History of the Italian Language

The first secular university in the West to be established in the Dark Ages was in Bologna, in 1088. The languages spoken at the time in Italy were all regional dialects of Vulgar Latin, with an attempt by the clerics and scholars to preserve a more classical form of the language. A century earlier, a document was written that signaled the first "non-Latin," that is, "Italian" writing. It was a legal document for the Benevento region and was written around 963.

The invasions of the Germanic peoples into Italy, starting in the fourth century and continuing for many years, brought about some changes to Vulgar Latin as it was spoken in the northern provinces. These changes, however, were fairly slight compared to the Germanic influences in Northern France, the Low Countries, and the British Isles. Vulgar Latin had more of an impact on the tribal tongues. Nevertheless, the reigning Caesar in 476 was deposed and replaced by Odacer, a military leader who was probably of mixed Hun and Germanic bloodlines. He was himself deposed in 493 by an invasion of Ostrogoths under Theodoric, who took control of the remnants of the empire. The resulting war with the Eastern Emperor, Justinian, led to general destruction in Italy, paving the way for the Lombards and Picts to take control in the 6th century. In the 8th century the papacy felt so threatened by these newer barbarians that it appealed to the Franks for help, and the Franks then invaded Italy from the north and west, defeating the Lombards. Rather than occupy the land thus "liberated," the Franks ceded them to the Pope, and the Papal States came into being. The Lombards retreated north into what is now modern Lombardy (Livorno). The relatively minor influence of these invaders on modern Italian is thought to do with three phenomena: First, their own ethnic diversity prevented the kind of cultural domination of any one group, which was characteristic of the Franks in France and the Saxons in Britain. Second, the barbarian invaders seemed more willing to adopt the language and customs of the conquered culture than to impose their own. Third, colloquial Latin was the best Lingua Franca for all the inhabitants of so many small regions, and it was the only language that could be written and read, whether by clerics, princes or bureaucrats.

The situation of disparate regional dialects continued without much linguistic or political integration from the early Middle Ages (9th century) forwards to the Renaissance. The writings of Dante Alighieri, whose Commedia fused some southern speech (like Sicilian) with his native Tuscan, formed a literary mixture that fairly can be said to be the beginnings of a national language for Italy. In his footsteps came Petrarch, the renaissance poet, and the equally famous Giovanni Boccaccio, whose Decameron and poetical works further added to a supra-regional notion of Italian literary art. It was Boccaccio who named Dante's work "Divina." The Divine Comedy contains perhaps the single most well-known line in all western poetry, regardless of language. It is the notice posted over the portals to hell, which says, "Lasciate ogni sperzanza voi ch'entrate." (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here). It was because of Dante, and his other colleagues from Renaissance Florence, that the Tuscan version of Italian became the prestige dialect, the version of Italian accepted and understood by all educated Italians of the day.

French and Occitan (Langue d'Hoc) played an important role in the development of Old Italian out of Vulgar Latin in the northern provinces. The Southern Franks invaded Italy from the Northwest, bringing Langue d'Hoc with them. The Lombards (a branch of the "Bards") also invaded from the north, bringing other regional mixtures of Latin and Germanic tongues.

Linguists have identified a line that divides roughly Tuscany and "standard" Italian speech to the south of it, and dialects heavily influenced by Frankish, Lombard, and other Germanic invaders to the north. It is called the "La Spezia-Rimini Line." Its correctness and utility is debated amongst academics. But all agree that the influence of the Gallo-Romance languages on Italian was far greater to the north and west of Tuscany, but stalled before it came farther south. Likewise, the Germanic invaders on the east side of Italy (from Austria and Slovenia) had an influence in the development of Italian as well, but they also did not penetrate as far south as Tuscany. Northeastern accents, like Veronese and Venetian, show much more influence from Austria, Slovenia and the Eastern Mediterranean (including the Balkans) than any of the regional accents to the south and east of Florence. As an extremely powerful city state during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Venice controlled much of the land to the north and west of it, influencing rural speakers with the spread of the Venetian dialect.

As a result, as one travels towards the south in Italy, the Germanic influence becomes far weaker than in the north, and local dialects contain many more nuances from Greek and other Mediterranean tongues.

During the 16th century a debate ensued amongst scholars about which version of "Italian" was the true and acceptable version. Italy was politically very fragmented, but it was increasingly integrating itself culturally. A discovery of Dante's De Vulgari Eloquentia caused academe at the time to divide into three warring camps: the "purists" who wished to define the standard in terms of the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio, the Florentines, including Machiavelli, who felt that local Florentine colloquial speech should be the basis for "standard" Italian, and the political elites from elsewhere (called the "courtiers"), who felt that the "standard" should be an amalgam of the contemporary speech of several regions, not just one. Pietro Bembo, the spearhead of the purist group, prevailed, with the result that the Accademia della Crusca was established in Florence in 1583 to adjudicate the "official" Italian language in terms of syntax, word choice, pronunciation and grammar. The first "official" dictionary of Italian was published a few years later in 1612. The traditions of Boccaccio and Petrarch won out.

The 16th century was also a period of great strife in Italy, involving armies from all over Western Europe and the Papacy. Italy in 1494 was essentially a cluster of city states in the north, with great suspicion and competitiveness amongst Tuscany, Venice and Milan, and then a layer of "Papal States" in the middle, centered in Rome, and then the "Kingdom of Naples," which extended to the toe of the boot. Sicily was independent. Through a number of well-placed marriages, Charles VI, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabela, became the emperor of all of Spain, plus the Low Countries, and the Holy Roman Empire. The counterweights were the French, the English and Portuguese, and occasionally the Prussians. The Protestant Reformation further complicated the politics and military alliances. Various city states in northern Italy made different alliances with the major powers in order to strengthen themselves against local rivals. The result was sporadic warfare in northern Italy for over a century, with periodic invasions from the larger powers. One such invasion is of linguistic significance: The Spanish monarch and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire occupied northern Italy as far as Rome. He was an ally of the Pope (and a defender of the Papal lands.) During this time, the mishmash of grammatical forms in circulation in Italy became much more unified, in imitation of the somewhat simpler grammar employed by the Spanish occupiers.

A second political development of linguistic importance was Napoleon's invasions of Italy, starting in 1796, just two days after marrying Josephine. The heretofore quarrelling city states were compelled to unite militarily to resist the invasion of the French Army, and did so with varied success over several years at the beginning of the 19th century. The military integration in resistance to Napoleon paved the way for political integration later on, and caused a further unification of the language itself. Dialects became accents. The first modern Italian novel, I Promessi Sposi ("The Betrothed") came out in 1840. Its author, Alessandro Manzoni, said that his writing style (Milanese) had been "rinsed in the waters of the Arno" (Tuscan).

Since the advent of national integration, the creation of a country-wide civil service and military, and the establishment of national media and communications facilities, Italian has acquired many features from elsewhere besides Tuscany and Milan, though the prestige accent continues to be from regions to the north of Rome.

Difficult economic times in Italy towards the end of the 19th century and early 20th century caused many migrations to other countries in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Argentina and Brazil. Italian is still spoken my large communities in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal. Almost 2% of the population of Australia speaks Italian in the home.