Meet the Italian Language: History, Culture, Linguistics and FAQ for Language Learners
Are you curious about the history and characteristics of Italian?
Looking for a taste of Italian culture?
Or better yet, are you considering learning this beautiful language?
You’ve come to the right place, I’m here to give you a crash course!
- What Is Italian?
- Italian Varieties and Dialects
- Italian Culture
- Why Learn Italian?
- FAQ About Learning Italian
What Is Italian?
Italian is a Romance language that has descended from Latin.
To get technical, it is a part of the Italic branch of the Indo-European language family, which also includes languages like Spanish, French, Romanian and Portuguese.
Not all Italic languages are alike, however, so let’s take a closer look at what makes Italian stand out among the other Romance languages.
The Italian alphabet has 21 letters. All of the letters correspond to English ones, but Italian doesn’t (officially) use j, k, w, x or y.
It also has seven different vowel sounds, with e and o having more than one characteristic sound.
Italian uses nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and articles just like English and most other languages, but one difference is that Italian uses a gender system that classifies some words as femminile (feminine) and others as maschile (masculine).
Almost all Italian words end in a vowel, making it relatively easy to tell when a noun is masculine (usually it ends in –o) or feminine (usually it ends in –a).
For most language-learners, though, the linguistic element of Italian that stands out the most is the verb structure.
There are three main types of verbs in Italian, each with a different ending: –are, –ere and –ire.
Each verb type has a different conjugation format that typically includes removing those final three letters and replacing them with a different ending.
These endings give the reader/listener a lot of important information, including who is doing the action and whether it is taking place in the past, present or future.
Countries Where the Official Language Is Italian
It’s obvious that Italian is the official language of Italy, but did you know that other countries designate it as their official language too?
Here are all the countries where Italian is spoken as the main language:
- Vatican City
- San Marino
- Switzerland (in Ticino and the Grisons)
Italian is also considered to have minority status in Croatia and Slovenia, which makes sense, since those two countries share a peninsula with Italy.
Other Places Italian Is Spoken
Italian is the second most-spoken language in the European Union, with over 15 percent of Europeans speaking it as a first language and three percent more (13.4 million people) speaking it as a second language.
Italian is spoken and understood by large groups of people in Malta, Monaco, Albania and Greece, where it once had official status.
Many people in Corsica also understand it well enough to carry out a conversation (actually, some linguists consider the Corsican language to be a dialect of Italian).
Italian is also used in some areas of Bosnia, Romania, Albania and the UK.
Outside of Europe, there are many expatriates and immigrants who brought the Italian language to North America, South America and Australia.
Over 85 million people speak Italian worldwide, making this a truly international language.
Fun Facts About the Italian Language
- Dante Alighieri (you may know him as just “Dante”) is considered to be the “Father of the Italian Language,” thanks to his epic poem, “La Divina Commedia” (“The Divine Comedy”).
- There are multiple dialects in Italian that are all so different from each other that many of them are classified as separate languages.
- Italian is considered to be the universal language of music, which is especially noticeable in classical music. This is thanks to Italian music notation being the preferred style in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
- The longest word in the Italian language is psiconeuroendocrinoimmunologia, which is the combined medical study of the nervous system, endocrine system, and the immune system.
- Over 700,000 people in the United States speak Italian, making Italian the fifth most-spoken language in America.
- Italian has had a huge influence on English and other languages. You probably use Italian words on a daily basis and don’t even realize it! Don’t believe me? Think broccoli, zucchini, lottery, quarantine and most importantly… pasta!
- Italian is the closest living language to Latin, which is now considered to be a dead language since no one alive today speaks it as their native language or uses it on a daily basis.
Italian Varieties and Dialects
Linguists find it very difficult to classify the dialects of Italy because they are so diverse and rich that many of them fit the criteria for being their own language.
“Italian” as we know it is spoken and understood by most Italians, but there are an incredible 31 different languages/dialects spoken in the country in total.
We won’t go into every single one of those in this post, but here are the six main languages spoken in Italy (besides Italian, of course):
Spoken in Sicily and Calabria, Sicilian has a whole different grammar system from standard Italian because it was inspired by other languages.
Some studies suggest that it could have even been the first Romance language in existence.
The Neapolitan dialect spoken in Naples and other places in southern Italy also contains a lot of Spanish-based words.
This dialect is so important and widespread that in 2008, the region of Campania established a law to make it a protected language.
Algherese is a variant of Catalan, a language introduced by Spanish colonists in the 1300s. It is spoken in the city of Alghero in Sardinia.
Sardinian (also known as Sardu or Sardo) is spoken by 1.5 million people on the island of Sardinia. It is the language most similar to Latin on this list.
Friulian is spoken in the Friulia region in northeast Italy and has been influenced by Venetian, German and Slovene, so it has a very distinct sound.
Venetian has four million speakers in the northeast of Italy, most of whom are located in the Veneto region.
Although many people classify it as a dialect, it is actually its own language due to the fact that there are multiple offshoots spoken in different areas.
Italian isn’t just a language — it’s a whole culture.
Italians have their own way of expressing themselves that is completely unique and really fun to get involved with.
Here’s a look at just a few aspects of Italian culture that shape the people and language:
Gestures and Body Language
There is a very pervasive stereotype that Italians use a lot of body language and hand gestures when they talk.
And after a few years of living in Italy and interacting with Italians on a daily basis… I can tell you that it isn’t just a stereotype.
While this sort of thing is certainly exaggerated for television or people making jokes, Italians really do a lot of talking with their hands.
Italians are also very physical —when you meet a friend or loved one, you greet them with air kisses on each cheek to say hello. It also isn’t uncommon for guys to clap each other on the shoulder or hug more often than men in the U.S. might do.
Italians in general are a very loving, affectionate group set on spreading that love and affection to everyone they meet.
With such a food-based culture, it is no surprise that Italian humor is also based on food.
Sicilians, for example, have been known to describe short, round people as “arancini con i piedi” or “arancini (deep-fried balls of rice with meat sauce and cheese inside) with feet.”
I myself have been called “mozzarella,” more than once, thanks to my lack of a summer tan.
This good-natured teasing is not done with any sort of malice — it is just a way to joke around with your friends, and is the cornerstone of much of Italian humor.
Food is absolutely at the heart of Italian culture.
Italians feel like the best way to express how much they care for someone is to cook them a nice, big meal — and you won’t find me complaining!
I’m not kidding when I say that in Italy, every meal is an event: if you’re eating as a family, lunch and dinner could take several hours each, depending on whether there are guests and how much everybody has to say.
Italian meals usually have at least three courses to allow for plenty of chat time.
Italy has left its mark on popular culture in a way that not many other cultures have.
Films and shows about Italians like “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos” have led to many pop culture references
Then there’s the music: from Dean Martin to Frank Sinatra and even Lady Gaga, the Italian influence is extremely present in the music world.
The biggest Italian influence is probably their food. Nearly every country has Italian food restaurants and recipes that people just can’t get enough of.
I guarantee you can go almost anywhere in the world and find an Italian restaurant to get your pizza or pasta fix!
Why Learn Italian?
Many people decide to pursue Italian simply for the fact that it inspires them. But there are other reasons to learn it as well.
Whether you want to communicate with locals on vacation, impress your Italian friends or study it in school to fill a language requirement, there is no bad reason for wanting to learn Italian.
Learning Italian does not only teach you the language, but expands your perspective. With Italian, you’ll understand so much more about the world from film to literature and music and even just the words on the menu at your favorite Italian restaurant.
You’ll also learn a whole new culture, which tends to open your eyes even more.
Not to mention that learning any language is a challenge and a great way to work on your personal development.
Nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing that you reached your language goals and can be considered an Italian speaker!
FAQ About Learning Italian
Which variety of Italian should I learn?
You should learn standard Italian to start since this is the version of Italian that all speakers understand.
From there, you can get a bit more specific and focus on the dialects you wish to know.
How hard is it to learn Italian?
Italian is a fairly easy language to learn for most people.
Once you grasp the gender system and verb conjugations, the quicker you will get a hang of the rest of the language.
If you already speak a Romance language, these concepts will come even easier to you.
How long does it take to learn Italian?
There is no easy answer to this question. It depends largely on what your own native language is and, more importantly, how much time and effort you dedicate to learning Italian.
According to the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages, however, it is estimated to take around 600 hours in a classroom to reach a high intermediate level (B2) of Italian.
If you practice 30 minutes a day, you should be able to reach an elementary level in three to six months. If you practice even more and really stick with it, your Italian could be on a professional level in three years.
How long it takes really depends on you and your study style.
How many Italian words do I need to know?
It is estimated that there are over 427,000 words in the Italian language, but that doesn’t mean you need to know them all.
Italians only really use around 6,500 words on a regular basis.
Once you know all those words, you can talk about almost anything you could want.
Which jobs value Italian?
Once you’ve mastered Italian, you can get a job as an interpreter, translator, teacher, or even a writer/editor for websites like FluentU.
There are many international businesses in different sectors that value Italian language skills because you can help them to interact with clients in Italy and across the globe.
It is also a useful language to know if you are in the museum or archeological fields, because it can help you to decipher ancient texts and other artifacts you may find.
What’s the best way to start learning Italian?
The absolute best way to learn Italian is with authentic Italian content.
Immersion is key. Read books in Italian, watch television shows and movies in Italian, read Italian news in Italian, watch Italian YouTube videos.
FluentU is a great resource for this as they offer hundreds of native Italian videos with learning tools such as subtitles, flashcards and quizzes to help you grasp the concepts.
To really understand the language quickly, conversational practice is the way to go. Find as many opportunities as possible to listen to and speak with native Italian speakers so that you can pick up on how the language is actually applied.
Technical skills like grammar and vocabulary are important too, you will even pick up on this naturally with native content.
However you choose to learn it, though, Italian is an incredible, fun language that can truly lead to una bella vita (a beautiful life)!