In our new series this year, Language of the Month, we are looking at twelve of the world’s nearly 6000 fascinating languages, one in each month. Join us on this trip around the globe and discover facts, trivia and insider information about some awesome languages!
italiano, lingua italiana
Language family: Romance (part of the Indo-European family)
Number of speakers: 64 million native speakers
Writing system: Latin
Official language in: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Istria County (Croatia), Slovene Istria (Slovenia)
HISTORY OF THE LANGUAGE
Did you know that the standard Italian spoken today was just one of the many Italian dialects in the country? The origins of the language can be found in Vulgar Latin which slowly evolved into a new distinct tongue. The first written form of Italian appeared in the so-called Veronese Riddle, which was penned in the 8th or 9th century by an Italian monk and was a mixture of Latin and old Italian. A new chapter in the language’s life began with Dante and Boccaccio in the 14th century: the two poets promoted their own Florentine dialect which soon became the gold standard for educated Italians. Even though it gained more and more popularity, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when the smaller Italian states formed the unified Italy we know today that the language was also standardised and unified.
My name is… Mi chiamo…
Please Per favore
Thank you Grazie
WHAT OUR LINGUISTS SAY…
According to James, our Editorial Translations Manager, Italian is simply the most beautiful language. “It holds a very special place in my heart having been lucky enough to live in Milan for a year”, he says. “Mellifluous, I think is the best word for it – a sound as sweet as honey. Even if you don’t understand a word of it, you can’t help but be enchanted when you first hear it. I know I certainly was. When I was travelling in Europe before university, as soon as I arrived in Italy, I knew I had to change my degree and it became a joint honours course with Italian.” He is amused by the “speed and elegance” of the language: “Once you start learning, you hear how fast native speakers bowl through their words whilst still making it sound lovely and you think that you’ll never catch up because you can’t even think that fast, let alone get your tongue round all the syllables! It is a most delightful feeling when you’re proved wrong.”
In one of our Italian translators, Esmeralda‘s opinion “Italian is a very adaptable language, which has been enriched by artists, scientists, scholars and its countless dialects throughout the centuries. Non-speakers usually describe it as very musical and soft to the ear.” She then adds jokingly that “her grown up children think that they all speak like Mario and Luigi from the video game!”
Another one of our Italian translators, Cinzia also mentions music in relation to Italian: “When thinking about the Italian language, the first (and, possibly, most obvious) thing that comes to mind is ‘music’ – the musicality of Italian never gets missed… During my experience as an Italian teacher, I once had a couple amongst my evening students who enrolled purely because they wanted to be able to understand Italian opera – a perfect case of a language made of music! That is why it is important to follow the rhythmical flow of words and sentences when learning Italian. And who knows, you may even become a passionate singer!”
Cinzia compares Italian’s grammatical structure to “a complicated baroque architectural work”. As she explains, “English is a straightforwardly communicative language, Italian needs at least an extra couple of sentences to get to the same point – yet how much charm one gains in the process!” Esmeralda is of a very similar opinion: “In Italian it is like telling a fairy tale… never ending and very theatrical. When my children were little and misbehaved I decided to tell them off in English, because by the time I was done in Italian, they would have left and gone to read a book or watch TV!”
Simon, who translates from Italian into English, also highlights the theatricality of the language and how a good linguist can learn not only the words but the way of speaking too: “Shakespeare says that ‘All the world’s a stage… we have our exits and our entrances and each man in his time plays many parts’. The Italians are great actors (Why are they so Italian? They must be hamming it up!), but we can all play more than Shakespeare’s seven parts (based on age) if we learn foreign languages. The best functional linguists are those who are prepared to act a part, adopt a different persona, throw themselves into it. This is particularly true of speaking Italian: you need to adopt the gestures and body positions, as well as performing the oral gymnastics. Italian is an expansive language, whether sung or in everyday use. Every syllable is pronounced, whereas we English-speakers are renowned for suppressing (‘eating’) certain syllables.”
One of Esmeralda’s favourite phrases in Italian is “M’illumino d’immenso” (“I illumine me with immensity”, translated by Allen Mandelbaum) which is from a Giuseppe Ungaretti poem, Mattina.
Simon has always liked the phrase “in gamba” (literally, in leg), said of a person who is competent or “on the ball”, as in “È una persona molto in gamba”.
Cinzia chose an untranslatable word as her favourite: “I usually love all the words that are literally and practically untranslatable into any other language, but my favourite Italian word has got to be ‘meriggiare’, an old-fashion, romantic, almost Wilde-esque, pretty much dismissed verb, yet one of the most poetic of the Italian language – and impossible to be literally translated in English; it means to laze about outdoors, in a naturally shaded area, in the hot hours of a summer afternoon… Not bad for a language that is usually 15-20% lengthier than the English language!”
James also has a favourite word which, besides sounding lovely, also has a delightful meaning: ‘piacere’. “It literally means ‘pleasure’ and is quite versatile” he says. “As well as the simple noun, it can be conjugated as a verb to say you like something (it gives me pleasure) and, my favourite form, it is used when meeting someone for the first time – ‘Piacere!’ – ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you!’.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and it will be a ‘piacere’ to have you back again. If you have any questions about Italian or translations in general, or have a translation request, don’t hesitate to get in touch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01223 356 733.