A primer: Where did the Italian language come from, anyway?

The history of the Italian language is naturally incredibly complex.

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However, the modern standard of the language was largely shaped by relatively recent events. The earliest surviving texts, dating between 960 and 963, and which can definitely be called Italian, as opposed to its predecessor Vulgar Latin, are legal formulae from the region of Benevento, about 50 km northeast of Naples.

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Even more importantly, during the 14th century the Tuscan dialect began to predominate.  This was due to at least 2 major factors: 1: the central position of Tuscany in Italy; and 2: the aggressive commerce of Florence, Tuscany’s most important city.

In fact, Florentine culture produced the three literary artists who best summarized Italian thought and feeling of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance: Petrarca, Boccaccio and, especially, Dante Alighieri. It was Dante who mixed southern Italian languages, especially Sicilian, with his native Tuscan, which was supposedly derived from Etruscan and Oscan, in his epic poem known as the Commedia, to which Giovanni Boccaccio later affixed the adjective Divina.

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During the 15th and the 16th centuries, grammarians attempted to codify the pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary of 14th-century Tuscan. Eventually this classicism, which might have made Italian just another dead language, was widened to include the organic changes inevitable in a living tongue.

In the dictionaries and publications of the Accademia della Crusca, founded in 1583,  compromises between classical purism and living Tuscan usage were successfully integrated.

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In 1525 the Venetian, Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), set out his proposals (Prose della volgar lingua) for a standardized language and style: Petrarca and Boccaccio were his models and thus became the modern classics.

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In fact, the 1st edition of an official Italian vocabulary, published in 1612 by the Accademia della Crusca, was based on the Florentine works: Divina Commedia by Dante, Decameron by Bocaccio and Canzionere by Petrarca. Today, Toscano is still considered the “cleanest” of all Italian dialects, as it is the most similar to the original or classical Latin.

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However, it was not until the 19th century that the language spoken by educated Tuscans  became the language of a new nation. The unification of Italy in 1861 had a profound impact not only on the political scene but also socially, economically, and culturally. With mandatory schooling, the literacy rate increased, and many speakers abandoned their native dialect in favor of the national language.

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Long live Italian!

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