The Italian language (Italiano) is a Romance language from the Indo-European language family and is one of the closest living relatives of Vulgar Latin, from which it gradually evolved, beginning around the 5th century after the fall of the Roman Empire. Italian is an official language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City and Western Istria (in Slovenia and Croatia). Italian previously held official or co-official status in Albania, Malta, and parts of France, Greece, and Montenegro, as well as in the former Italian colonies in North and East Africa, and there are still some speakers in those areas today.
There are currently around 69 million native Italian speakers in the European Union, as well as approximately 24 million speakers of Italian as a second language, with a total of roughly 90 million total speakers. Italian is also one of the official working languages of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the principal working language of the Holy See and Roman Catholic Church.
As a result of large-scale immigration in the 19th century, the Italian language (and culture) has played an important role in the history of the United States. There are currently more than 15 million self-reported Italian-Americans in the United States, among which roughly 708 million people are reported to speak Italian at home, making Italian the 8th most widely spoken foreign language in the United States and the 5th most studied foreign language. The largest concentrated communities of Italian-Americans reside in New York (which accounts for 29% of all Italian speakers in the United States), New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Connecticut.
When it comes to “dialects” of Italian, there are both dialects of Standard Italian as well as related but separate Italic languages spoken in different regions before the unification of the modern Italian state in 1861 and the establishment of Standard Italian. These regional languages include the Italo-Dalmatian languages (including Tuscan and Sicilian), Gallo-Italic languages, and the Venetian language. The closest regional languages to Standard Italian are Tuscan, Corsican, and Central Italian. Within the Standard Italian dialect continuum, dialects vary based on regions, including North Italy, Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy, and Sardinia. The regional Italian dialects are usually mutually intelligible, but often not with the separate regional Italic languages. Standard Italian has been gradually replacing the use of regional dialects through the proliferation of mass media and education.
Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian has retained Latin’s contrast between short and long consonants, and its pronunciation of vowels is the second-closest to Latin (next to Sardinian). Italian grammar follows many of the common features of other Romance languages, which includes a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Nouns and adjectives are inflected for both gender and number, with adjectives being positioned either before or after the noun which they modify. Personal pronouns are inflected for person, number, case, and gender (in the third person). Italian also makes use of the T-V distinction, wherein the forms of addressing one’s conversation partner vary based on the level of politeness. In Italian, this is most prominently manifested in the use of the second-person nominative pronoun tu for informal use, and lei for more formal use (similar to tu vs. usted in Spanish). Italian verbs are highly inflected, which are affected by mood, person, tense, number, aspect, and gender. Verb conjugations generally follow one of three main patterns for regular verbs, although some of the more commonly used verbs are irregular.
The Italian language is rich with vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and semantic nuances, and has served as a language of art, music, culture, and religion for centuries. In terms of vocabulary, Italian is believed to be the closest to Latin of all the Romance languages. Italian has also absorbed loanwords from numerous sources, including English, French, German, Arabic, and more.
The Italian alphabet consists of 21 letters (16 consonants, 5 vowels), with the letters j, k, w, x, y being excluded, except for in the case of loanwords, and while the letter j is used in some names, place names, and dialectical words, it is largely discouraged in Standard Italian. Italian also makes use of acute, grave, and circumflex accents with some vowels to indicate stress or mark the contraction of two vowels, as with the circumflex.
FUN FACTS: Dante Alighieri, famous for “Dante’s Inferno,” (The Divine Comedy) in which he takes the reader through inferno, purgatory, and paradise) had a significant influence on the development of the Italian language in the 14th century. His many writings were used as the basis for written Italian, and many style and grammar rules of the Italian language derive from his written works. Also, outside of Italy, one of the largest groups of Italian speakers can be found in Argentina, which was the destination for a large number of Italian immigrants beginning in the second half of the 19th century. Today, it is estimated that more than 62% of Argentines have some degree of Italian descent, and the Italian language is spoken by roughly 1.5 million people in Argentina.
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