Italian is classified as a Romance language because it evolved from Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The Italian language is a direct descendant of Vulgar Latin, which was the colloquial, or spoken, language of Romans at the time.
As a Romance language, Italian shares many characteristics with other Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Romanian.
Since the fall of the Roman Empire 15 centuries ago, Italian has had ample time to develop independently. The focus of this article is to explore the extent of the linguistic relationship between contemporary Italian and ancient classical Latin.
Quite naturally, many Italian words have evolved from Latin and retained a similar spelling and meaning.
The Latin word ‘pater’, for instance, meaning ‘father’, is similar to the Italian ‘padre’. Likewise, the Latin word ‘frater’, meaning ‘brother’, is close to the Italian ‘fratello’. Also, the Latin word ‘aqua’, meaning ‘water’, corresponds to the Italian ‘acqua’.
For more vocabulary words, see these vocabulary lists:
One striking difference in the two languages is that unlike Italian, Latin has no articles.
Italian has both definite and indefinite articles. To clarify this point, English has one definite article (‘the’) and two variations of the indefinite article (‘a’, ‘an’), whereas Latin lacks both.
When translating from Latin to Italian, it becomes necessary to add articles while considering the context to determine whether the article should be definite or indefinite. For instance, the Latin word ‘canis’ could mean either ‘a dog’ or ‘the dog’, depending on the context.
Both Latin and Italian are classified as null-subject languages, meaning that it is grammatically permissible to omit the subject of a sentence when the context allows for inference.
Conversely, in English and even in French, which is a Romance language derived from Latin, such omission of the subject pronoun would result in an entirely ungrammatical sentence.
As an illustration, let us examine the renowned Latin phrase coined by philosopher René Descartes: ‘Cogito, ergo sum’.
The phrase can be broken down into its constituent parts: ‘Cogito’ is the first-person singular conjugation of the Latin verb ‘cogitare’, meaning ‘to think’; ‘ergo’ translates to ‘therefore’; and ‘sum’ is the first-person singular conjugation of the Latin verb ‘esse’, which means ‘to be’.
Despite the absence of the pronoun ‘I’ (which, by the way, is ‘ego’ in Latin), the grammatical integrity of this Latin phrase remains intact.
Latin is often considered more difficult to learn than Italian because of the declensions used to indicate grammatical cases.
Accordingly, the endings of nouns change depending on their grammatical role in the sentence. This, however, is not the case in Italian where nouns maintain the same form regardless of their grammatical function.
To demonstrate how Latin nouns change according to grammatical cases, consider the following examples:
The Latin noun ‘liber’ takes on the nominative form in the first sentence where it functions as the subject. In the second sentence though, where ‘liber’ serves as a direct object, it takes on the accusative form ‘librum’.
In Italian, as in English, nouns maintain the same form regardless of their grammatical function in a sentence:
Both Italian and Latin are characterized by the assignment of a gender to every noun, including those referring to inanimate objects and abstract concepts. This feature is shared with other Romance languages such as Spanish and French.
Gender is used a little differently in Latin and Italian, however. Latin has three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), whereas Italian has only two (masculine and feminine).
In both languages, the gender of a noun is often indicated by its ending. Most nouns ending in 'a', for instance, are feminine both in Latin and Italian.
Some examples of Latin feminine nouns ending in 'a' include ‘sapientia’ (wisdom), ‘benevolentia’ (kindness), ‘amicitia’ (friendship), and ‘lingua’ (language).
Latin differentiates between short and long vowels; a distinction that can change the meaning of a word.
This feature is known as contrastive vowel length or phonemic vowel length in linguistic terms. To denote long vowels, Latin textbooks use horizontal bars or macrons above the vowel.
Pairs of Latin words that are distinguished by vowel length include:
According to linguists, vowel length is not contrastive in Italian, making it different from Latin .
In Italian spelling, ‘x’ appears only in loanwords such as ‘taxi’ or ‘relax’, but the letter appears in several Latin words. For example:
As shown above, Latin words containing the letter ‘x’ give rise to Italian words without that letter. The reason is that the Italian borrowings of these words come from the accusative form (which doesn’t contain an x).
The letter ‘z’, commonly found in Italian vocabulary words, doesn’t typically appear in Latin.
Although a part of the early form of the Latin alphabet, this letter later disappeared due to changes in pronunciation. It was later reintroduced as a borrowing from the Greek alphabet.
The letters ‘k’ and ‘w’ are not used in Italian or Latin and 'w' is not included in the classical Latin alphabet.
Likewise, in its standard form, the Italian alphabet does not include 'w', but it is found in some foreign words that have been incorporated as loanwords, such as ‘weekend’.
Although the letter ‘k’ is part of the classical Latin alphabet, it was seldom used. The reason is that in Latin, the letter ‘c’ is pronounced like ‘k’ (there is no soft ‘c’ in Latin), so ‘k’ was redundant.
Similarly, the letter ‘k’ is not used in Italian, except where it appears in a few loanwords.
Italian and Latin exhibit many linguistic similarities, especially in the vocabulary because a substantial portion of Italian vocabulary can be traced back to its Latin roots. When it comes to grammar, however, the differences are more apparent. Italian is somewhat easier to learn than Latin, particularly for English speakers.
To learn more about Latin and other ancient languages, see this article on the similarities between Sanskrit and Latin.References: