Most people would say that Italian has to be the closest Romance Language to Latin. Latin of course came from Italian Peninsula and was the first place it was spoken and Latin or a descendent of Latin has been spoken throughout the Italian Peninsula for the last 2000 years. Surely it’s no contest.
Let’s get the science to back this up.
But first of all, what is Italian? Do we mean the Italian spoken in Rome? Or in Venice where it is called Venetian? What about in Sicily where it is called Sicilian?
This is the problem with Italian. The Italian Peninsula is full of various different dialects (some call them different languages) and the Italian state as a whole is a relatively new one (similar situation to Germany). There have been always linguistic differences in the Italian Peninsula since Roman Times.
Greek was spoken in the southern part of Italy that was part of Magna Graecia (some Greek survives in Sicily where it called Griko although it severely endangered), the other Italic languages related to Italian are Faliscan, Umbrian and Oscan, which was spoken in Benevento among other places. From Graffiti in Pompeii, it is clear Oscan was still very much spoken in 79 AD. All these languages have influenced the Latin spoken in different parts of Italy leading them to develop into different languages or dialects.
The “Italian Language” itself is a standardised version of the Tuscan Dialect which was used by Dante in the Middle Ages. So let’s get to it, how close is Italian to Latin?
Wikipedia says this about Italian’s connection to Latin:
“Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin’s contrast between short and long consonants. As in most Romance languages, stress is distinctive. In particular, among the Romance languages, Italian is the closest to Latin in terms of vocabulary.”
Here is an example of the Italian preservation of short consonants: Latin: Erat (he was); Errat (he wanders) > Italian: Era (he was); Erra (he wanders)
Italian is very similar to Latin vocabulary wise. Standard Italian arose from Tuscany, evolving directly from vulgar Latin, and it has evolved little in the last 1000 years. The reason for that is, while other Romance Languages suffered in some cases multiple invasions, Arabs in Spain, Franks in France and the Slavs in Romania. Italy, mostly free from outside influence retained a lot of the vocab from Latin. These words may not appear Latin based at first in Latin, but it becomes obvious once the root of the word is analysed.
Italian is however different to Classical Latin grammar wise, for example Italian has a verb tense called il passato remoto which does not occur in Latin. Italian derives from Vulgar Latin which got rid of the case system existing in Latin and it no longer remains in any Romance Language (except Romanian but that’s a story for another day). Below, the lack of a case system in Italian is obvious with the endings.
Latin Italian English
Lupus – Il lupo – The wolf (subject)
Lupi – Del lupo – Of the wolf
Lupo – Al lupo – To the wolf
Lupum – Il lupo – The wolf (object)
Lupe – Lupo – Wolf (vocative)
Lupo – Con il lupo – With the wolf
Italian is seen of one the closest Romance Languages to Vulgar Latin and resembles it closely in syntax compared to Classical Latin.
Venio in domum (I come home) Classical Latin
Venio ad casam – Vulgar Latin
Vengo a casa – Italian
Vulgar Latin often came from the vernacular and slang terms from the Classical Latin and these words became our present day Romance Vocabulary.
Italian – donna = woman –> Latin – domina = mistress
Italian – testa = head –> Latin – testa = earthenware jar
New pieces of vocabulary were however obtained by borrowing the word from Classical which helped maintain the proximity between the two languages.
Perhaps evidence of how close Italian is to Vulgar Latin is how mutually intelligible it is with other Romance languages. It seems to be like a central language that is well understood by both eastern and western romance languages.Romanians seem to manage ok when they arrive in Italy, learning Italian and understand it, seems to be done with minimal effort. The lexical similarity between Italian and other Romance languages is quite high including with French at 89%. However pronunciation is a major factor in why lexical similarity is different to mutual intelligibility. You could argue that Italian people could communicate better with Spanish people than say a Spanish person could with a Portuguese person because of the sheer difference in terms of pronunciation. Portuguese is very nasal and can sound very very different to a Spanish speaker, despite being closer lexically to Spanish than some dialects are to their languages!.
Perhaps there is a historical reason for this. The heaviest areas of Roman settlement were southern Gaul and western Hispanic. The languages in these areas currently are, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan and Italian. These languages seem closer to each other in pronunciation than they would be to French or Portuguese. French and Portuguese are very nasal languages, of that there can be no doubt. The areas of Northern France and Lusitania were less heavily settled by the Romans and the pre-Roman, Celtic Languages would have held out longer in these areas and therefore have influenced these languages more than the others. Another reason for French being different pronunciation wise is the influence of the Germanic language Frankish, which would have been the first language of Charlamagne.
As regards declensions from Classical Latin, Italian developed a plural based on the First Declension which featured mainly mainly words in the feminine gender and the second masc/neutral declension of Latin. Italian also seem to have preserved the root modifications typical of the third declension.
Latin -> homo → pl. Homines Italian – uomo -> uomini
Italian, as mentioned in my previous Spanish post, derives much of its vocabulary from Late Latin, whereas as Spanish vocabulary seems to stem from an older form of Latin. For example, in Italian buon giorno comes from late Latin bonus diurnus whereas the Spanish buenas dias comes from the older Latin bonus dies.
Pei’s lexical chart had Italian at 12% distant to Latin, closer than Italian, Portuguese, Spanish or french. but it came second in terms of which language was closest! What could be more close to Latin that Italian?? Stay tuned…
If anyone is interested in the sound changes from Latin to Italian, I recommend a blog I read in preparation for this article. Fantastic read! https://damyanlissitchkov.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/how-latin-became-italian/