The History of the Italian Language

Florence Panoramic View

rusm/Getty Images 

You’re always hearing that Italian is a romance language, and that’s because linguistically speaking, it’s a member of the Romance group of the Italic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. It is spoken principally in the Italian peninsula, southern Switzerland, San Marino, Sicily, Corsica, northern Sardinia, and on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, as well as in North and South America.

Like the other Romance languages, Italian is a direct offspring of the Latin spoken by the Romans and imposed by them on the peoples under their dominion. However, Italian is unique in that of all the major Romance languages, it retains the closest resemblance to Latin. Nowadays, it’s considered one language with many different dialects.


During the long period of Italian’s evolution, many dialects sprang up, and the multiplicity of these dialects and their claims upon their native speakers as pure Italian speech presented a peculiar difficulty in choosing a version that would reflect the cultural unity of the entire peninsula. Even the earliest popular Italian documents, produced in the 10th century, are dialectal in language, and during the following three centuries Italian writers wrote in their native dialects, producing a number of competing regional schools of literature.

During the 14th century, the Tuscan dialect began to dominate. This may have happened because of Tuscany’s central position in Italy and because of the aggressive commerce of its most important city, Florence. Moreover, of all the Italian dialects, Tuscan has the greatest similarity in morphology and phonology from classical Latin, which makes it harmonize best with the Italian traditions of Latin culture. Finally, Florentine culture produced the three literary artists who best summarized Italian thought and feeling of the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance: Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio.

The First 13th Century Texts

In the first half of the 13th century, Florence was preoccupied with the development of trade. Then interest began to broaden, especially under the lively influence of Latini.

  • Brunetto Latini (1220-94): Latini was exiled to Paris from 1260 to 1266 and became a link between France and Tuscany. He wrote the Trèsor (in French) and the Tesoretto (in Italian) and contributed to the development of allegorical and didactic poetry, along with a tradition of rhetoric upon which "dolce stil nuovo" and Divine Comedy were based.
  • The "dolce stil nuovo" (1270-1310): Although in theory they continued the Provençal tradition and counted themselves members of the Sicilian School of Federico II's reign, the Florentine writers went their own way. They used all their knowledge of science and philosophy in a delicate and detailed analysis of love. Among them were Guido Cavalcanti and the young Dante.
  • The Chroniclers: These were men of the merchant class whose involvement in city affairs inspired them to write tales in the vulgar tongue. Some, such as Dino Compagni (d. 1324), wrote about local conflicts and rivalries; others, like Giovanni Villani (d. 1348), took on much wider European events as their subject.

The Three Jewels in the Crown

  • Dante Alighieri (1265-1321): Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the great works of world literature, and it was also proof that in literature the vulgar tongue could rival Latin. He had already defended his argument in two unfinished treatises, De vulgari eloquentia and Convivio, but to prove his point it needed the Divine Comedy, "this masterpiece in which Italians rediscovered their language in sublime form" (Bruno Migliorini).
  • Petrarch (1304-74): Francesco Petrarca was born in Arezzo since his father was in exile from Florence. He was a passionate admirer of ancient Roman civilization and one of the great early Renaissance humanists, creating a Republic of Letters. His philological work was highly respected, as were his translations from Latin into the Vulgate, and also his Latin works. But it’s Petrarch's love poetry, written in the vulgar tongue, that keeps his name alive today. His Canzoniere had enormous influence on the poets of the 15th and 16th centuries.
  • Boccaccio (1313-75): This was a man from the rising commercial classes, whose principal work, ​​Decameron, has been described as a "merchant's epic." It consists of one hundred stories told by characters who are also part of a story that provides the setting for the whole, much like The Arabian Nights. The work was to become a model for fiction and prose writing. Boccaccio was the first to write a commentary on Dante, and he was also a friend and disciple of Petrarch. Around him gathered enthusiasts of the new humanism.

La Questione Della Lingua

The "question of the language," an attempt to establish linguistic norms and codify the language, engrossed writers of all persuasions. Grammarians during the 15th and the 16th centuries attempted to confer upon the pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary of 14th-century Tuscan the status of a central and classical Italian speech. Eventually, this classicism, which might have made Italian another dead language, was widened to include the organic changes inevitable in a living tongue.

In the dictionaries and publications of the, founded in 1583, which was accepted by Italians as authoritative in Italian linguistic matters, compromises between classical purism and living Tuscan usage were successfully effected. The most important literary event of the 16th century did not take place in Florence. In 1525 the Venetian Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) set out his proposals (Prose della volgar lingua - 1525) for a standardized language and style: Petrarca and Boccaccio were his models and thus became the modern classics. Therefore, the language of Italian literature is modeled on Florence in the 15th century.

Modern Italian

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the language spoken by educated Tuscans spread far enough to become the language of the new nation. The unification of Italy in 1861 had a profound impact not only on the political scene but also resulted in a significant social, economic, and cultural transformation. With mandatory schooling, the literacy rate increased, and many speakers abandoned their native dialect in favor of the national language.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hale, Cher. "The History of the Italian Language." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hale, Cher. (2023, April 5). The History of the Italian Language. Retrieved from Hale, Cher. "The History of the Italian Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).