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Italian Lesson – July 2022


In the previous lesson, we discussed that learning a foreign language means exploring not only grammar, vocabulary, syntax, etc., but also the way the language developed over the centuries. In this issue we go to part two of our short history of the Italian language from Roman Latin to Italian today.

In the 14th century, Vulgar began to have the same dignity as Latin for literary use. Among the most used Italian Vulgars, Sicilian and Tuscan, Florentine Tuscan dominated. This was because, within a few decades, Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio became famous writers in Vulgar and they were all from Tuscany. The first one was Dante Alighieri, who decided to write a huge narrative poem, something between metaphysics and science fiction. It is about his fantastic travel through hell, purgatory and paradise. Then there was Petrarca, who wrote very beautiful and tender love poems for his lover Laura, and Giovanni Boccaccio who wrote the Decameron, a collection of short stories devoted to humoristic/erotic subjects. The three of them were very popular among their contemporaries and had much impact, by emulation, on the authors from the other Italian regions.

The 15th century saw the comeback to Latin through the revival of the Greek and Latin classics. Humanists, as the scholars of that period are called, found texts, which were believed to be lost, and they discovered works, which were unknown at the time. Admiration for the classical world raised the desire to imitate ancient writers and Latin was considered the only noble language for literature. This period of decadence of Vulgar ended only at the end of the century, when some great authors, among them Lorenzo il Magnifico, who started to believe again in Vulgar’s potentiality and to use it in their works. As the spread of printing in Italy began around 1470, circulation of books grew and writers tried to establish rules, which standardized the writing of words. Punctuation was inadequate and the apostrophe did not exist. The articles el and il prevailed over lo. In the imperfect tense, the suffix –o for the first person (io dovevo) began to appear, but in the literary language –a was still predominant.

The 16th century saw the beginning of the great debate over the use of Vulgar Latin. There were three main viewpoints expressed by those who wanted Vulgar to replace classic Latin. Some people wanted the Tuscan of the great writers of the 14th century due to the works of Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio and of the great writers of that era such as Pietro Bembo and Ludovico Ariosto. Others thought that Italian should be a mix of the most elegant words of national dialects and finally a third group preferred the predomi-nance of a much-localized Florentine Tuscan. Spelling from the 16th century is still mainly Latin, but since the second half of the century h, x and ti instead of z tended to disappear. Punctuation becomes more complex and regular, and spelling is made clearer by the introduction of apostrophe. Wars and foreign dominations brought a lot of Gallicisms and Hispanicisms in Italy. However, Italy also exported many words because of Italian supremacy in the cultural and artistic fields. In the next issue, we will conclude the three-part series on the history of the Italian language.

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