Italian and Latin: How similar are these languages?

Italian is a romance language which means that it originated from Latin. In addition, Italian is one of the closest romance languages to Latin.

It has been approximately 15 centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Italian language has had a lot of time to evolve on its own. This article we will look at how close contemporary Italian is to ancient classical Latin.

Italian vs. Latin vocabulary

There is a high degree of lexical similarity between Italian and Latin, which means that there are many similar vocabulary words between the two languages.

Some Latin and Italian vocabulary words which are similar :
English Latin Italian
water aqua acqua
moon luna luna
sea mare mare
love amor amore
egg ovum uovo
river flumen fiume
truth veritas verità
hand manus mano
dog canis cane
sun solis sole
warm calidum caldo
dangerous periculosum pericoloso
father pater padre
brother frater fratello
old vetus vecchio
fish piscis pescare
rain pluvia pioggia
new novus nuovo
cold frigus freddo
guilt culpa colpa
praise laus lode
friend amicus amico
hair capillus capelli

Latin vs. Italian spelling

The letter x is used in Latin but not in Italian

The letter x is not used in Italian spelling (it only appears in loan words, for example “taxi” or “relax”)

In Latin the letter x appears in a number of words, for example:

Latin words containing the letter x give rise to Italian words which don’t contain that letter. The reason is that the Italian borrowings of these words come from the accusative form (which doesn’t contain an ‘x’)

Latin
(nominative
form)
Latin
(accusative
form)
Italian
rex regem re
vox vocem voce
nix nivem neve
lex legem legge
pax pacem pace
velox velocem veloce

The letter z is used in Italian but not in Latin

The letter z is common in Italian vocabulary words, but it typically doesn’t appear in Latin words. The letter z was part of the early form of the Latin alphabet but it disappeared because of sound changes, it was later reintroduced as a borrowing from the Greek alphabet.

The letters k and w are neither used in Latin nor in Italian

The letter w was not part of the classical Latin alphabet. As a result it is not used in Latin vocabulary words.

Similarly the letter w is not part of the Italian alphabet. It does not occur in Italian vocabulary words but it does appear in some foreign words which are incorporated into the Italian language as loanwords (such as the word “weekend”).

The letter k does appear in the classical Latin alphabet, but it was almost never used. The reason for this is that in Latin, the letter ‘c’ is pronounced like a ‘k’ (there is no soft ‘c’ in Latin). As a result the letter ‘k’ was redundant in Latin, and was almost never used.

Similarly the letter k is not used in Italian, it only appears in a few loanwords.

Other differences between Italian and Latin

Italian has articles but Latin doesn't have any articles.

Latin has neither definite articles (like “the” in English) nor indefinite articles (like “a” or “an” in English).

Italian has both definite and indefinite articles.

When translating a document from Latin to Italian, articles have to be added and the context has to be used to determine whether a given article should be definite or indefinite.

For example, “canis” in Latin could refer to “a dog” or “the dog”, depending on the context.

Vowel length in Latin vs. in Italian

Latin distinguishes vowel length (short vowels and long vowels). This means that the length of a vowel can change the meaning of a word. In linguistics terminology, this is referred to as “Latin having contrastive vowel length” or “phonemic vowel length”.

Latin textbooks often indicate long vowels by placing horizontal bars (macrons) above them.

Some examples of pairs of Latin words which are distinguished by vowel length:

Italian differs from Latin in this respect, as linguists consider that vowel length is not contrastive in Italian ([2])

Omitting the subject of a sentence (in Latin & Italian)

Both Italian and Latin are languages in which it can be grammatically correct to leave out the subject of a sentence when that subject can be inferred from the context.

In linguistic terms this means that both Latin and Italian are null-subject languages.

In English (and even in French which is a Romance language coming from Latin), omitting the pronoun would lead to a completely grammatically incorrect sentence.

Example: Consider the famous Latin phrase “Cogito, ergo sum” by the philosopher René Descartes.

The pronoun I (which in Latin is “ego”) does not appear in the phrase. This Latin phrase is still grammatically correct.

Grammatical cases in Latin vs. Italian

One of the things which make Latin more difficult to learn than Italian are the declensions used to indicate grammatical cases.

In Latin, the endings of nouns change depending on the grammatical role which the noun plays in the sentence. This is not the case in Italian.

To illustrate how Latin nouns change according to grammatical cases, consider the following two sentences:

In the first Latin phrase the noun is the subject of a sentence, hence it is in the accusative form (“liber”).

In the second example phrase the noun is the direct object in the sentence. As a result it is in accusative form (“librum”)

In Italian (as in English) nouns keep the same form regardless of the grammatical case:

Genders of nouns in Italian and Latin

Italian and Latin are both languages in which every noun has an assigned gender. This is the case even for nouns which represent inanimate objects (such as table or chair) as well as nouns which represent concepts (such as freedom or happiness).

This is common in romance languages: for instance besides Italian this is also the case in Spanish and French.

There is a difference between Italian and Latin regarding the gender of nouns: In Latin there 3 genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), while in Italian there are only two genders (masculine and feminine).

We have previously seen how the gender of French nouns can be in part predicted by the word endings. This is also the case in Italian and Latin.

For instance, most Latin nouns which end in 'a' are feminine, this is also the case in Italian.

Here some examples of Latin nouns ending in ‘a’ which are feminine:

Conclusion

There are many interesting similarities between Italian and Latin. A large part of Italian vocabulary is derived from Latin. In terms of grammar, Italian is easier than Latin (for English speakers to learn).

To learn more about Latin and other ancient languages, see this article on Sanskrit and Latin similarities.

References:
  1. [1] Source
  2. [2] Source

PS: you can use our free language tool, VocabChat to record your own vocabulary and phrase lists.