The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Italian language

Italian is a Romance language spoken by about 70 million people, most of whom live in Italy. Standard Italian is based on Tuscan dialects and is somewhat intermediate between the languages of Southern Italy and the Gallo-Romance languages of the North. The long-established Tuscan standard has, over the last few decades, been slightly eroded by the variety of Italian spoken in Milan, the economic center of Italy. Italian has double (or long) consonants, like Latin (but unlike most modern Romance languages, e.g., French and Spanish). As in most Romance languages (with the notable exception of French), stress is distinctive.



The history of the Italian language is quite complex but the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts which can definitely be called Italian (as opposed to its predecessor Vulgar Latin) are legal formulae from the region of Benevento dating from 960-963 C.E. Italian was first formalized in the 14th century through the works of Dante Alighieri, who mixed southern Italian dialects, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan in his epic poems known collectively as the Commedia, to which Boccaccio later affixed the title Divina. Dante's much-loved works were read throughout Italy and his written dialect became the canonical standard that others could all understand. Dante is still credited with standardizing the Italian language.

Italian has always had a distinctive dialect for each city, since the cities were up until recently city-states. Italians generally believe that the best spoken Italian is lingua toscana in bocca romana - 'the Tuscan tongue, in a Roman mouth' (Tuscan dialects spoken with Roman inflection). The Romans are known for speaking clearly and distinctly, while the Tuscan dialect (supposedly derived from Etruscan and Oscan), is the closest existing dialect to Dante's now-standard Italian.

In contrast to the dialects of northern Italy, the older southern Italian dialects were largely untouched by the Franco-Occitan influences introduced to Italy, mainly by bards from France, during the middle ages. (See La Spezia-Rimini Line.) The economic might and relative advanced development of Tuscany at the time (late middle ages), gave its dialect weight, though Venetian remained widespread in medieval Italian commercial life. Also, the increasing cultural relevance of Florence during the periods of 'Umanesimo ' and Rinascimento (Renaissance) made its vulgare (dialect) a standard in the arts.


Italian is a member of the Italo-Dalmatian group of languages, which is part of the Italo-Western grouping of the Romance languages, which are a subgroup of the Italic branch of Indo-European.

Geographic distribution

Italian is the official language of Italy and San Marino, and is an official language in Ticino and Grigioni cantons of Switzerland. It is also the second official language in Vatican City and in some areas of Istria in Slovenia and Croatia with an Italian minority. It is widely used by immigrant groups in Luxembourg, the United States, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Australia, and is also spoken in neighbouring Malta and Albania. It is spoken, to a much lesser extent, in parts of Africa formerly under Italian rule such as Somalia, Libya and Eritrea.

Official status

Italian is an official language of Italy, San Marino, Switzerland and Vatican City. It is also an official language in the Istria County (Croatia) and municipalities of Koper, Piran and Izola (Slovenia).


See Italian dialects

The dialects of Italian identified by the Ethnologue are Tuscan, Piemontese, Abruzzese, Pugliese (Apulian), Umbrian, Laziale, Central Marchigiano, Cicolano-Reatino-Aquilano, and Molisan. Other dialects are Milanese, Brescian, Bergamasc, Modenese, Bolognese, Sicilian and so on, essentially one per city.

Many of the so-called dialects of Italian spoken around the country are different enough from standard Italian to be considered separate languages by most linguists and some speakers themselves. Thus a distinction can be made between "dialects of (standard) Italian" and "dialects (or languages) of Italy".

A link to an Italian site with translation features between Italian dialects and Italian: [1]

Cultural acceptance of dialects

Dialects are generally not used for general communication, e.g. on TV, but are limited to groups of people who can actually speak them and to informal contexts. Speaking dialect is often shunned upon in Italy as it is a sign of lacking education. The younger generation speaks almost exclusively standard Italian, usually with some local accent, but never in such a way that is a barrier to communication.

Dialects have their share of enthusiasts, but this is a small niche of the population. The promotion of dialects by some political forces as the Lega Nord has damaged rather than helped the status of northern dialects.

Dialects are often used e.g. in movies to provide comic relief or to produce stereotypes; northern dialects can be connected to greedy, narrow-minded merchants; Roman accent is associated with arrogant, simple-minded bullies; Neapolitan reminds of dishonest, cunning slackers, and Sicilian is for obvious reasons associated with mafia.



Italian has seven vowel phonemes: , /e/, /ɛ/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /u/. The 'couples' (/e/ - /ɛ/) and (/o/ - /ɔ/) get mixed up in spoken Italian, even though each variety of Italian employs both phonemes consistently: compare, for example: /perkɛ/ (because) and /senti/ (listen, some northern speakers) with /perke/ and /sɛnti/ (most cental and southern speakers). As a result, the usage is strongly indicative of a person's origin. The correct (Tuscan) usage of these vowels is listed in vocabularies, and employed outside Tuscany mainly by the more educated people, especially actors and (television) journalists. These are truly different phonemes, however: compare /ˈpeska/ (fishing) and /ˈpɛska/ (peach). Similarly /ˈbotːe/ (barrel) and /ˈbɔtːe/ (beatings), both spelled as "botte", discriminate /o/ and /ɔ/.

In general, vowel combinations usually pronounce each vowel separately. Diphthongs exist, (e.g. "uo", "iu", "ie"), but are limited to the pattern:

(unstressed "u" or "i") + (stressed vowel) 

The unstressed "u" in a diphthong approximates the English semivowel "w", the unstressed "i" approximates the semivowel "y". E.g.: buono, ieri. As a semivowel, "j" is an alternate spelling of i, currently obsolete but common until early 20th century and preserved in specific words like "Jesi" (a town).

Triphthongs are limited to a diphthong plus an unstressed "i". (e.g. miei, tuoi.) Other sequences of three vowels exist (e.g. noia, febbraio), but they are not triphthongs; they consist of a vowel followed by a diphthong.


Two symbols in a table cell denote the voiceless and voiced consonant, respectively.

bilabial labiodental dental alveolar postalveolar palatal velar
plosive p, b t, d k, g
nasal m n ɲ
trill r
flap ɾ
fricative f, v s, z ʃ
affricate ʦ, ʣ ʧ, ʤ
lateral l ʎ

The sound [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ when followed by a velar consonant, i.e., /k/ or /g/.

Italian plosives are not aspirated (unlike in English). Italian speakers hear the difference as a foreign accent.

Italian has geminate, or double, consonants, which are distinguished by length. Length is distinctive for all consonants except for /z/, /ʃ/, /ʦ/, /ʣ/, /ʎ/ /ɲ/. Geminate plosives and affricates are realized as lengthened closures. Geminate fricatives, nasals, and /l/ are realized as lengthened continuants. Geminate /ɾ/ is realized as the trill [rː].


Italian has few diphthongs, and so most unfamiliar diphthongs heard in foreign words (in particular, those with a first vowel that is not "i" or "u", or a first vowel that is stressed), will be assimilated as the corresponding dieresis (i.e., the vowel sounds will be pronounced separately: "strive" and "hive" will rhyme with "na´ve").


see Italian grammar.

Writing system

Italian is written using the Latin alphabet. The letters J, K, W, X and Y are not part of the standard Italian alphabet, but are seen in imported words (such as jeans, whisky, taxi). J may also appear in many words from different dialects. Each of these foreign letters had an Italian equivalent spelling: gi, ch, u, cs or s, and i, but these are now obsolete.

  • Italian uses the acute accent over the letter E (as in perchÚ, why) to indicate a closed vowel, and the grave accent (as in , tea) to indicate an open vowel. The grave accent is also used on letters A, O and U to mark an unusual stress position (for instance giovent¨, youth). Typically, the penultimate syllable is stressed.
  • The letter H is always silent when it begins a word, and is only used to distinguish ho, hai, ha, hanno (present indicative of avere, to have) from o (or), ai (to the), a (to), anno (year).
  • The letter Z is pronounced /ʦ/, or sometimes /ʣ/, depending on context, but the sounds are considered allophones.
  • The letters C and G are a soft /ʧ/ as in "chair" and /ʤ/ as in "gem", respectively, before the front vowels I and E. They are pronounced hard /k/, /g/ (as in "call" and "gall") otherwise1. But, the normally silent H is added between CI, CE, GI or GE if the consonant is to be pronounced hard. For example:
Before back vowel: hard Before front vowel: soft With "H": hard
"C" cara (ˈkaːɾa) ciao (/ˈʧaːɔ/) chiaro (/ˈkjaːɾɔ/)
"G" gallo (/ˈgalːɔ/) genere (/ˈʤɛːnɛɾɛ/) ghetto (/ˈgɛtːɔ/)
1(Front/back vowel rules for C and G are similar in French, Romanian, and to some extent English. Swedish and Norwegian have similar rules for K.)
  • There are two special digraphs in Italian: GN and GL. GN is always pronounced /nj/ (IPA /ɲ/), and GL is pronounced /lj/ (IPA /ʎ/) but only before i, and never when at the beginning of the word. (Compare with Spanish "˝" and "ll", Portuguese "nh" and "lh".)
  • In general all letters are clearly pronounced, and always in the same way. Spelling is clearly phonetic and difficult to mistake given a clear pronunciation. Exceptions are generally only found in foreign borrowings. There is less dyslexia than in languages like English.


The classic Italian dictionary is Lo Zingarelli.
Many Italian/English dictionaries are available.


  • cheers (generic toast): salute /saˈluːte/
  • English: inglese /iŋˈglɛːze/
  • good-bye: arrivederci /arːiveˈdɛrtʃi/
  • hello: ciao /ˈtʃɑo/ (informal); buon giorno /ˈbwon ˈdʒɔrno/ (good morning), buona sera /ˈbwoːna ˈsːeːra/ (good evening)
  • how much? quanto /ˈkwɑnto/ (masculine); quanta /ˈkwɑnta/ (feminine)

See Also

External links

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