Introduction to the Italian Language
Italian is traditionally seen as the language of romance, of art, of cooking, and of music—and the closest direct descendent of its Latin ancestor, if you don’t count Sardinian. Many other languages would vie for these titles as well, but Italian has a foothold in all of them.
Because Rome is the heart of Italy, it makes perfect sense that Italian would be the nearest inheritor of the glory that was the Roman empire. Like all Romance languages, Italian had largely become a separate tongue by the beginning of the ninth century AD. Because of its common roots, Italian shares many characteristics with French, Portuguese, Romanian, Rumansch, Catalan, and the other Romance dialects. Unlike Spanish, however, which was spread to the New World by Spanish crusaders, Italian remained relatively isolated. Isolated, but not obscure—Italy was the central point of the Renaissance, and people like Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarotta, and Leonardo DaVinci made Italian the language to know in the worlds of art, literature, and science.
Italian is currently spoken by around 65 million people as a native language, and over 85 million people worldwide speak it as either a first or alternate language. In addition to Italy, many other countries host large percentages of Italian speakers, including Switzerland, San Marino, the Vatican City, and smaller groups in Malta, Monaco, Eritrea, Somalia, and a few others. Because Italy was long a collection of separate kingdoms rather than a single country, Italian has one of the largest collections of dialects of any major language, and many of them are mutually unintelligible. Neapolitan, Sicilian, Sanpetrese, Genovese—each has its own vocabulary and idioms. Hearing an Italian speaker lapse into his or her local dialect can be an interesting experience, but since standard Italian is taught in the schools, all Italians can communicate with one another.
Italian is one of the easiest languages to learn for an English speaker to learn, for several reasons.
- Italian pronunciation is relatively simple to grasp. The most difficult sounds for English speakers are the trilled “r” and the fact that double consonants are given an elongated pronunciation. There are very few exceptions to Italian pronunciation rules—they have no nightmares like the English through, though, cough, tough, etc.
- English has already borrowed many words from Italian that are familiar to us: spaghetti, pasta, espresso, piano, pizza, cappuccino, fortissimo, and many others.
- Italian has many cognates, that is, words that are related to similar words in English. Because English adopted such a huge percentage of its vocabulary from French after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and French and Italian are sister languages, many words in Italian are easily recognized (and memorized!) by English speakers.
Similar English and Italian Words
|English Words||In Italian|
There are thousands of such cognates, and once a learner has recognized the patterns, many words can be created on the fly. That said, some cognates are “false”, and two words that look similar may have entirely different meanings—more on that later.
What are some of the challenges for an English speaker learning Italian?
- As mentioned above, cognates are a great help in learning a language, but there are pitfalls. Happily, the “false friends” are much less common, but the learner should be aware of them. The Italian camera is a room, not a photographic device; crudo is raw, or uncooked, and not crude; a magazzino is a store, not a magazine.
- The Italian trilled “r” is difficult for some English learners. Fortunately, it’s not as hard as the French gutteral “r”, or some of the frightening sounds made by speakers of Arabic—and it will just take practice. Doubled consonants are common in Italian, and they are pronounced that way—whereas in English, “stopper” is pronounced with a short “p”, the Italian stoppare (which means, by the way, to trap a ball in soccer) is pronounced with a long “p”, not pronounced twice (p-p), but lengthened. Hearing the difference from a native speaker will make the difference perfectly clear.
- Italian verbs can be complicated. Like all Romance languages, there is a difference between a familiar “you” and a formal “you”. We have a remnant of this in the English “thou”, but it appears only in Shakespeare and the King James Bible, as far as most people are aware.
- All Italian nouns have gender—masculine and feminine. There are some rules and some patterns, but for the most part every noun has to be learned with its gender by repetition.
People wonder how long it will take them to learn Italian. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, because everyone is different. Some folks take to languages like a duck to water, while others have to bang their heads against a brick wall to get things to sink in. That said, you should plan on six months to a year of intensive study for basic conversations, and two years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. Once you get started, you may never want to stop. As an added bonus, once you have learned Italian, you will find that learning Spanish, French, or Portuguese will be much, much easier.
Examples of Words in Italian
teacher: professore, maestro
Useful Italian Sentences
Hello. Buongiorno, salve.
What is your name? (Lei) come si chiama?
My name is … Mi chiamo…
Good morning. Buongiorno.
Where is the toilet? Dov’è il gabinetto?
I don’t understand. Non capisco.
Learning Italian will open doors to a rich fount of literature, art, and music—and it will endear you to the hearts of many Italians.