History of Italian

The Italian language has a unique history. According to the linguistic community, Italian is the language in the Romance family that is closest to Latin together with Romanian and Sardinia. Its history, however, sets it apart from all others in that the scholars who established the current standard were erudite humanists who spoke Latin as their first language. When they studied how to turn vernacular Italian into a language with an established grammar, vocabulary, accent and pronunciation they turned to Latin as their primary tool to polish it in the Renaissance. The Dante is credited with making Italian out of 14th-century Florentine and used his Divine Comedy as a testing ground for the language. To be exact, Dante worked on a Sicilian literary standard developed by the Court of Frederick II (1233-1250) before the Sicilian Canzoniere was exported to Florence at Fall of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty, blending it into his native Tuscan and the Classical Latin he had studied in Florence.


Prolonged use of Latin, a slower unification process, the erudite and Tuscan influence account for the archaic traits of the language and its resistance to change as compared to other romance languages.

However, Italian enjoys a flexibility in word order unseen in most of its sister tongues, comparable only to a that of a flexive language. Not surprisingly, Italian grammarians strove to model Italian prose on Classical Latin. Looser word-order with frequent subject-verb inversions is even more noticeable in Southern Italian. A few examples of O-V-S order:

“Bella era quella cantante!” (lit. “beautiful was that singer!”) “Che, l’hai incontrata, tu?” (lit. “What, her meet did you?”) ”Sì, alla Scala di Milano cantava!” (lit. “Yes, at the Scala di Milano sang she”). Northern (non-standard) Italian has always S-V-O, perhaps because of its proximity to France. On the contrary, the Florentine dialect can rephrase sentences more loosely.

Italian is modeled on literary Florentine, whose poets had a long love-affair with Cicero (see right column: Trencento and Renaissance) : when we see this, flexibility in word-order will appear less capricious. Word order tend to be (O-) V-S in the south ( “questo ha fatto lui!”), where S-V-O is favored by northern speakers even in cases when emphasis requires O-V-S.

In questions as “Va via subito Marco?” the accent is certainly on Marco, but not so in “Marco va via subito?”. However, the growing importance of northern media today seems to be affecting such liberty in spoken usage.

M.B.

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Mauro Baglieri

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