italian School

Timeline of Italian language history

Learning Italian, like any other language, means exploring not only its codes, but also the way it developed.

In fact the origin and the history of the Italian language is part of our students’ curiosity. One of the six seminars that take place in our school deals with this subject and we talk about it in class as well. So I am going to introduce you to a short history of the Italian language from the Roman Latin to today. For convenient reasons the article is divided into two parts.

Short history of Italian language

From Latin to Vulgar Latin

Let’s begin with the Romans. In the whole empire Latin was the official language, but only for written documents, verdicts etc. People kept on talking their own mother tongue of origin and/or very often a kind of Latin much influenced by their mother tongue. Between the third and the fifth centuries B.C., along with the decline of the Western Roman Empire, spoken language became more and more different from the official language. This was the origin of the Western European languages. Thus in Spain they used to speak Hispanic-Latin, in France Franco-Latin, in Great Britain Anglo-Latin etc.

The barbarian invasions after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 B.C.) brought a final fragmentation of linguistic unity in Italy. Invaders, although they had learned Latin, spoke it their way and later some peculiarities of their languages appeared in the spoken languages in Italy. For example we still use some words of Langobard origin (the Langobards reigned over Northern Italy for two centuries, 568-774 b.C.): ciuffo, graffiare, guancia, ricco, scherzare, schiena, zanna (clump, scratch, cheek, rich, joke, back, fang).


The origins and the 13th century

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for a long time, in Italy, Latin remained the only language used for written communication, for literature, documents and in the official sites. Latin was still spoken in 1600 in the universities in all of Europe.

The first documents written in Vulgar Latin, that is, the language spoken by people of certain regions and that nowadays we call dialect, were “placiti” (i.e. verdicts) of Cassino (in the province Frosinone) of 960 B.C. . An example: “Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini que ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti“ (= So che quelle terre, entro quei confini che qui si descrivono, le ha possedute per trent’anni l’abbazia di San Benedetto - I know that those lands, within the boundaries described here, have been owned by the abbey of St. Benedict for thirty years).

Written Vulgar was also used in literary texts around 1200. The famous “Cantico delle creature” by Saint Francis of Assisi was written in Umbrian Vulgar in 1224:

Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore,

tue so’ le laude, la gloria, e l’honore et onne benedictione.

Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano,

et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare.

Laudato sie, mi’ Signore, cum tucte le tue creature,

spetialmente messor lo frate sole,

lo qual’è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.

Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:

de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.

Highest, almighty good Lord

Yours are the praises, the glory and the honour

And all the blessing

To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.

No human lips are worthy

To pronounce Your name.

Praised be You, my Lord with all Your creatures

Especially our brother, Master Sun

Who brings the day and the light

That warms us he that is beautiful and radiant

In all his splendor!

He brings meaning of You, O Most High.

The lyric poems of the Sicilian poets of the court of Frederick II of Swabia are of the same period. They were inspired by the Provençal French poets and they founded a real school of poetry in Sicilian Vulgar (dialect) in Palermo. The Sicilian poems were so popular that they were copied also in Tuscany.

In this period k was often an alternative to cgn was written in different ways (bagno (bath), but also bango, bango, bannio, etc.). The conjunction et and Latin h were still used (homo, honore). Concerning articles, lo was prevalent (lo quale, lo frate). Several  Gallicisms appeared in the vocabulary, (messere, cavaliere, scudiere, madama, ostaggio, mestiere, pensiero, coricare - messer, knight, squire, madame, hostage, craft, thought, lament).

Through the Arabs who traded frequently with the maritime cities and stayed in Sicily from 827 until 1091, Eastern words arrived, mainly from the nautical, economic and scientific world, such as magazzino, dogana, darsena, arsenale, tariffa, ammiraglio, zenit, nadir, algebra, cifra, zero, alambicco, sciroppo, arancio, albicocco, carciofo, zafferano ( warehouse, customs, dock, arsenal, tariff, admiral, zenith, nadir, algebra, digit, zero, almond, syrup, orange, apricot, artichoke, saffron).


14th century - Vulgar began to have the same dignity as Latin for literary use.

Between the most used Italian Vulgars, Sicilian and Tuscan, Florentine Tuscan dominated.

 That was due to the fact that, within a few decades,  Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio became famous writers in Vulgar and they were all from Tuscany.

The first one was Dante Alighieri, who decided to write a huge narrative poem, something between metaphysics and science fiction. It is about his fantastic travel through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Then there was Petrarca, who wrote very beautiful and tender love poems for his lover Laura. And then Giovanni  Boccaccio who wrote the Decameron, a collection of short stories devoted to humoristic/erotic subjects. The three of them  were very popular among their contemporaries and had much impact, by emulation, on the authors from the other Italian regions.


15th century - The comeback to Latin through the revival of the Greek and Latin classics.

Humanists, as the scholars of that period are called, found texts which were believed to be lost and they discovered  works  which were unknown at the time.

Admiration for the classical world raised the desire to imitate ancient writers and Latin was considered the only noble language for literature.

This period of decadence of Vulgar ended only at the end of the century, when some great authors (for example Lorenzo il Magnifico) started to believe again in Vulgar’s potentiality and to use it in their works.

Around 1470, with the spread of printing also in Italy, circulation of books grew and writers tried to establish rules which standardized the writing of words. Punctuation was inadequate and the apostrophe did not exist.

The articles el and il prevailed over lo. In the imperfect tense, the suffix –o for the first person (io dovevo) began to appear, but in the literary language –a  was still predominant.


16th century - the great debate on which Vulgar Latin should be used.

There are three main stances:

  1. Some people want the Florentine Tuscan of the great writers of the 14th century (DantePetrarca and Boccaccio);
  2. Others think that Italian should be a mix of the most elegant words of national dialects;
  3. The third group would prefer the predominance of modern Florentine Tuscan.

The first stance prevails owing to great writers of the time such as Pietro Bembo and Ludovico Ariosto.

Spelling from the 16th century is still mainly Latin, but since the second half of the century hx and ti instead of z tend to disappear. Punctuation becomes more complex and regular and spelling is made clearer by the introduction of apostrophe.

Wars and foreign dominations brought a lot of Gallicisms and Hispanicisms in Italy. But Italy also exported many words because of Italian supremacy in the cultural and artistic fields.


17th century - Many linguistic innovations took place

The need to spark astonishment in readers encouraged writers to invent a great number of sometimes arguable metaphors.  New words were invented.  Elegant and other words from everyday and practical life, dialectal and foreign terms were mixed with technical vocabulary.

But in certain milieus, respect  for tradition was still very deep. In 1612 the Accademia della Crusca, the official institution of Italian language till now, published the first edition of its Dictionary, based on the language used by the Florentine writers of the 14th century.

Many new words with prefixes and suffixes (-issimo, -one, …) were introduced into the vocabulary. Many scientific words were drawn from Latin (cellula, condensare, iniezione, iperbole, prisma, scheletro - cell, condense, injection, hyperbole, prism, skeleton) as well as legal words (aggressione, consulente, patrocinio - aggression, counselor, patronage).


18th century - Illuminism and the Cult of Reason spread out.

Illuminists intended to bring truth and the light of reason everywhere, to eradicate superstition and prejudice for a spiritual and material improvement of mankind. You can see this in the written language, which gives priority to content rather than to the elegance of form.

Among articles, il always prevailed before z, but lo and gli  dominated before s followed by a consonant. There was still a large amount of variants in verbs.

The strong dominance of the French illuministic culture encouraged the entry in the vocabulary of much Gallicism.


19th century - The dispute between Classicists and Romantics.

Classicists, opposed to the abuse of gallicisms by the 18th century’s men of letter, preferred to go back to the elegance of the traditional language and the imitation of classical authors. Romantics, on the other hand, would have liked a modern and fresh language, adaptable to national reality, to become a tool for the political unity of Italy.

The growth of the middle bourgeoisie brought success to the romantic thesis, because teachers, doctors, notaries, technicians and militaries felt the need for an ordinary language that could substitute for dialect, in their profession as well as in simple conversation.

Whereas poetry was linked to tradition for a long time. The most authoritative testimony of this trend was represented by I Promessi  Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni who, for the final edition of 1840, did not use the old traditional language, but  the Florentine dialect spoken by the middle class of the Tuscan city.

The political union, that is, the Italian Kingdom, marked the beginning of a process of linguistic unification of our peninsula. In 1877 school became compulsory for two years. However illiteracy was widespread: around the end of the 19th century the great majority of the population was not yet able to read and write and spoke only dialect.

Considering  il/lo and il/gli before s followed by a consonant and z, the articles could be alternated. As for  pronouns, lui and lei prevailed as subjects instead of egli/ei and ella, also thanks to Manzoni’s choice in I Promessi Sposi.

20th century - Italian language prevailed over dialects.

In the first half of the century illiteracy receded  drastically due to secularization and the influence  of radio and television. Poetic language too was freed from tradition.

Journalistic style had much impact on language.

There was a huge arrival of anglicisms, determined  by the great prestige obtained by the countries of the English language, especially overseas, in the scientific, technological and economical fields, such as baby sitter, bestseller, blue jeans, clacson, computer, guard rail, hostess, jeep, killer, pullover, quiz, rock, self-service, spray, stop, supermarket, week end.

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