You probably are aware that the Romans spoke Latin. You probably also know that the Italians are the descendants of the Romans.
However, if you’ve studied both languages, you’ll have noticed that they’re quite different to one another.
How did Latin turn into Italian over the years? Why did Latin change so much and become the Italian we know today? When did people stop speaking Latin - and why? Discover the history of learning Italian with us.
It turns out that a lot can happen over the course of 2,000 years. Hopefully, this article should have the answers you’re looking for.
The History of Latin: The Origins of the Language
Latin comes from the Italic languages. The Italic languages were generally spoken in what is now Italy.
Latin was never the only language spoken in the region. In fact, the whole area was home to plenty of different peoples and languages.
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Let’s go back to the 6th century BC.
The Italic people we’re interested in resided in the centre and the south of Italy. At the time, this region was known as Latium. This area currently is home to the Vatican.
The Italic languages, like almost every language spoken in Europe, are members of the Indo-European language family. This includes a lot of languages that have since disappeared as well as languages such as Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Romanian.
It should be noted that while the Italic languages were spoken around what we now call Italy, the speakers of the Italic languages weren’t originally from Italy.
According to historians, they emigrated from the Balkans around 1500AD. Certain specialists think that the group that occupied Italy before them were the Ligures who are thought to be an Italo-Celtic people.
Before the foundation of Rome in 753AD, we believe that the Italic languages were heavily influenced by Greek and Estrucans.
Once Rome was created it became hugely important in spreading the Latin language around the region. Latin inherited 6 of the 8 grammatical cases from the Indo-European languages.
The Genitive: used for possession
The Vocative: used for addressing or calling people
The Accusative: used for the object of the verb
The Dative: used for nouns that are to or for something
The Ablative: used with nouns that are by, with, or from something
The Nominative: used for the subject of the verb
Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin
Before speaking about Classical and Vulgar Latin, we need to look at Old Latin which was spoken until around the 1st century BC.
Old Latin: Evolution and Decline
After the foundation of Rome and its expansion, Latin began to spread across the regions occupied.
Thanks to colonisation, it reached as far as the limits of Western Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa.
By the 3rd century BC, Latin was the official language of the Roman Republic. It was used by the Roman administration as well as for law, politics, and religion. While it coexisted with Greek dialects, Latin quickly took over the other languages. This is due to leaders forbidding their people from speaking Greek in favour of Latin.
Classical Latin entered its golden age between 75BC and 14AD when Latin literature played an important role in its propagation. The two centuries that followed could be called Classical Latin’s silver age.
While Rome was responsible for the spread of Latin, the fall of the Western Roman Empire led to its decline.
How did we get from Classical Latin to Vulgar Latin?
Before the Huns arrived from the East and forced migration to the West, the Roman Empire was weakening. In the 5th century, some Germanic peoples were taking control of areas of Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, survived the attacks and Greek culture began to spread.
However, Latin only declined moderately. Latin's tough. It can roll with the punches. We could say that rather than disappearing, Latin transformed when it came into contact with other languages (such as the Germanic languages).
Furthermore, Classic Latin was used by leaders, intellectuals, and writers. The colonists and soldiers, on the other hand, spoke the Latin of the people, commonly referred to as Vulgar Latin. Think about the difference between standard English - used by politicians and academics and in written texts - and the language that we actually speak: there's quite a difference.
Vulgar Latin gave rise to a number of different languages: the Romance languages and Italian, namely.
While already in decline in the 2nd century, Classical Latin became less important while the opposite was true for Vulgar Latin. In fact, scribes and clerks began to rewrite civil and religious documents into Vulgar Latin which would take over Classical Latin.
Classical Latin (which wasn’t in use by the people) lost its lustre once the empire collapsed. Since the connections between Rome and the other cities were complicated, the region began to fracture linguistically as there was no standardised form of the language for people to use. However, the Romans did put the Latin alphabet into common use and nowadays is used by tonnes of languages all over the world.
Latin to the Renaissance
With the arrival of new peoples over the centuries, Latin transformed and evolved.
By the 5th century, Italy was under invasion by the Ostrogoths. In 6th century, the Lombards had a go. The Francs, under the reign of Charlemagne, came to Italy in the 8th century. We should also mention that Southern Italy was under the control of the Byzantine Empire and the Muslims.
The large number of different cultures allowed the language to take on new terms.
Between the 9th and 14th centuries there was Medieval Latin. While Latin started to become less and less popular, priests and intellectuals still used it. They’d add new terms from Hebrew and Greek.
And so, in the Middle Ages, you'd see a strange phenomenon in which, whilst nobody actually spoke the language - as they rather spoke the regional derivations of Latin - the Church and the Holy Roman Empire (Charlemagne's power) used the language in all of their official correspondence and records. In fact, Charlemagne promoted the use of the Latin language and literature in what became known as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Consequently, the 'dead' language spread into territories that never had a history of speaking Latin, such as the German states. This was due to the fact that the Holy Roman Empire over which Charlemagne ruled conquered new states - and so officials and authorities in his extended kingdom were required to follow the desires of the Emperor.
Yet, during this period, the nature of Latin was changing: Latin grammar, pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary all changed, with different users, contact with each vernacular, and a move towards greater clarity, such as the use of the preposition.
During the Renaissance (between the 14th and 16th centuries), we see the development of a cultural force known as Renaissance humanism.
This was a movement - in line with the Renaissance's broader project of the 'rebirth' of classical forms - that paid close attention to the study of classical antiquity. Many of those involved in the movement - such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Bracciolini - were collectors of antique manuscripts, and they were known for promoting classical models for the art and literature of the day.
However, the Latin that they studied and promoted was put promoted in opposition to what was Medieval Latin: they didn't so much like the then contemporary Latin with all its changes and developments than the 'proper' Latin spoken by the ancient Romans. For example, they looked to writers such as Cicero and Virgil as their models.
The importance of this movement cannot be overstated - as, all across Europe, Latin came to be taught in the humanist style. You find people like Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe having to learn the Latin of Virgil in London.
This language came to be known as Renaissance Latin - and, whilst it was never spoken by the people as such, this language was written by diplomats, artists, politicians, and philosophers throughout the period.
The Birth of Italian
We know at some point that the Italian language we know today took over from written and spoken Latin.
The earliest documents we have of written Italian come from the late tenth century - and they are rather prosaic. They are legal documents regarding a dispute between some monasteries and a landowner about fifty miles south of Rome.
Rather than in Latin - in which most other legal documents were still being written at this time - these texts, known as the Placiti Cassinesi, are written in a vernacular. They show a distinct difference from Latin, moving away from Latin grammar and with different spellings and syntax and new words. The dialect in which they are written developed straight out of the vulgar Latin we discussed above.
The Renaissance and Italian Vernacular
We can point to the Renaissance and Florentine writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch as a significant turning point in the death of Latin as the language of culture in Europe.
Whilst these writers promoted classical culture and Latin as models and benchmarks of literary quality - and although they wrote in Latin too - these writers were also the first to compose poetry in the vernacular, meaning in the local language.
Dante's The Divine Comedy
Thanks to his work The Divine Comedy, Dante is one of Italian’s forefathers. The Florentine writer wanted to be understood by everyone and not just by the elite - and this work was one of the first poems ever to be written in something called Italian.
Who wrote in Florentine, a sub-dialect of the Tuscan dialect, and borrowed words from Latin, French, Lombard, and Provençal. His goal was to show that everyday language was as noble as Latin - and his work De vulgari eloquentia (ironically, a defence of the value of the vernacular written in Latin) explained his decision.
His gamble paid off since a number of other poets followed in his footsteps - including Petrarch. And inspired by this vernacular poetry, writers across Europe moved away from Latin too: Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower as examples.
The First Italian Dictionary
However, 'Italian' as such was still far from existing at this point. Dante was writing in a dialect - in a peninsula in which there were nearly a thousand such dialects.
It wasn't until 1612 that the first Italian dictionary was published, by a institution in Rome called the Academia della Crusca. Their Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, one of the first dictionaries in the world, was an attempt to formalise the Florentine dialect (the language in which Dante was writing) and this became the basis for standard Italian subsequently.
As Florence was such an important city state from the time of Dante into the seventeenth century, it was this Tuscan dialect that proved most influential in the development of the Italian language. Even today, Italian is based on this dialect - much as 'standard' English is based on the dialect spoken around London from the time of Chaucer.
By 1861, when Italy was finally unified as a country, only 2.5% of the population could speak Italian. Everyone still spoke regional dialects.
As the country entered into political union, 'Italian' became the language of the state - and so the common language of the people in the peninsula.
It is thought that Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed, published in 1827, set the basis for modern Italian.
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How Come the Catholic Church Speaks Latin Now?
Bit by bit, Latin became the language of religion rather than of the people. Whilst, after the 16th century, we use the term New Latin (or Neo-Latin) to refer the Latin being used in international science, we use 'Ecclesiastical Latin' to refer to that spoken by the Catholic Church.
But now, Latin is only spoken in the Vatican as an official language. The reason for this is that the Church was, back in the Middle Ages, one of the main promoters of Latin as a language. Part of the demand of the Reformation in the sixteenth century was that church ceremony be performed in the vernacular.
Consequently, a strong attachment to Latin can be seen in the Roman Catholic Church. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Church allowed mass to be performed in languages other than Latin! However, even now, all official documents are written in Latin.
Interestingly enough, whilst they speak Latin in the Vatican, pronunciation is based on Italian - so they may not be as different as they might seem!
Did Latin Ever Really Die?
The answer to this question is yes and no - and it is very hard to identify a precise moment at which it died definitively. Scholars make the helpful distinction between extinct languages - which no-one speaks - and dead ones, which no longer has a native community that speaks it. In this sense, Latin is a dead language, but it has been dead for a very long time.
Rather, the history of Latin is one of change: the populations speaking the language changed, Latin pronunciation and grammar changed, and it was heavily manipulated and reformed by the whims of different intellectual currents throughout history.
But Latin, clearly, never became extinct - not in the same way as languages like Etruscan or Phoenician, for example. Rather, it remained as a language - at least, as a language that is studied and recognised - due to European culture's continued respect, not to say adoration, for the classical culture of ancient Rome.
Throughout history, cultural movements and political powers strove to legitimise their own cultures and authority by appealing to the memory of ancient Rome. So, the Holy Roman Empire chose its name to hark back to that ancient culture - and there is no surprise that it was Charlemagne who had such an effect on the revival of the language.
Similarly, figures during the Renaissance in Italy sought to give their artistic works a greater authority by returning to the models of ancient culture - and this in turn returned Latin to the centre of artistic production.
This concern for ancient Rome continued long after this - with Roman architecture being the inspiration for cities such as Edinburgh long into the nineteenth century. With such an attention to the culture of the ancients, Latin is very unlikely ever to go fully extinct.
You could also look at the history of Hebrew, a language that was successfully brought back from the dead when the state of Israel adopted it as its official language.
Examples of Italian Words Similar to Latin
Latin still has a huge influence on Italian vocabulary.
To prove our point, we’ve put together a list of a few Latin terms and their almost-identical Italian counterparts.
Here’s a non-exhaustive list, with the Italian listed first, followed by its Latin root and English translations:
The are tonnes of expressions in Latin that have made their way into English, too.
Why Bother Learning Latin?
People still learn Latin today, and not just those people who are working in the Catholic Church, nor those who have chosen to study classical history or the history of medieval or early modern Europe.
Rather, kids are still taught Latin at a lot of schools. Most famously, children at public schools learn the subject - but it is not uncommon in state schools too. If you are one of these people, you might benefit from a Latin tutor.
If you are not one of them, you might wonder why you would ever bother learning Latin. But we've already told you that Latin ain’t yet an extinct language - and it comes in useful a lot.
Help to Understand Your Own Language
If you love Italian culture and the lingua italiana, you can see how Latin can help you better understand your Italian lessons (as well as a number of English words). It can help you learn Italian in school or in private tutorials or learn Italian online - and it will help you make sense of why particularly rules are to be found in the language, as you will notice that all of the irregular aspects of the language come straight out of the Latin.
But it can also help you to understand French, Portuguese, Romanian, any of the Italian dialects - and even English, a language that has been influenced by Latin to a perhaps surprisingly huge extent. If you are interested in grammar, etymology (the history of the meaning of words), or syntax - pretty much any aspect of linguistics - a knowledge of Latin will be pretty essential.
Develop Your Knowledge of History - and the History of Literature
Latin tutorials won't only help you with your knowledge of language. But they could help you to understand ancient history better too.
In studying Latin, you will be looking at the most important texts written in the language. And these so happen to be hugely important historical documents that help us understand what on earth was going on in the world back then as well. You can't study the Romans in any detail - or antiquity in general - without a pretty solid understanding of the Latin language.
Finally then, knowing Latin also helps your understanding of literature. So, if you are a poetry nerd, you'll probably be thinking, where do we get all our literary forms, poetic themes and concerns, and motifs from? The answer to that is ancient literature - including Latin, but also Greek. So, if you want to develop your knowledge, Latin is the language to learn.
If you’d like to learn Italian culture in general, you should learn Latin as it was used by Virgil. Learn the Italian basics with our blog for Italian for beginners.
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