Learning a foreign language means exploring not only grammar, vocabulary, syntax, etc., but also the way it developed over the centuries.
Therefore, we thought that for the summer break rather than the traditional type of lesson that appears on this page, we would introduce our readers to a short history of the Italian language from the Roman Latin to today. To do justice to this topic while working with limited space, the topic will be spread over three issues.
The obvious place to start is with the Romans. Through the entire empire, Latin was the official language, but only for written documents, verdicts etc. The masses used their own mother tongue of origin and/or very often a kind of Latin much influenced by their mother tongue. As the Western Roman Empire began to decline in the third and the fifth centuries B.C., the spoken language became more and more different from the official Latin. This was the origin of the Western European languages. Thus in Spain they began to speak Hispanic-Latin, in France Franco-Latin, in Great Britain Anglo-Latin, etc.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire at the hands of the barbarians in 476 B.C. brought a final fragmentation of linguistic unity in Italy. Although the invaders had learned Latin, they spoke it their way and soon peculiarities of their languages cropped into the spoken languages in Italy. For example some words of the Langobards who reigned over Northern Italy for two centuries, from 568-774 B.C., are still part of present-day spoken Italian: ciuffo, graffiare, guancia, ricco, scherzare, schiena, zanna, meaning respectfully clump, scratch, cheek, rich, joke, back, fang.
Despite the fall of the Western Roman Empire, for many centuries, in Italy, Latin remained the only language used for written communication, for literature, documents and in the official sites. Latin was still spoken in 1600 in the universities in all of Europe.
The first documents written in Vulgar Latin, the language spoken by people of certain regions and what nowadays are call dialects, then known as “placiti,” appeared in Cassino in the province Frosinone around 960 B.C. An example: “Sao ko kelle terre, per kelle fini que ki contene, trenta anni le possette parte Sancti Benedicti.” Present-day Italian: So che quelle terre, entro quei confini che qui si descrivono, le ha possedute per trent’anni l’abbazia di San Benedetto. It translates to English as, “I know that those lands, within the boundaries described here, have been owned by the abbey of St. Benedict for 30 years.”
Written Vulgar was also used in literary texts around 1200. The famous “Cantico delle creature” by St. Francis of Assisi was written in Umbrian Vulgar in 1224: During this period of Vulgar Latin’s evolution, k was often an alternative to c, gn was written in different ways, for example bagno meaning bath, also appeared and was pronounced bango, bango, bannio, etc.. The conjunction et and Latin h were still used, homo, honore. Concerning articles, lo was prevalent lo quale, lo frate. Several Gallicisms appeared in the vocabulary: messere, cavaliere, scudiere, madama, ostaggio, mestiere, pensiero, coricare, meaning respectfully as messer, knight, squire, madame, hostage, craft, thought, lament.
Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore,
tue so’ le laude, la gloria, e l’honore et onne benedictione.
Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano,
et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare.
Laudato sie, mi’ Signore, cum tucte le tue creature,
spetialmente messor lo frate sole,
lo qual’è iorno, et allumini noi per lui.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore:
de te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Highest, almighty good Lord
Yours are the praises, the glory and the honor
And all the blessing
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No human lips are worthy
To pronounce Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord with all Your creatures
Especially our brother, Master Sun
Who brings the day and the light
That warms us he that is beautiful and radiant
In all his splendor!
He brings meaning of You, O Most High.