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italian: from the beginning
from roman's latin to today's dialects

By Roberto Simmarano

Classical Latin
The Roman Empire, the most far-flung of the ancient world, was populated by around 80 million people, roughly half of whom spoke Latin: no other antique language was as widespread or important. The language spoken in Rome was the model for the other regions of the Empire and by the time of Julius and Augustus Caesar (60 B.C. - 15 A.D.), through writers like Cicero, Sallust, Virgil and Horace, it had developed fixed rules (of grammar, syntax and meaning) which were held to be perfect. After the fall of the Roman Empire, this "classic" Latin remained a fundamental means of communication between nations and scholars, as well as becoming the language of the Church.

The rise of Romance Languages and the formation of Italian dialects
When the Roman Empire fell (476 A.D.), it was replaced by new Roman-Barbarian kingdoms and Classical and spoken Latin were permanently divided. The former remained unchanged, used only in texts or by an educated elite whilst the spoken form was used by millions of people in their daily lives and thus came into contact with the languages of the Germanic invaders and was developed into different tongues. In this way were born the Romance languages. In Italy, the use of Latin as the single language gradually faded to be replaced by numerous dialects: the "vernacular" which varied from region to region.

The first appearances of the Vernacular in literature
The vernacular first appears in literature in the poetry of the 13th century with the Sicilian, Tuscan and Stil novo (new style) poets who employed a refined lexicon. The shift to the use of the vernacular made possible a set of specific rules and forms thereby removed from the vicissitudes of the spoken language. At the same time it became possible to refine linguistic expression by toning down the rougher local dialects. Later, the great Tuscan writers of the 13th and 14th centuries, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, made a fundamental contribution by writing a literary language that would be the model for succeeding centuries.

The confirmation of the Florentine dialect
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The linguistic unification of Italy came about gradually through the spread of a language that developed from the Tuscan dialect, more precisely Florentine. It became a superior language, used in politics, administration and inter-regional communications; fields hitherto reserved for Latin which survived, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, as the language of culture and the Church. After an initial period in which the various dialects vied for supremacy, Florence's prodigious economic growth, social development and commercial and cultural expansion, led to the adoption over the centuries of its dialect as the common Italian tongue.

The "language problem" between the 16th and the 20th centuries
The Florentine vernacular that was to become the Italian tongue was for a long time used outside Tuscany only as a literary language, encouraged by men of letters such as Pietro Bembo and the Academicians of Crusca, and the majority of people used their regional dialect. Italian also underwent a slow lexical and syntactical improvement, due in part to the principal writers of the 19th century: Foscolo, Leopardi, and above all, Manzoni. Only from the 18th century and particularly after Unification (1861) was a knowledge of Italian established and the time-honored dialect division of the country healed.

Linguistic minorities in Northern Italy
The majority of Italians now speak Italian and regional dialects are used less and less. Nonetheless, there are two bilingual regions (Aosta Valley and Trentino Alto Adige) as well as some linguistic minorities. Ladin, one of the dialects derived from Latin, is spoken in the Dolomite valleys and principally, in the Friuli region (around 900,000 inhabitants) where there is a lively use of the regional tongue alongside Italian. In Piedmont, particularly in the provinces of Cuneo and Turin, many people continue to speak Occitan, a Provencal-type dialect similar to that spoken in southern France. Sloven linguistic groups can be found in some valleys in the province of Udine and more so in the provinces of Gorizia and Trieste.

Linguistic minorities in Southern Italy and the Islands
During the late Middle Ages Slavs settled in the Marches, on the Salento peninsula and in Molise where even today there is a minority of Croatian speakers. Other migrations, like that of the Albanians who fled the Turkish invasion of the 15th century, led to the establishment of "Tosca": a variety of Albanian that continues to be the native tongue for many of the inhabitants of Molise and Calabria. There are Greek-speaking groups in the provinces of Lecce (Apulia) and Reggio Calabria which date back to the ancient Greek colonies. Finally, a good half of the population of Alghero in Sardinia speaks Catalan -- a legacy of the Aragonese invasion in 14th century.

Bilingualism in the Regions with a Special Statute
There are two bilingual regions in Italy: that is, where the use of Italian is on a par with either French, as in the Aosta Valley, or German, as in Trentino Alto Adige. In the Aosta Valley and in some valleys to the north-west of Turin, the traditional language of the local population is French-Provencal. The special statute of 1948 allowed for the parity of French and Italian in public documents, in schools and in civil life. The German-speaking minority in Italy inhabits a large area of Trentino Alto Adige where both Italian and German are recognized as the official language.


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