How to learn languages – Italian

Italian, spoken by about 70 million people as a mother tongue and over 100 million in all, is a major European language but, purely in terms of numbers, is not by any means of real global significance.

However, it is probably the best language to learn first of all those derived from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all. This is because its vocabulary is closest to Vulgar Latin, its grammar reflects both French and Spanish (so is something of an intermediary between them), and in general it displays some typically Latinate complexity without being freakishly difficult to learn.

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What do we need to know?

Phonology

It is not for nothing that Italian is regarded as a lyrical and romantic language. With the exception of some common short words, native Italian words must end in vowels. This is what makes it, in every sense, a musical language. Indeed Italian generally lacks characteristically hard sounds.

Double consonants are so pronounced, as they were in Latin (but no longer are in any other major language derived from it).

English speakers are often confused by the <ch> (and to a lesser extent <gh>) spelling, which marks a hard consonant /k/ (or /g/) before a high vowel (<e> or <i>).

Standard

“Now we have created Italy, we must create Italians” goes the famous quote from the 1848 Risorgimento. Even now, Italians generally speak of the Italian “languages” (plural), reflecting a wide range of traditional regional dialects.

The standard language, which still allows some significant variation, is based on the Tuscan of Dante, thus with a slightly northern and slightly conservative bias. The standard written form is therefore based on the speech of Florence around 1350, but (unlike English and French) the spoken version is based directly on it. Therefore, despite this conservatism (meaning Italian remains the closest national language to Latin), pronunciation does reflect spelling (in that order).

Italian rules around written accents allow for some variation, but generally only a grave to mark a closed vowel (lattè ‘milk’) or strengthened vowel in a diphthong (più ‘more’) is used.

Vocabulary

Italian vocabulary is overwhelmingly of Latin origin, with relatively few other influences. There was a re-influencing from French around and after the Renaissance (as French became the language of High Culture and philosophy across Europe), and there is significant recent influence from English.

Key numbers:

  • 1 uno; 2 due; 3 tre; 4 quattro; 5 cinque; 6 sei; 7 sette; 8 otto; 9 nove; 10 dieci;
  • 11 undici; 12 dodici; 16 sedici; 17 diciassette; 20 venti; 21 ventuno;
  • 100 cento; 1000 mille; 456789 quattrocentocinquantaseimila settecentottantanove.

Italian personal pronouns have shifted markedly in recent centuries. Notably, it has a peculiar and widely used pronoun ci, used both as a dummy subject (e.g. ci sono ‘there are’) and since late Medieval times as a first person plural object (replacing nos as it switched towards ni).

Key personal pronouns:

  • singular io, me, mi; tu, te, ti, lui/lei, gli/le, lo/la; 
  • plural noi, ci; voi, vi; loro, li/le.

Generally feminine third person pronouns (Lei, La; Loro, Le/Li) tend also to be used as polite second.

Grammar

Italian nouns are one of two genders, marked singular or plural. Masculine nouns often end singular -o plural -i; feminine singular -a plural -e, with another set of either gender ending singular -e plural -i.

Verb endings in present tense (-a- stem; 1st, 2nd and 3rd person):

  • canto, canti, canta; cantiamo, cantate, cantano.

Note also “infinitive” cantare; “past participle” cantato; “gerund” candando.

Verbs are marked for tense (and aspect) and agree with their subject noun; the subjunctive mood is widespread. Non-subjunctive endings may mark present, imperfect, conditional or future tenses (also past, although this is generally reserved for writing); combinations with the verb avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ may also mark perfect (or general past in speech), pluperfect or future-perfect (he creduto ‘I have believed’; eravamo andati ‘we had gone’; avranno visto ‘We will have seen’). Immediacy can be marked with andare ‘to go’ and progressive aspect with stare ‘to stand’. Fewer tense endings are in use with the subjunctive, although the full range with avere, essere, andare and stare are available.

Italian is a pro-drop language, meaning verbs can be used without the subject if the subject is clear: amo ‘I love’, finiscono ‘they finish’, lo hanno visto ‘We saw it’.

Adjectives agree in number and gender with nouns in all circumstances, with the same endings as for nouns above (uomo piccolo ‘small man’; costa verde ‘green coast’; canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’). Attributively, they tend to go after the noun, but not always (dolce vita ‘sweet life’).

The singular articles are il/lo and un/uno (masculine), and la and una (feminine); plural i/gli (masculine) and le (feminine) – there is no indefinite plural article although di may be used as a quantifier (vorrei delle mele ‘I would like some apples’). Elided singular forms (masculine and feminine l’ and even feminine un’) are in use.

Prepositions take strong personal pronouns: con te ‘with you’.

Key prepositions:

  • di ‘of, from’, ‘to’, in ‘in’, con ‘with’, per ‘through, by’, da ‘originating from’.

A complex range of preposition+article combinations exist (di+lo=dello; a+la=alla; in+gli=negli etc.)

Word order is typically SVO (but SOV if the object is a pronoun). When forming the perfect, participles agree with any object appearing before them: la hanno vista ‘we saw her’; le canzoni che hanno scritte ‘the songs we wrote’.

Character

Modern Italian is literally a very musical language, for which it is well suited given the predominance of vowels. It is spoken as such, generally towards the back of the mouth with an emphasis towards the end of the clause.

However, Italian does have a perhaps surprising preference for nouns combined with a relatively small number of key verbs (e.g. ho fatto una investigazione del caso ‘I investigated the case’, literally ‘I did an investigation of the case’).

What’s next?

We will move over the sea to Iberia to cover Spanish (and Portuguese) next, as they are fundamentally more similar to Italian than French is.

Padre nosto, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome; venga il tuo regno; sia fatta la tua voluntà, come in cielo, così in terra. Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano e rimetti a noi i nostro debiti, come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori, e non ci indurre in tentazione, ma liberaci dal male.

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5 thoughts on “How to learn languages – Italian

  1. lingvovojo says:

    Reblogged this on lingvo-vojo and commented:
    Interessante: (ri)cominciamo dall’Italiano e conosciamo altre le lingue. L’autore dell’articolo, nativo irlandese, ma parlante inglese – molto bene e con chiarezza – afferma: “However, it is probably the best language to learn first of all those derived from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all”.
    Grazie, apprezzo tale opinione e invito. Dall’Italia,
    LINGVOVOJO
    en Esperanto:
    Interesa artikolo: ni (re)komencu de la Itala kaj lernu aliajn lingvojn. La aŭtoro, denaske irlandano, sed angle parolanto – kaj tre bone kaj klare – asertas: “However, it is probably the best language to learn first of all those derived from Latin (the other relevant Western European national languages being French, Spanish and Portuguese), assuming your intent is to learn them all.”
    Dankon, mi estimas tian opinion kaj inviton. El Italujo,
    LINGVOVOJO.

  2. lingvovojo says:

    Mi suficxe bone konas ankau la francan, kiun same mi konsideras bela lingvo (nur gxiaj akcentoj estas teruraj). Ghoje mi ekscias, ke vi konas esperanton.

  3. […] into “Iberian” (Spanish and Portuguese) and “Italo-Gallic” (French and Italian), at least in their Standard varieties. Nevertheless, largely because of its dramatic phonological […]

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