By Alberto Macchione
From October 16th to October 22nd, The President of Italy will be the patron of ‘Week of the Italian Language in the World’. This is the 17th Year of the celebration of cultural events and happenings which this year will feature the ‘Italians in the Cinema and Italians at the Cinema’ acknowledging the remarkable contribution of Italian cinema and its everlasting legacy.
The language 65 Million Italian speakers reside in the European Union while 14 Million speakers make up minority language communities in Crimea, Eritrea, France, Libya, Monaco, Montenegro, Romania, Somalia and by expatriate communities in Europe, the Americas and Australia.
Italian is a ‘Romantic’ language in more ways than one. It is romantic in that is the language of love. It is undoubtedly the language of Giacomo Casanova, Rudolph Valentino and Romeo and Juliet, however the true meaning of ‘romance’ means that the language is derived from ‘Rome’ and thus being of Romantic origin.
Italian is the closest language to the Latin spoken in ancient Rome however it is surprising to many that Italian was not a universal language until after World War I. The reasons for this are varied however the main factor was that Italy did not become a nation state in the modern sense until 1815 in what is known as the ‘Unification of Italy’ or more correctly, the ‘Risorgimento’.
Italy was until that time a number of disparate regions each with their own unique languages (often referred to as dialects), cultures and customs. Just as the south of Italy has spicy middle eastern influences in its food and the north eats the whiter more French influenced dishes then so to the languages from the south of Italy may have had a mix of words and sounds from Albanian, Byzantine, or Norman culture based on their particular population, while in the North of Italy, French, German and other influences may dominate.
So where did the language of Italian come from? Italian is in effect the dialect of Tuscany. Widely spoken by upper class Florentines. Versions of the Tuscan dialect now known as Italian have been traced to the first century however were formalized by the transcripts of the greatest writer in history, Dante Alighieri and initialized by Francesco Petrarca. Another writer, Alessandro Manzoni is also credited with penning the blueprint for Italian unification.
Italian was seen as an official language in several pre Italian-unification states in addition to the local language even under foreign rule.
During the Risorgimento the position of head of state was hotly contested by various factions who effectively ended up at war and then civil war to solve the leadership. Simultaneously partisans campaigned for the prospect of a universal language for what would become the new Kingdom of Italy.
Politicians, Philosophers, Writers and the leaders of Italy rallied for Florentine, the principle language of the renaissance, which also happened to most closely resemble the historic language of Italy, Latin.
Italian wasn’t used in academic texts until 1928 and it wasn’t until 1971 until the Catholic Church approved an Italian bible. So while Italian became more accepted as education and commerce gained connectivity throughout the peninsula, most people were speaking their native languages or dialects and continue to do so today.
Unless your heritage is in Tuscany, it is likely that you have at least two ‘Italian’ languages in your family history to be proud of and celebrate each October.
Alberto Macchione is a writer, Italophile and 1 of the 85 million Italian speakers in the world.