Italian language

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Italian (Italiano)
Spoken in: Italy and 29 other countries
Region: Southern Europe
Total speakers: 70 million
Ranking: 19-20 native (in a near tie with Urdu)
Genetic classification: Indo-European


Official status
Official language of: Italy, European Union, Switzerland, San Marino, Slovenia, Vatican City, Istria county of Croatia
Regulated by: Accademia della Crusca
Language codes
ISO 639-1 it
ISO 639-2 ita
See also: LanguageList of languages

Italian (Italian: ) is a Romance language spoken by about 70 million people primarily in Italy. Standard Italian is based on Tuscan dialects and is somewhat intermediate between the languages of Southern Italy and the Gallo-Romance languages of the North. The long-established Tuscan standard has, over the last few decades, been slightly influenced by the variety of Italian spoken in Milan, the economic center of Italy. Like many languages written using the Latin alphabet, Italian has double consonants; however, contrary to, for example, French and Spanish, double consonants are pronounced as long (geminated) in Italian. As in most Romance languages (with the notable exception of French), stress is distinctive. Out of the Romance languages, Italian is generally considered to be the one most closely resembling Latin in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.



The history of the Italian language is quite complex but the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts which can definitely be called Italian (as opposed to its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae from the region of Benevento dating from A.D. 960-963. Italian was first formalized in the 14th century through the works of Dante Alighieri, who mixed southern Italian dialects, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan in his epic poems known collectively as the Commedia, to which Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina. Dante's much-loved works were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the canonical standard that others could all understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language.

Italian has always had a distinctive dialect for each city, since the cities were up until recently city-states. Italians generally believe that the best spoken Italian is lingua toscana in bocca romana - 'the Tuscan tongue, in a Roman mouth' (Tuscan dialects spoken with Roman inflection). The Romans are known for speaking clearly and distinctly, while the Tuscan dialect (supposedly derived from Etruscan and Oscan), is the closest existing dialect to Dante's now-standard Italian.

In contrast to the dialects of northern Italy, the older southern Italian dialects were largely untouched by the Franco-Occitan influences introduced to Italy, mainly by bards from France, during the middle ages. (See La Spezia-Rimini Line.) The economic might and relative advanced development of Tuscany at the time (late middle ages), gave its dialect weight, though Venetian remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life. Also, the increasing cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of 'Umanesimo' and Rinascimento (Renaissance) made its vulgare (dialect) a standard in the arts.


Italian is most closely related to the other two Italo-Dalmatian languages, Sicilian and the extinct Dalmatian. The three are part of the Italo-Western grouping of the Romance languages, which are a subgroup of the Italic branch of Indo-European.

Geographic distribution

Italian is the official language of Italy and San Marino, and is an official language in Ticino and Grigioni cantons of Switzerland. It is also the second official language in Vatican City and in some areas of Istria in Slovenia and Croatia with an Italian minority. It is widely used by immigrant groups in Luxembourg, Germany, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia, and is also spoken in neighbouring Albania. It is spoken, to a much lesser extent, in parts of Africa formerly under Italian rule such as Somalia, Libya and Eritrea. It is also widely known and taught in Monaco and in the neighbouring island of Malta and served as an official language of the country until English was enshrined in the 1934 Constitution.

Official status

Italian is an official language of Italy, the European Union, San Marino, Switzerland and Vatican City. It is also an official language in the Istria County (Croatia) and municipalities of Koper, Piran and Izola (Slovenia).


See Italian dialects

The dialects of Italian identified by the Ethnologue are Tuscan, Piemontese, Abruzzese, Pugliese (Apulian), Umbrian, Laziale, Central Marchigiano, Cicolano-Reatino-Aquilano, and Molisan. Other dialects are Milanese, Brescian, Bergamasc, Modenese, Bolognese, Sicilian and so on, essentially one per city.

Also the Corsican language has strong similarities to Italian and most linguists consider it as a Tuscany dialect, the closest to modern Italian.

Many of the so-called dialects of Italian spoken around the country are different enough from standard Italian to be considered separate languages by most linguists and some speakers themselves. Thus a distinction can be made between "dialects of (standard) Italian" and "dialects (or languages) of Italy".

A link to an Italian site with translation features between Italian dialects and Italian: [1]

Cultural acceptance of dialects

What are commonly thought to be dialects of Italian, are actually dialects of Latin. Standard Italian itself is a direct dialect of Latin, as is the case with all other provinces.

The dialect of Tuscany became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy, by way of the famous Tuscan author Dante Alighieri. Alighieri and other Tuscan poets were inspired by the Sicilian koinè wanted by the Sicilian School under holy roman emperor Frederick II. His project (in which Giacomo da Lentini invented the sonnet) was accomplished by enriching the Sicilian language with new words adapted from French, Latin, and Apulian. The Sicilians produced a collection of love-poems which can be considered the first standard Italian ever produced, though it was only used for literary purposes until Guittone d'Arezzo. When the Svevs dynasty ended the Tuscans and Dante re-discovered it (see De Divina Eloquentia and Vita Nova)and integrated the Sicilians into Florence's linguistic heritage.

Dolce stil novo, the platonic school of courtly love can be considered the link between the old southern school and Tuscan poetry which aimed to express the new intellectual sensibility and fervor of the newly-born city-states, as Florence. Dante's work, Divina Commedia was the first of its kind to be written in a dialect (though sensibly enriched compared with its spoken counterpart), as opposed to the traditional Latin. The success of his work spread the Florentine dialect, and gave it prestige and acceptance. For this he is referred to as the father of the Italian Language.

By the time Italy was unified 1861, and Rome was annexed (1870) the Italian standard had further been influenced by Florentine through the work of the Accademia della Crusca (Cardinal Pietro Bembo and followers). Bembo was laid the foundation for what is today's modern standard. But Bembo was a purist and had accepted no other influence than that from Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio. As time went on, the language was losing touch with linguistic change, and could not put up with technology and science. The much-needed update would have to wait a little longer until, in what is probably the masterpiece of Italian literature, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) (Alessandro Manzoni further refined its widely read novel by "rinsing" it in the waters of the Arno (Florence's river), as he states in his 1840 Preface.

However, Manzoni refused the Crusca's purist, written Florentine-only attitude and admitted a certain influence from other dialects, though he reduced it as compared to the first edition of (1821). After unification the huge number of civil servants and soldiers recruited from all over the country introduced many more words and idioms from their home dialects ("ciao" is Venetian, "panettone" is Milanese etc.), in fact confirming Manzoni's linguistic views.

Tuscan has thus become one of the twenty official dialects of Italy. Though technically speaking the division between diatect and language is purely conventional, it has been used by scholars, for eg. by Francesco Bruni, to distinguish between the languages that made up the Italian koinè, and those which had very little or no part in it, as Albanian, Greek, Südtirolean, Ladino, Friulian and Occitan, still spoken by small ethnic minorites.

Dialects are generally not used for general communication, e.g. on TV, but are limited to groups of people who can actually speak them and to informal contexts. Speaking dialect is unfortunately often shunned upon in Italy as it is a sign of lacking education. Younger generations, especially those under 25, speak almost exclusively standard Italian in all situations, usually with a slight local accent.

Dialects have their share of enthusiasts, but this is a small niche of the population. The promotion of dialects by some political forces as the Lega Nord has possibly damaged rather than promoted their status.

Dialects are often used in movies to provide comic relief or to produce stereotypes: northern dialects can be connected to greedy merchants; a Roman accent is associated with arrogant, simple-minded bullies; Neapolitan reminds of dishonest, cunning slackers, and, even in Italy, Sicilian is often associated with the mafia. However, many screenwriters also explore the more expressive and spontaneous features of a dialect, often to challenge the common cliches and present a richer, less explored reality.



Italian has seven vowel phonemes: /a/, /e/, /ɛ/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /u/. The 'couples' (/e/ - /ɛ/) and (/o/ - /ɔ/) get mixed up in spoken Italian, even though each variety of Italian employs both phonemes consistently: compare, for example: /perˈkɛ/ (because) and /ˈsenti/ (you listen), employed by some northern speakers, with /perˈke/ and /ˈsɛnti/, as pronounced by most central and southern speakers. As a result, the usage is strongly indicative of a person's origin. The correct (Tuscan) usage of these vowels is listed in vocabularies, and employed outside Tuscany mainly by the more educated people, especially actors and (television) journalists. These are truly different phonemes, however: compare /ˈpeska/ (fishing) and /ˈpɛska/ (peach), both spelled "pesca" (). Similarly /ˈbotte/ (barrel) and /ˈbɔtte/ (beatings), both spelled as "botte", discriminate /o/ and /ɔ/ ().

In general, vowel combinations usually pronounce each vowel separately. Diphthongs exist, (e.g. "uo", "iu", "ie", "ai"), but are limited to the pattern:

(unstressed "u" or "i", or zero) + (stressed vowel) + (unstressed "u" or "i", or zero)

The unstressed "u" in a diphthong approximates the English semivowel "w", the unstressed "i" approximates the semivowel "y". E.g.: buono, ieri. As a semivowel, "j" is an alternate spelling of i, currently obsolete but common until early 20th century and preserved in specific words like "Jesi" (a town) or "Jacopo" (a first name).

Triphthongs are limited to a diphthong plus an unstressed "i". (e.g. miei, tuoi.) Other sequences of three vowels exist (e.g. noia, febbraio), but they are not triphthongs; they consist of a vowel followed by a diphthong.


Two symbols in a table cell denote the voiceless and voiced consonant, respectively.

bilabial labiodental dental alveolar postalveolar palatal velar
plosive p, b t, d k, g
nasal m n ɲ
trill r
flap ɾ
fricative f, v s, z ʃ
affricate ʦ, ʣ ʧ, ʤ
lateral l ʎ

The phoneme /n/ undergoes assimilation when followed by a consonant, e.g., when followed by a velar (/k/ or /g/) it's pronounced [ŋ], etc.

Italian plosives are not aspirated (unlike in English). Italian speakers hear the difference as a foreign accent.

Italian has geminate, or double, consonants, which are distinguished by length. Length is distinctive for all consonants except for /ʃ/, /ʦ/, /ʣ/, /ʎ/ /ɲ/, which are always geminate, and /z/ which is always single. Geminate plosives and affricates are realized as lengthened closures. Geminate fricatives, nasals, and /l/ are realized as lengthened continuants. Geminate /ɾ/ is realized as the trill [rr].


Italian has few diphthongs, and so most unfamiliar diphthongs heard in foreign words (in particular, those with a first vowel that is not "i" or "u", or a first vowel that is stressed), will be assimilated as the corresponding dieresis (i.e., the vowel sounds will be pronounced separately: "strive" and "hive" will rhyme with "naïve").


see Italian grammar.

Writing system

Example of Italian
Example of Italian

Italian is written using the Latin alphabet. The letters J, K, W, X and Y are not part of the standard Italian alphabet, but are seen in imported words (such as jeans, whiskey, taxi). J may also appear in many words from different dialects. Each of these foreign letters had an Italian equivalent spelling: gi, ch, u, cs or s, and i, but these are now obsolete.

  • Italian uses the acute accent over the letter E (as in perché, why) to indicate a mid-close vowel, and the grave accent (as in , tea) to indicate a mid-open vowel. The grave accent is also used on letters A, I, O, and U to mark the stress position when it is on the last letter of a word (for instance gioventù, youth). Typically, the penultimate syllable is stressed. If other syllables are stressed, no accent is marked, as is instead done in Spanish.
  • The letter H is always silent when it begins a word, and is only used to distinguish ho, hai, ha, hanno (present indicative of avere, to have) from o (or), ai (to the), a (to), anno (year). H is otherwise used for some combinations with other letters (see below), but the /h/ sound does not exist in Italian.
  • The letter Z is pronounced /ʦ/, or sometimes /ʣ/, depending on context, though there are few minimal pairs. The same goes with S, which can be pronounced /s/ or /z/. However, these two phonemes are in complementary distribution everywhere except between two vowels in the same word, and even in such environment there are extremely few minimal pairs, therefore this distinction is being lost in most accents.
  • The letters C and G are affricates: /ʧ/ as in "chair" and /ʤ/ as in "gem", respectively, before the front vowels I and E. They are pronounced as plosives /k/, /g/ (as in "call" and "gall") otherwise1. But, the normally silent H is added between CI, CE, GI or GE if the consonant is to be a plosive. For example:
Before back vowel: plosive Before front vowel: affricate With "H": plosive
"C" cara (ˈkara) ciao (/ˈʧao/) chiaro (/ˈkjaro/)
"G" gallo (/ˈgallo/) genere (/ˈʤɛnere/) ghetto (/ˈgɛtto/)
1(Front/back vowel rules for C and G are similar in French, Romanian, and to some extent English. Swedish and Norwegian have similar rules for K and G. See also palatalization.)
  • There are two special digraphs in Italian: GN and GL. GN is always pronounced IPA: /ɲɲ/, and GL is pronounced IPA: /ʎʎ/) but only before i, and never when at the beginning of the word, except in the plural form gli of the masculine definite article. (Compare with Spanish "ñ" and "ll", Portuguese "nh" and "lh".)
  • In general all letters are clearly pronounced, and always in the same way. (The only notable allophonic variations in the pronunciation of phonemes in standard Italian are the assimilation of /n/ before consonants, and vowel length (vowels are long in stressed open syllables, and short elsewhere) — compare with the enormous number of allophones of the English phoneme /t/. Spelling is clearly phonetic and difficult to mistake given a clear pronunciation. Exceptions are generally only found in foreign borrowings. There is less dyslexia than in languages like English.


  • cheers (generic toast): salve
  • English: inglese /inˈgleze/
  • good-bye: arrivederci /arriveˈdertʃi/
  • hello: ciao /ˈtʃao/ (informal); buongiorno /bwɔnˈdʒorno/ (good morning/good afternoon), buonasera /bwɔnaˈsera/ (good evening)
  • Yes: /si/
  • No: no /nɔ/
  • Sorry: scusi /ˈskuzi/
  • Again: ancora /ankora/
  • Always: sempre /ˈsɛmpre/
  • When: quando /kwando/
  • Why? / Because: perché /per'ke/
  • how much?: quanto /ˈkwanto/ (masculine); quanta /ˈkwanta/ (feminine)
  • thank you!: grazie! /ˈgrattsje/
  • you're welcome!: prego! /ˈprɛgo/

Sample texts

You can hear a recording of Dante's Divine Comedy read by Lino Pertile at

From the Holy Bible, Luke 2, 1-7 (for an English version see

You can listen to a rendition of this text as recorded by an Italian native speaker from Milan.

2:1 In quei giorni, un decreto di Cesare Augusto ordinava che si facesse un censimento di tutta la terra. 2 Questo primo censimento fu fatto quando Quirino era governatore della Siria. 3 Tutti andavano a farsi registrare, ciascuno nella propria città. 4 Anche Giuseppe, che era della casa e della famiglia di Davide, dalla città di Nazaret e dalla Galilea si recò in Giudea nella città di Davide, chiamata Betlemme, 5 per farsi registrare insieme a Maria, sua sposa, che era incinta. 6 Proprio mentre si trovavano lì, venne il tempo per lei di partorire. 7 Mise al mondo il suo primogenito, lo avvolse in fasce e lo depose in una mangiatoia, poiché non c'era posto per loro nella locanda.

See Also

External links

Wikibooks has more about this subject:
Look up Italian on Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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