MY PRIVATE ITALY: The Italian Language, quite a mess – Part 1

Monday, 13 April 2020 07:27 Written by
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Latin to Italian? Not just that. In these videos Marcello explains the evolution of the Italian language, from its origins to present days

Many travellers are just marvelled and amazed at the variety of the Italian language, with its different dialects but also different terms, sometimes changing in no more than 10 KM. We have always been told that Italian comes from Latin, but even so, how can it be so varied across the country? Well, let me tell you a story about the Italian language, or better, the languages of the Italians. And let’s start from the very beginning. Each language is a "fossil" and at the same time continuously renewing.

The past lives every day in our present, hidden in the folds of words. Just as through the study of archaeological remains we can guess about the settlements and reconstruct monuments of the distant past, so through the study of languages we can uncover the past and devise some chronology. There is a branch of the human sciences, linguistics, which studies the evolution of languages, and retracing the evolution of language in Europe or rather in the so-called Romance area is very funny and very stimulating. Thus, linguistics scholars have reconstructed the path of the Latin language in different modern languages.

Remember that Latin was the language spoken throughout the Empire, it was the language of law and commerce. As the provinces were assimilated, Latin took the place of the local language; so was it in Spain, in France and even in Romania. However, Latin was not the only universal language spoken in the empire; there was another very important language, the language of the scholars, the language of philosophy: Greek. The Romans looked at Greece as the seat of the best philosophy and science, and great philosophers such as Aristotle, historians such as Herodotus and great playwrights such as Aristophanes were a model for all the writers and philosophers of the Empire. So, there were 2 large linguistic areas: in Western Europe Latin, in Eastern Europe, Greek. Take, for example, the 4 Gospels: the versions that we know today, although in the case of Mark and Matthew they have an Aramaic origin, that is, the language spoken by Jesus, were written in Greek, to facilitate its spread in the eastern part of Europe and the Middle East.

Latin was a living language, a language in movement and therefore a language that evolved, just as English is doing now, think of British and American English, or even African English. A language that started from the centre and branched out to the periphery, and which sometimes from the periphery came back to the centre. An example of this is the verb eat: in Italian, we say mangiare, in French manger, but in Spanish comer. Because? Because in Latin the verb comedere is older than the verb manucare; the latter new word started from the centre but failed to reach the peripheral areas of the empire, in particular Iberia, present-day Spain, which has preserved the older origin. An example of a return is the word cheese: from France, the innovation "formaticus" started, then in French "fromage" and in Italian "cheese", while the Latin caseus remained marginal, at the edges: in Tuscan "cacio", in Spanish "queso" In this sense the language that remains most adherent to its Latin root is Romanian. Romania (from Rome) was conquered in the years between 101 and 106 by the emperor Trajan, by the way, the Roman armies exterminated most of the local populations, the Dacians. So the colonies spoke Latin, which became the language of those areas. The linguistic innovations that departed in the 3rd century from Rome conquered Italy and Gaul but did not reach the lateral areas, due to the fall of the empire.

This is even more true for the so-called “isolated” areas that retain the most archaic sections because isolation allows the language to evolve less, it cuts it out of the upheavals and the pressures that come from outside. An example of this is Sardinia, where more archaic words remain. Sardinia is one of the most layered areas in Italy; Sardinian is a composite language that preserves ancient Mediterranean elements, which are Punic (north African), Greek and Byzantine, Arabic. Many are the Catalan and Spanish terms, since the Spaniards dominated Sardinia for four centuries from 1327 to 1720. Maybe the most stratified region in Italy is Sicily, due to the several different peoples which colonized it. Just consider the sequence of invaders and rulers of the island over the centuries: Phoenicians in the 11th century BC, Greeks from the 7th century BC on, Romans from 212 BC, Vandals then Arabs from the 9th to the 11th century, Normans (best known as Vikings) in the 11th and 12th centuries, Spaniards from 1282 to 1713, then Austrians, Bourbons and finally the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy (where they spoke Italian but with a strong french influence), in 1861. Let me greet you with a sentence of Italy’s most famous investigator, Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Montalbano, a Sicilian, who when he wants to say that he is fed up with someone uses a greek word: “Hai scassato I cabbasisi” (you broke my…well I am sure you understood it).

Read 2749 times Last modified on Friday, 27 October 2023 07:26
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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