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Because Italy consisted of independent city-states for centuries before unification, there are countless regional dialects still spoken all over the country. They include Tuscan, Sabino, Tarantino, Neapolitan, Barese, Romanesco, Venetian, and many more. There are also many Italian-speakers in border areas (the best-known probably being Switzerland) and countries with a long history of Italian rule (e.g., Malta, Slovenia, Croatia).
Other Italian-speakers are found in diaspora communities all over the world. Besides North America, many are also to be found in Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, the U.K., Australia, and France.
Percentage of Italians in Argentina, 1914 Census
Modern Standard Italian is based on Tuscan, in particular the Florentine dialect, because that was the language of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini. The lattermost was a politician and historian who probably isn’t very well-known to most people today, but he was huge during the Renaissance.
When the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, la pronuncia fiorentina emendata (the amended Florentine pronunciation) was chosen as the official language. Because of its association with such great literary lights, it was seen as a language of high culture and prestige.
About 3,500,000 people speak Tuscan Italian today. There are at least eleven sub-dialects of Tuscan, four Southern and seven Northern. The Corsican language also began as a direct offshoot of Medieval Tuscan.
1898 linguistic map
Though there are many differences between Standard Italian and Tuscan, the most obvious tends to be that of gorgia Toscana (Tuscan throat); i.e., the weakening of consonants. There are also a number of Tuscan words which are completely different in Standard Italian, false cognates, or only used in that way in literary Italian.
Like all other languages, Italian too developed through many centuries. It evolved from Vulgar Latin, and gradually entirely replaced Latin as the area’s official language and lingua franca. Because Italian is so closely tied to Latin, it’s easy to learn one language if you already know the other.
Italian also has many similarities with Spanish, which made it very easy for me to take to it like lightning when I studied it my senior year of high school. At that point, I was in my sixth year of Spanish, and had informally studied Italian a few years earlier on a public TV show (the same channel where my mother and I learnt some Japanese).
I really wish I’d decided to continue with Italian when I went to community college or transferred to university. Though I usually got good marks in Spanish, I only studied it because my parents chose it for me over French. Night and day next to my genuine passion for Italian language, history, culture, and literature.
My mother herself told me my Italian pronunciation was a lot better than my Spanish pronunciation!
I would absolutely love to get back in touch with the language so I can read Dante and Boccaccio (and other great literature) untranslated, watch Italian films without subtitles, and do serious genealogical research into my Italian branch of my family tree. They came from Sacco, a small town in the Province of Salerno, in the Campania region. At the moment, I only know back to my four-greats-grandparents, born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Dante is known as the father of the Italian language because he was the first major writer to use his native vernacular instead of Latin, just as Geoffrey Chaucer broke tradition when he chose to write in Middle English. In Italian, Dante is called il Sommo Poeta, the Supreme Poet. He, Boccaccio, and Petrarch are the tre corone (three crowns) of Italian literature.
Though Latin continued as Europe’s lingua franca into the early 19th century, it was more a language of scholars, theologians, scientists, historians, and musicians who needed their works to reach a wider audience, not poetry and prose. Dante’s success in Italian was a major force in kicking down the doors for writers to use their own languages instead of Latin.
Many musical terms from Italian have become an established part of English; e.g., duo, concerto, fortissimo, pianissimo, coda, cadenza, operetta, libretto, intermezzo, soprano, oratorio, and vibrato. Many art, architecture, and food words also come from Italian. Other fields with Italian loanwords include literature, theatre, clothing, geology, geography, finance and commerce, military and weaponry, politics, science, and nature.