Italia – short word, long history

Uno Grande Ytaliano

It is not until we have given a name to our language that we can say it exists. It is not until we have given our country a name that we can call ourselves its citizens. But where does the word “Italian (italiano)” come from? And who coined it? Medieval latin used the toponyms italus (noun) and italicus (adjective), but there were no such terms in Italy’s romance languages until Ytaliano emerged from an early 13th-century translation of Valerius Maximus:

Et di ciĆ² dice Valerio che avendo li romani preso uno grande Ytaliano…”.

The translator’s identity is unknown, but the document is certainly from Siena. Ytaliano (“Italian”: noun and adjective), originally spelled with a Y, was moulded on such words in -ano as Sicili-ano or Friul-ano. In that case, the root Ytalia- must have been in use by that time, probably as a translation of old French Ytaile, first used by Dante’s mentor, Brunetto Latini, around 1260-6. Remarkably, a unitary literature comes of age in these very years.

I suppose because Italia is so often on our lips, we rarely ask ourselves who invented the name in the first place? While the name dates so far back not even the Ancient Romans could remember, there might be a when – and how. “Italia” did not originally indicate the peninsula, but the strip of land running approximately from lower Calabria to Taranto in the first millennium before Christ, later extending to the Alps with the Roman conquest of the Italian peninsula. Most scholars assume an Oscan origin with a Viteliu, “land of veals” (cfr. Latin. vitulus, Umbrian viluf). The word would later lose the V- and a vocalic mutation to obtain (V) italia. The reference to the veal is likely due to the fact that a tribe in the original land worshipped the animal and called itself in its name. If the assumption is correct, “Italians” should be another name for “sons of the bull”. Though Greek and Roman mythology and then literary tradition support this meaning, it has been disputed by Orlando et alii in favor a *diei -talia, or land of light, given Italy’s mild climate and exposure to sunlight.


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