Italian (italiano or lingua italiana) is a Romance language spoken by about 63 million people as a first language, primarily in Italy.
In Switzerland, Italian is one of four official languages; it is studied and learned in all the confederation schools and spoken, as mother tongue, in the Swiss cantons of Ticino and Grigioni and by the Italian emigrants that are present in large numbers in German- and French-speaking cantons.
Italian derives diachronically from Latin. Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin's contrast between short and long consonants. As in most Romance languages, stress is distinctive. In particular, among the Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin in terms of vocabulary. Lexical similarity is 89% with French, 87% with Catalan, 85% with Sardinian, 82% with Spanish and Portuguese, 78% with Rhaeto-Romance, and 77% with Romanian.
According to the Bologna statistics of the European Union, Italian is spoken as a native language by 65 million people in the EU (13% of the EU population), mainly in Italy, and as a second language by 14 million (3%). Including the Italian speakers in non-EU European countries (such as Switzerland and Albania) and on other continents, the total number of speakers is around 85 million. Italian has been reported as the fourth or fifth most frequently taught foreign language in the world.
In Switzerland, Italian is one of four official languages.
The standard Italian language has a poetic and literary origin, starting in the twelfth century, and the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events, but Italian as a language used in the Italian peninsula has a longer history; in fact the earliest surviving texts that can definitely be called Italian (or more accurately, vernacular, as distinct from its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae from the region of Benevento that date from 960–963. What would come to be thought of as Italian was first formalized in the early fourteenth century through the works of Tuscan writer Dante Alighieri, written in his native Florentine. Dante's epic poems, known collectively as the Commedia, to which another Tuscan poet Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina, were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the "canonical standard" that all educated Italians could understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language and, thus, the dialect of Florence became the basis for what would become the official language of Italy.
Italian often was an official language of the various Italian states predating unification, slowly usurping Latin, even when ruled by foreign powers (such as the Spanish in the Kingdom of Naples, or the Austrians in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia), even though the masses spoke primarily vernacular languages and dialects. Italian was also one of the many recognised languages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Italy has always had a distinctive dialect for each city, since the cities, until recently, were thought of as city-states. Those dialects now have considerable variety. As Tuscan-derived Italian came to be used throughout Italy, features of local speech were naturally adopted, producing various versions of Regional Italian. The most characteristic differences, for instance, between Roman Italian and Milanese Italian are the gemination of initial consonants and the pronunciation of stressed "e", and of "s" in some cases: e.g. va bene "all right": is pronounced [va ˈbːɛne] by a Roman (and by any standard-speaker), [va ˈbene] by a Milanese (and by any speaker whose native dialect lies to the north of La Spezia-Rimini Line); a casa "at home" is [a ˈkːasa] for Roman and standard, [a ˈkaza] for Milanese and generally northern.
In contrast to the Northern Italian language, southern Italian dialects and languages were largely untouched by the Franco-Occitan influences introduced to Italy, mainly by bards from France, during the Middle Ages but, after the Norman conquest of southern Italy, Sicily became the first Italian land to adopt Occitan lyric moods (and words) in poetry. Even in the case of Northern Italian language, however, scholars are careful not to overstate the effects of outsiders on the natural indigenous developments of the languages.
The economic might and relatively advanced development of Tuscany at the time (Late Middle Ages) gave its dialect weight, though the Venetian language remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life, and Ligurian (or Genoese) remained in use in maritime trade alongside the Mediterranean. The increasing political and cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of the rise of Medici's bank, Humanism, and the Renaissance made its dialect, or rather a refined version of it, a standard in the arts.
Starting with the Renaissance Italian became the language used in the courts of every state in the peninsula. The rediscovery of Dante's De vulgari eloquentia and a renewed interest in linguistics in the sixteenth century, sparked a debate that raged throughout Italy concerning the criteria that should govern the establishment of a modern Italian literary and spoken language. Scholars divided into three factions:
The purists, headed by Venetian Pietro Bembo (who, in his Gli Asolani, claimed the language might be based only on the great literary classics, such as Petrarch and some part of Boccaccio). The purists thought the Divine Comedy not dignified enough, because it used elements from non-lyric registers of the language.
Niccolò Machiavelli and other Florentines preferred the version spoken by ordinary people in their own times.
The courtiers, like Baldassare Castiglione and Gian Giorgio Trissino, insisted that each local vernacular contribute to the new standard.
A fourth faction claimed the best Italian was the one that the papal court adopted, which was a mix of Florentine and the dialect of Rome. Eventually, Bembo's ideas prevailed, and the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca in Florence (1582–1583), the official legislative body of the Italian language led to publication of Agnolo Monosini's Latin tome Floris italicae linguae libri novem in 1604 followed by the first Italian dictionary in 1612.
An important event that helped the diffusion of Italian was the conquest and occupation of Italy by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century (who was himself of Italian-Corsican descent). This conquest propelled the unification of Italy some decades after, and pushed the Italian language into a lingua franca used not only among clerks, nobility and functionaries in the Italian courts but also in the bourgeoisie.
Italian literature's first modern novel, I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), by Alessandro Manzoni, further defined the standard by "rinsing" his Milanese "in the waters of the Arno" (Florence's river), as he states in the Preface to his 1840 edition.