A Few Words

Know Your Languages: Italian-A Romance Language with Roots in Vulgar Latin

Posted by Francesco Monticelli on Mar 4, 2015 4:18:00 PM

When it comes to the most widely-spoken languages in the world, Italian does not rank in the top ten, but the language appears everywhere. Italian is a reference language for art, music, fashion, and food, which peppers our everyday conversations with the language of the dolce vita.  Think about it.  Pizza, ciao, piano, graffiti, crescendo, soda, primadonna, and virtuoso are just a few examples of Italian words we commonly use.

Although Italian words are commonly shared around the world, this romance language is mainly spoken in Europe. It is a primary language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, and Vatican City. It is a secondaryItalian2 language in Malta, Croatia and Slovenia. Certain minorities in France, Albania, Libya, Monaco, Romania, and Somalia also speak Italian. Including speakers of Italian in non-EU European countries, the total number of Italian speakers is around 85 million.

Italian is a Romance language, and therefore a descendent of Vulgar Latin. Among the Romance languages, Italian is one of the closest to Latin in terms of vocabulary. Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin’s contrast between long and short consonants. Stress is distinctive, as is the case with most Romance languages.

This table shows some of the similarities between Latin and Italian words:

  Latin                         Italian                         English
castellum                 castello                       castle
natio                           nazione                       nation
ordo                            ordine                          order/rank
lex                                 legge                             law
cantamus                  cantiamo                    we sing
obvius                          ovvio                            obvious
removere                   rimuovere                 remove

 Italian grammar is similar to that of other Romance languages. Cases exist for pronouns, but not for nouns. There are two genders, masculine and feminine. Nouns, adjectives and articles inflect for gender and number (singular and plural). Adjectives are sometimes placed before their noun and sometimes after. Subject nouns generally come before the verb. Subject pronouns are usually dropped, their presence implied by verbal inflections. 

Despite the fact that over 17 million Americans are of Italian descent, only a little over one million people in the U.S. speak Italian at home.  In Canada, Italian is the second most spoken non-official language when ItalianChinese languages are not grouped into one language. After the Chinese languages, Italian is the second most spoken foreign language in Australia. Italian is the second most spoken language in Argentina after its official language of Spanish, with 1.5 million speaking it natively. Small Italian-speaking minorities on the continent can also be found in Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Italy is one of the world’s top economies. It has grown steadily since the end of the World War II, mainly from the exportation of goods. Italy is focused on building strong trade agreements with China and India. As a result, many employers actively seek people who can speak both English and Italian. An estimated 7,500 American companies do business with Italy and more than 1,000 U.S. firms have offices in Italy, including Cisco, General Electric, IBM, Motorola, Microsoft, and Citibank. Italian fashion firms from Armani to Zegna are globally recognized leaders along with automotive icons Alfa Romeo, Fiat (which owns US-based Chrysler), Ferrari, and Maserati. The Italian eyewear company Luxoticca Group controls 80% of the major global eyewear brands, including Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Persol.

Because Italian is derived from Latin and an estimated 60% of the English language also comes from Latin, knowing Italian may improve English test scores. A recent study showed that enrollment in Italian language classes at U.S. high schools and colleges is growing faster than enrollment rates for Spanish, German, and French.

Italian is one of the most beautiful languages spoken in the world and, for those interested, it is the language with the most words that can be used to describe food. Ciao!


Topics: Know Your Languages

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