October marks National Italian Heritage Month, and the third week of the month is designated as Italian Language Week: la settimana della lingua italiana. Now in its fifteenth year, each iteration of Italian Language Week takes on a theme related to the language and culture of Italy. This year’s celebration revolves around music, recognizing the melodic qualities of the language and Italy’s role as a historical producer of rich musical culture.
In honor of Italian Language Week, here are 8 facts you may not know about the Italian language.
1. The Italian language has been around since – at least – the 900s.
Like other Romance languages, Italian is derived from Latin. The first known written text resembling what we now recognize as the Italian language was a legal document regarding a dispute over land ownership between southern Italian monasteries. Known as the Placiti Cassinesi, the documents date back to the years 963-960.
2. …But the language didn’t become standardized until the time of Dante Alighieri.
Perhaps the most famous Italian writer of all time, Dante Alighieri penned The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia), which was completed in 1320, a year before his death. In the late Middle Ages, the vast majority of poetry and literary works were written in Latin, but Dante was a proponent of vernacular literature that used the common language of the people. He wrote The Divine Comedy in the Tuscan dialect, a highly unorthodox choice that would set the standard for Italian literature and position Tuscan Italian as the language of high culture and the basis for the ‘standard’ Italian spoken today. For his role in establishing modern Italian, Dante is often referred to as the “father of the Italian language.”
3. …And Italy didn’t actually have a national language until the 20th century.
Dante and other prominent Italian writers and linguists like Petrarch paved the path for the Tuscan dialect to become the national language of Italy. However, when Italy became one unified nation in 1861 and officially adopted Tuscan Italian as its national tongue, fewer than 2.5% of Italians could actually speak the standardized language.
6. The dialects of Italy are each their own independent languages.
Before Italian unification in 1861, what we now know as Italy was made up of several independent states, each with their own regional language. Though some of these dialects — including those spoken in and around the cities of Naples and Venice and on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia — share their Latin roots with Tuscan Italian, they are recognized as unique Romance languages that developed entirely independently of Italian. In fact, they differ quite markably from standard Italian in sound, syntax, and vocabulary. Regional dialects coexist with standard Italian in most cities in Italy, with an estimated 60 percent of the population claiming proficiency in their local language. Over 30 of these dialects are classified as endangered languages by UNESCO.
5. The Italian alphabet is only 21 letters.
Italian uses the same Roman characters as the English language… minus 5 of them. The letters j, k, w, x, and y simply do not exist in Italian, so if you happen to see them used in an Italian text, that means the word is borrowed from another language!
6. Italian is the language of classical music.
Anyone who has studied or played music will be familiar with terms like crescendo, forte, soprano, alto, and a tempo. What they might not know is that those are all Italian words! This is because Italian is used universally as the language of classical music. Musical notation became commonplace during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and as many of the most important composers of that time were Italian, the Italian language became the standard for musicians around the globe.
7. Italian is spoken by over 85 million people worldwide.
Italian is the first language of some 65 million people, and the second language of a further 15 million people. In addition to being the national language of Italy, Italian is one of the national languages of Switzerland, with which it shares its northern border, as well as San Marino and Vatican City. It is also the second most spoken language in Argentina, where it is estimated that over half the population is of Italian descent, making Italians the largest ethnic group in the country.
8. Italian is the 5th most studied language in the United States.
Italian has been a widely spoken language in the U.S. for over one hundred years due to the large-scale migrations of the late 19th century. It is currently spoken by over 700,000 Americans, the majority of whom reside in New York and New Jersey, and is the 5th most studied language in U.S. schools (preceded by Spanish, French, American Sign Language, and German).
Here is the official video promoting Italian Language Week 2015: La musica parla italiana — Music speaks Italian: