One of the things that makes me fall in love with Italy repeatedly is the language. There is something intoxicating about walking down any street in Italy and hearing the swirling staccato of Italian all around you. It’s a language of romance, of art, of music, and a language more closely tied to its Latin roots than almost any other living language. But what we call Italian today was once just the dialect of a certain region, popularized by a particularly famous poet.
When modern-day Italy was a collection of independent city-states, each had its own language. Many survive to this day, although now we call them dialects – local vernacular that is often related to the official language in some way. One of the dialects from pre-unification Italy was the Tuscan dialect, which is the language that spoken by one Dante Alighieri.
Dante’s poems, based on the Tuscan dialect, were widely read – well beyond the borders of his native Tuscany. The “Divine Comedy” was not translated into every dialect – rather, it was considered a sign of one’s educational status to be able to read the original text. And because the upper classes in every region were reading Dante’s work, his dialect became the one most widely understood throughout the peninsula. Dante is considered, therefore, the father of the Italian language as we know it today.
By the early 14th century, then, the language we now know as Italian was establishing itself as a national language long before it had a nation to claim. When Italy was unified in 1861, Italian was certainly becoming more widely spoken – but it was only formally adopted in the constitution as the national language of Italy in 2007.
At long last, Dante can rest easy.
There are still dialects all over Italy. Some are more prevalent than others – a few have risen to the level of being officially recognized by the state, with efforts made to preserve them as a piece of cultural heritage. Dante’s own Tuscan dialect is still slightly different from Italian, though the differences are more subtle than with some other dialects.
One of my favorite things to tell my introductory Italian students when they were frustrated by one of the seemingly random rules of the language was to “blame Dante” for their frustration. It’s meant to both be funny and to make the point that every language has oddities we can’t understand or explain. We can no more question Dante about his word choices than we can justify to a non-native English speaker why words like “enough” and “through” can co-exist. I believe Italian is far easier to learn than English, but even I sometimes still shake my fist at the sky and curse Dante for an irregular verb conjugation or the subjunctive or whatever is troubling me in the moment.
And yet, for all the fist-shaking, I also thank Dante for pulling together a language that, many centuries and regional conflicts later, an entire country can still speak, understand, and turn into poetry.
2015 marks the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth (saying “Dante’s 750th birthday” sounds funny, doesn’t it?), and there are cultural events going on in several places – including Florence, Ravenna, and Rome – from now until 2021, the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.