You probably are aware that the Romans spoke Latin. You probably also know that the Italians are the descendants of the Romans.
However, if you’ve studied both languages, you’ll have noticed that they’re quite different to one another.
How did Latin turn into Italian over the years? Why did Latin change so much and become the Italian we know today? Discover the history of learning Italian with us.
It turns out that a lot can happen over the course of 2,000 years. Hopefully, this article should have the answers you’re looking for.
Latin comes from the Italic languages. The Italic languages were generally spoken in what is now Italy.
Latin was never the only language spoken in the region. In fact, the whole area was home to plenty of different peoples and languages.
Italy has always been a fertile land for language. (Source: pixabay.com)
Let’s go back to the 6th century BC.
The Italic people we’re interested in resided in the centre and the south of Italy. At the time, this region was known as Latium. This area currently is home to the Vatican.
The Italic languages, like almost every language spoken in Europe, are members of the Indo-European language family. This includes a lot of languages that have since disappeared as well as languages such as Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian.
It should be noted that while the Italic languages were spoken around what we now call Italy, the speakers of the Italic languages weren’t originally from Italy.
According to historians, they emigrated from the Balkans around 1500AD. Certain specialists think that the group that occupied Italy before them were the Ligures who are thought to be an Italo-Celtic people.
Before the foundation of Rome in 753AD, we believe that the Italic languages were heavily influenced by Greek and Estrucans.
Once Rome was created it became hugely important in spreading the Latin language around the region. Latin inherited 6 of the 8 grammatical cases from the Indo-European languages.
The Genitive: used for possession
The Vocative: used for addressing or calling people
The Accusative: used for the object of the verb
The Dative: used for nouns that are to or for something
The Ablative: used with nouns that are by, with, or from something
The Nominative: used for the subject of the verb
Before speaking about Classical and Vulgar Latin, we need to look at Old Latin which was spoken until around the 1st century BC.
After the foundation of Rome and its expansion, Latin began to spread across the regions occupied.
Thanks to colonisation, it reached as far as the limits of Western Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa.
The Romans left more than just words. (Source: pixabay.com)
By the 3rd century BC, Latin was the official language of the Roman Republic. It was used by the Roman administration as well as for law, politics, and religion. While it coexisted with Greek dialects, Latin quickly took over the other languages. This is due to leaders forbidding their people from speaking Greek in favour of Latin.
Classical Latin entered its golden age between 75BC and 14AD when Latin literature played an important role in its propagation. The two centuries that followed could be called Classical Latin’s silver age.
While Rome was responsible for the spread of Latin, the fall of the Western Roman Empire led to its decline.
Before the Huns arrived from the East and forced migration to the West, the Roman Empire was weakening. In the 5th century, some Germanic peoples were taking control of areas of Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Holy Roman Empire, survived the attacks and Greek culture began to spread.
However, Latin only declined moderately. Latin’s tough. It can roll with the punches. We could say that rather than disappearing, Latin transformed when it came into contact with other languages (such as the Germanic languages).
Furthermore, Classic Latin was used by leaders, intellectuals, and writers. The colonists and soldiers, on the other hand, spoke the Latin of the people, commonly referred to as Vulgar Latin.
Vulgar Latin gave rise to a number of different languages: The Romance Languages and Italian, namely.
While already in decline in the 2nd century, Classical Latin became less important while the opposite was true for Vulgar Latin. In fact, scribes and clerks began to rewrite civil and religious documents into Vulgar Latin which would take over Classical Latin.
Classical Latin (which wasn’t in use by the people) lost its lustre once the empire collapsed. Since the connections between Rome and the other cities were complicated, the region began to fracture linguistically as there was no standardised form of the language for people to use. However, the Romans did put the Latin alphabet into common use and nowadays is used by tonnes of languages all over the world.
With the arrival of new peoples over the centuries, Latin transformed and evolved.
By the 5th century, Italy was under invasion by the Ostrogoths. In 6th century, the Lombards had a go. The Francs, under the reign of Charlemagne, came to Italy in the 8th century. We should also mention that Southern Italy was under the control of the Byzantine Empire and the Muslims.
The large number of different cultures allowed the language to take on new terms.
Between the 9th and 15th centuries there was Medieval Latin. While Latin started to become less and less popular, priests and intellectuals still used it. They’d add new terms from Hebrew and Greek.
During the Renaissance (between the 15th and 16th centuries), the variety of Latin being used was called Renaissance Latin.
The humanist movement popularised by Petrarch during the Renaissance was taking over Europe. Plato’s works were being translated into Latin and with the advent of the printing press 15th century, the Bible was also being printed in Latin.
Bit by bit, Latin became the language of religion rather than of the people. After the 16th century, we use the term New Latin (or Neo-Latin) to refer the Latin being used in international science.
Nowadays, Latin is only spoken in the Vatican as an official language.
Fewer and fewer people are able to speak, read, or understand Latin. Over time, Latin changed from an everyday language to minority language.
We know at some point that the Italian language we know today took over from written and spoken Latin.
While this took place over a number of years, we can point to the Renaissance and Florentine writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch as a turning point.
Dante’s Devine Comedy is one of the works responsible for making unifying Italy’s linguistic landscape. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks to The Divine Comedy, Dante is one of Italian’s forefathers. The Florentine writer wanted to be understood by everyone and not just the elite.
Who wrote in Florentine, a sub-dialect of the Tuscan dialect, and borrowed words from Latin, French, Lombard, and Provençal. His goal was to show that everyday language was as noble as Latin.
His gamble paid off since a number of other poets followed in his footsteps and made Florentine the symbol of Italian unity. As the closest language to Latin, Florentine became the language used by the whole population across every class.
Thus, by altering this derivative of Latin and various transformations over the years (including a strong influence from Spanish), Italian was born.
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Latin still has a huge influence on Italian vocabulary.
To prove our point, we’ve put together a list of a few Latin terms and their almost-identical Italian counterparts.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list (with the English translations):
Accelerare – accelerare: accelerate
Biblioteca — bibliotheca: library
Calamità – calamitas: calamity/disaster
Diploma – diploma: diploma
Encyclopaedia – enciclopedia: encyclopaedia
Fondamentale – fundamentalis: fundamental
Gladiatore – gladiator: gladiator
Indeterminato – indeterminatus: undetermined
Lacrima — lacrima: tear
Maggiordomo — major domus: butler
Negoziatore – negotiator: negotiator
Occasionare – occasionari: cause
Pacificazione – pacificatio: pacification
Querimonia – querimonia: lamentation
Radiazone – radiatio: radiation
Selezione — selectio: selection
Taciturno – taciturnus: taciturn
Umiliazione – humiliatio: humiliation
Verificare – verificare: verify
Zodiaco – zodiacus: zodiac
The are tonnes of expressions in Latin that have made their way into English, too.
Latin also gave us our alphabet. (Source: pixabay.com)
If you love Italian culture and the lingua italiana, you can see how Latin can help you better understand your Italian lessons (as well as a number of English words). It can help you learn Italian in school or in private tutorials or learn Italian online.
A Latin tutorial could help you learn more about:
Don’t forget that Latin can help you make fewer errors in Italian, too.
Latin isn’t a dead language. People are still using it to translate texts in Latin.