A Brief History of the Italian Language

Cory Crawford

Inquiry #1

I examine, in this short paper, the change from Latin to Italian--the major changes that caused Italian to have the characteristics that it does today. One notices from the outset that such a paper is possible only with the help of surviving documents and records. In this sense, the history of the Italian language is a bit of anomaly among language histories: we have a continuous spectrum of 'proofs' of language change. Without this we could only hypothesize about the reasons for change. The surviving attested forms not only reveal phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic changes, but they also offer reasons for the changes (i.e. invasions from the northern tribes, heavy foreign trading, or a desire for Italian unification). We could write tomes on a change undergone in one century alone (and, indeed, some have). We shall begin at the end of the reign of the Latin empire in Italy. 

The Romans had been successful in extending their power over a great expanse, and no doubt influences of their native Latin had been no doubt felt by those whom they conquered. Bruno Migliorini reports that 

the Goths had already been in contact with the Romans for a couple of centuries . . . and had undoubtedly been deeply influenced by them. Romanizing tendencies were evident, both among the Visigoths, who settled in the Iberian peninsula and southern Gaul, and among the Ostrogoths, who came down into Italy with Theodoric. (1966: 35)

From this situation of language contact the Germanic tribes were not the only ones who experienced some influence. There are records of poets lamenting the entrance of 'barbaric' words into the pure, superior Latin (Migliorini 1966:35). The most significant linguistic element of this time period is the widening divide between written and spoken latin. In fact, we read in Migliorini's Cronologia della Lingua Italiana that an awareness of language change was extant as early as the third century a.d., when a document was published entitled Appendix Proibi, which outlined 227 corrections bent on straightening out the corruptions that had crept into latin (1975: 1). Also, during the fourth century Latin experienced the palatalization of /k/ in the environment of /i/ and /e/.

The inflectional Latin language was an opaque one, or one, as Martin Maiden puts it, in which "each case is expressed by an array of inflectional endings varying according to number and case" (1995: 97). In the period from a.d. 476-960, Latin speakers had done away with the opaque neuter. Migliorini attributes this change to analogical leveling. In the period from 960-1225, there began to be a full awareness of another form of Latin: the vulgar tongue. In 960 we see the earliest attestation of the written use of the vernacular in the placiti cassinesi, four legal documents regarding the ownership of land. The French influence on Italy in this period helped to add vocabulary to the vocabulary desolate Latin, such as the endings -iere and -aggio. There were words coined from nicknames and from compounds of existing words.

The 1300s arguably had the most profound influence on the development and proliferation of the vernacular, for this was the period of the three great Italian writers: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. According to Migliorini, these writers "were to be models for the linguistic unification of the nation" (1966:130).  They championed, as did Chaucer for the Middle English, the validity of the vernacular as a literary language.  They, and most especially Dante, proved the capabilities of the vernacular. They desired to bring knowledge and virture to a wider audience. It is in this period that analogical leveling begins to apply itself most heavily to the plurals of the Tuscan dialect (the dialect of these writers).

The 1400s slowed the rising of the Tuscan vernacular, however, as Europe experienced a great humanistic influence. This social current lead men to admire and imitate the writers of the Antiquities, which meant a resurgence of Latin. The question was still on the minds of the people and scholars, as there was a lack of linguistic uniformity.

The 1500s and 1600s saw a renewal of the Italian language. While Latin survived in the Universities and in medicine, the smaller, more specialized academies, (which taught things such as poetry and mathematics), used the vernacular. Great works began to be formally translated and published in Italian. It was a time of relative political stability, although trade, travel, and migration were rampant, obviously taking their toll on the 'purity' of a single dialect. It was also a period of widespread bilingualism. Many knew Spanish, as it was a superpower of the time. New products from the New World called for new words. People began to write dictionaries of the 'new' language.

While these changes were going on among the learned and powerful, the other, less 'national' dialects were still changing and solidifying into separate languages. Each region was influenced differently: Sardinia by the Spanish, Venice by the Austrians, Sicily by the Muslims, and port cities by the heavy contact from trade. If one wanted to travel in Italy, one had to know these dialects. The reason for the heavy discussion of the Tuscan dialect, then, is due to the emergence of that language, which we shall shortly see, as the lingua franca of them all.

The 1700s experienced a nationalistic surge, due in part to invasions by the French, although this also contributed again to contact with French speakers and to lexical borrowing. Another influence exhibited by French during this period was a preference of SVO syntax, as was prevalent in French. Writers tended to move away from the rich word order variation of Latin (still attested in Italian during this period) to the more linear SVO form. Also, the head ordering became fixed as head-first, with the modifier following the noun.

The period from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth was the one that saw the proliferation of the language spoken in central Italy as the national, uniform language. Alessandro Manzoni was the first well-known author to suggest that this be considered. There was a proliferation of dictionaries of the various dialects. There was an even more widespread intra-national travel and desire to be unified. This came about in 1861 when the Kingdom of Italy was declared. Florence became the capital, and its language became national. Manzoni, who had been seeking to implement the official use of Italian, published papers calling for the use of the Florentine language. The French influence was also widespread in this, the age of Napoleon. Even more borrowing occurred, not just from French, but also from languages such as English and German.

Since the unification of 1861, Italy added to its ranks the states of Venice and of Rome, the latter later becoming the new capital. The language resembled largely the Italian of today. Although the use of the Florentine vernacular had been on the rise since the days of Dante, it still wasn't until 1928 that textbooks were published uniformly in Italian, and not until 1971 did the Catholic Church approve of an Italian Bible. Italian continues, as has been its history, to borrow without hesitation from other languages. As technology progress, so does the international lingua franca, English, and so does the lexical copying of words such as 'email,' 'computer,' and 'internet.' Because of the continuity of attestations and of the international focus of the people of the Italic peninsula for centuries, it is more difficult to quantize the changes undergone from Latin to Italian than, say, the history of English. The changes have been gradual, mostly by analogy from the difficult opaque inflected forms of Latin to a simpler, more uniform paradigm (according to Kurylowicz's laws) and from lexical borrowing and adaptation. The voluminous nature of preserved records has taught us much about language change in general, and should motivate the fight to preserve records in all languages.

Works Cited

Maiden, Martin. 1995. A Linguistic History of Italian. London: Longman.

Migliorini, Bruno. 1966. Trans. T. Gwynor Griffith. The Italian Language. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Migliorini, Bruno. 1975. Cronologia della Lingua Italiana. Florence: Felice le Monnier.


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Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999