The evolution of Italian is a parable of how languages develop
CICERO, THE Roman statesman whose prose is thought to represent the peak of style in Latin, was also a bit of a snob about it. Few others, he complained in a tome written in 46BC, used the language properly any more. His gripes would be worse today. At a recent mass at the Vatican attended by your columnist, some of the Latin used by Pope Francis was impeccable. But much of it was downright dismal; it would have been incomprehensible to Cicero. Strangely, the pope’s remarks were translated into several other species of terrible Latin.
That is because the pope’s dismal Latin is also known as “Italian”. Francis’s native language, Spanish, is another kind of deformed Latin. The French in which his interpreter greeted some of the faithful is yet another variety.
Family trees of languages typically show Spanish, French and Italian descending from Latin in the same way that you are descended from your mother. But this is misleading. There was no birth of Italian, nor any definitive death of Latin. Instead, there were centuries of infinitesimal changes. Those who noticed them would, like Cicero, have considered them mistakes. But most people didn’t care, which is how such tweaks took hold, and spread. As they accumulated, Latin did not create Italian and its sister languages. It became them.
Throughout the Dark Ages, the few literate Europeans continued to write in classical Latin. Or they tried to: as their speech evolved, their writing sometimes mutated to match it. A list of commonly misspelled words, written in the third or fourth century, offers a glimpse of what was happening. For example, the list insists on calida (hot) not calda: the unstressed “i” was evidently disappearing. (Now it is calda in Italian.) Other sounds were changing, too. Use frigida not fricda, the list advises. The word for “cold” was on its way to today’s fredda.
Nor was pronunciation the only moving part. Modern students of Latin often wrestle despondently with the language’s case system, in which the role a noun plays in a sentence is signalled by alternative endings. These collapsed into fewer forms in the Dark Ages; in modern Italian they leave no trace. Meanwhile, Latin’s three genders (masculine, neuter and feminine) merged into two. Words were substituted. People stopped using Latin’s loqui, “to speak”, and started using parabolare, which originally had a narrower meaning. It became Italian’s parlare.
A millennium or so after Cicero’s moans, in other words, Europeans spoke a range of tongues that were nevertheless related to each other and to Latin. What happened next in Italy had as much to do with politics as with the dynamics of languages. The contrast with its northern neighbour is instructive. France was unified by the conquest of territory spreading out from Paris; the conquerors brought Parisian speech with them, and that became “French”. A mighty state then did its best to teach that language everywhere, and to eradicate local variants.
Italy was unified far later, in the 19th century. “Italian” was thus created by the pen, not the sword. The 13th- and 14th-century works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio were the peninsula’s most revered literature. So when, in the 16th century, Pietro Bembo sat down to write a grammar for the prestige language of their texts, he used their (by now rather old) Tuscan dialect as his model. In this way “Italian” was born—though Bembo titled his book simply “Writings on the Vulgar Tongue”. It soon spread to elites in other regions.
Even then, ordinary folk continued speaking their own dialects, which, across great enough distances—say from Milan to Naples—were and remain mutually incomprehensible. These are not bad copies of Italian but its siblings, descendants of Latin in their own right. Over half of Italians proudly speak one of them still (though nearly all speak Italian, too). A Sicilian who doesn’t speak Sicilian is hardly worthy of the name; Neapolitan plays a crucial role in the celebrated novels of Elena Ferrante.
These days, amid migration and globalisation, Italian continues to develop. Naturally some worry that it is happening too fast; that young people are derelict in their grammar, or use too many foreign words. In reality, the same forces that made Latin from its predecessor (called Proto Indo-European), and turned Latin into Italian—the drift of time and exposure to different influences—are still operating. The only unchanging language is an unspoken one. Classical Latin may be dead—but as Italian, it lives on. Long live dismal Latin!