How Latin Became Italian

Today I am going to write about another of my favorite languages – Italian. It is, I dare say, one of the finest modern languages.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin evolved (or degraded, as some people might view it) via Vulgar Latin into a multitude of varieties, which later became the Romance languages. I personally don’t agree with the ‘degradation’ view because I think that when the world changes, everything else must change together with it. I like the Latin language as well as ‘her daughters’, but in a different way. Anyway, during this process many things changed in the structure of the language. Here I am going to focus on the changes in the phonology and in the grammar. The latter became less complex, but also more irregular.

Italian is geographically and linguistically the closest successor of Latin. It is a very melodic and neat language spoken by more than 60 million people in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, Slovenia and Croatia as well as by many people of Italian descent in the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina and so forth.

Italian has many dialects, some of which are regarded by some people as separate languages. This is not only a linguistic, but also a political problem and I am not going to discuss it here. This post is concerned only with the literary Italian language based on the Florentine dialect.

After wasting four paragraphs and several minutes from your life in order to explain what I am going to do, I might just do it. So, Italian, unlike other Romance languages, has retained some characteristic features of Latin such as the distinction between short and long vowels. However, there are also many sounds that have changed.

First of all, Italian got rid of most of the Latin word endings. Of course, this has to do with the fact that the Italian dialects lost the Latin case system and the neuter gender, as did most (but not all) Romance languages. However, since Italian preserved the distinction between masculine and feminine as well as between singular and plural, it had to keep some sort of endings after all. The singular forms of nouns and adjectives is probably based not on the nominative forms, but on the ablative. For instance castellum (Abl. castello) ‘castle’ became castello, porta (Abl. porta) ‘gate’ or ‘door’ became… well it didn’t become anything, it remained the same, natio (Abl. natione) ‘nation’ became nazione, ordo (Abl. ordine) ‘order, rank’ became ordine, lex (Abl. lege) ‘law’ became legge and so on. The plural forms of Italian nouns, however, developed mainly from Latin nominative forms, e.g. gatti ‘cats’ from Latin catti (nominative plural of cattus), finestre ‘windows’ from fenestrae (nominative plural of fenestra). Some forms which are now considered irregular in Italian also come from Latin nominative plural forms. This is the case with uomini ‘men’ and uova ‘eggs’. They look like that not because of some evil grammarian who likes to torture language learners, but because they come, respectively, from the Latin forms homines and ova. But in other cases Italian plurals were formed by analogy using the suffix –i, e.g. in castellocastelli, whereas the Latin declension is castellumcastella because the word is neuter.

But that is not the only way endings changed. Graffiti from Pompeii show that the loss of final consonants (the so-called ‘apocope’) in Vulgar Latin had already started in the first century AD. This affected strongly the verb conjugation: cantat ‘he/she sings’ became canta, cantamus ‘we sing’ became cantiamo, cantatis ‘you (pl.) sing’ became cantate and so on. Many other types of words also lost their consonants at the end, e.g. the preposition ad ‘to’ became simply a, the numeral tres became tre, the adverb post ‘afterwards’ became pos in Vulgar Latin and later poi ‘then’ in Italian.

But enough about endings. Many other consonant shifts took place in Italian, and most of them followed a regular pattern, which is often the case with language change. For example, the n in the Latin consonant cluster ns almost always disappeared, so it changed to a simple s in Italian, which is pronounced as /z/ between vowels: mensis ‘month’ became mese; insula ‘island’ became isola; construere ‘to build’ became costruire.

Assimilation is a very common phonological process in the world’s languages. It means that a certain sound is influenced by an adjacent sound and either becomes similar to it (partial assimilation) or becomes the same (total assimilation). In Italian we have great examples for total assimilation. It usually took place within consonant clusters: ct was assimilated to tt, e.g. octo ‘eight’ became otto, nocte (ablative of nox) ‘night’ became notte, lacte (ablative of lac) ‘milk’ became latte; x pronounced /ks/ was assimilated to ss, e.g. saxum ‘stone’ became sasso, maximus ‘greatest’ became massimo, relaxare ‘to stretch out’ became rilassare ‘to relax’; mn was assimilated to nn, e.g. somnus ‘sleep, slumber’ became sonno, autumnus ‘autumn’ became autunno etc.

Another phonological process prominent in Italian is a type of partial assimilation called palatalization. It occurs when a sound is influenced by a neighboring /j/ or a front vowel like /i/ or /e/. In this case the sound’s place of articulation moves closer to the palate. This process began in Vulgar Latin and later developed in the various Romance languages. For example, in Classical Latin the letter c was always pronounced as /k/, but in Italian it underwent palatalization and changed into /tʃ/ before i and e. Because of this Latin centum /kɛntum/ became cento /tʃɛnto/ and civitas /ˈkiːwɪtaːs/ ‘citizenship’ became città /tʃitˈta/ ‘city’. Similar is the case with g, which in Latin was always pronounced /g/, but in Italian it became /dʒ/ before i and e, for example regina /reːˈɡiːna/ became regina /reˈdʒiːna/ ‘queen’. However, these shifts are easy to deduce from the spelling since Italian has kept c and g in these positions. But there are other cases of palatalization, which are more concealed. For instance, d followed by i and a vowel often transforms into /dʒ/ which is spelled as gi, so giorno ‘day’ /dʒɔrno/ actually comes from the Latin adjective diurnus ‘daily’. Similarly, t followed by i and a vowel, which used to be pronounced as /t/, became z (pronounced /ts/), e.g. natione (ablative for natio ‘nation’) became nazione.

Furthermore, the Latin cluster qu /kw/ in Italian changed into ch /k/ in front of i and e, e.g. quis ‘who’ became chi. However, it was preserved in front of a and o (e.g. quattro ‘four’, quotidiano ‘daily’).

Another thing you notice in the development of Italian is that the language obviously can’t stand a cluster of a consonant and an l. In those cases the l is turned into an i. I’ll try to illustrate this with a few examples: flos (ablative flore) ‘flower’ became fiore, pluvia ‘rain’ became pioggia, flumen ‘river’ became fiume, claudere became chiudere, templum ‘temple’ became tempio. However, there are exceptions such as gloria ‘glory’, but they are rare.

Lenition (‘weakening’) is also very important for Romance languages. Although it is more common in the Western varieties (i.e. northwest of the La Spezia – Rimini line), it can be found in Italian as well. Thus voiced plosives developed into voiced fricatives, e.g. /b/ into /v/ as in caballus (‘horse’) > cavallo, and voiceless plosives became voiced plosives, e.g. /k/ into /g/ as in lacus (‘lake’) > lago. However, in most cases Italian preserved the voiceless consonants, for instance rota ‘wheel’ and vita ‘life’ became ruota and vita and the t was kept, whereas in other languages it became voiced as in Spanish rueda and vida and Portuguese roda and vida. French has gone even further and removed the consonant completely, so the words became roue and vie.

A characteristic feature of Italian is that it preserved the so called long consonants. I intentionally use this term because if I say ‘double consonants’ you would think about words like loss or yellow. Well, they are spelled as double consonants, but they are pronounced as single. Many languages have this sort of thing, including many Romance languages, but the difference is that in Italian they are actually pronounced long, like in Latin (so they say). In phonetic transcription this is usually marked with a “:” after the consonant. So passus /pas:us/ ‘step’ became passo /pas:o/ and cattus /kat:us/ became gatto /gat:o/, i.e. the long consonants remained the same.


Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), often described as the ‘Father of the Italian language’ (Image: Wikipedia)

Long vowels are another thing which is present in Italian and not in most other Romance languages. We might then say that Italian has preserved the Latin long vowels, right? And we will be wrong. In fact, the language ceased to distinguish vowel length (probably during the Early Middle Ages), but later Italians decided that it would be a nice idea to make vowels in open syllables long. And I totally agree because it is one of the things that make Italian so melodic. So Italian has long vowels but not the same as Latin. For instance, the vowel e in the Latin word regnum ‘reign’ is long, but in its Italian descendant regno it is short because it is in a closed syllable.

Of course, many other strange things happened to vowels. For instance, the vowels /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ in open syllables were diphthongized, which means that a single vowel changes into a combination of vowels. So /ɛ/ changed into /jɛ/, e.g. ferus ‘wild’ became fiero ‘proud’and vetare ‘to forbid’ became vietare. Similarly, /ɔ/ changed into /wɔ/: novus ‘new’ became nuovo and focus ‘fire’ became fuoco. The same vowels were diphthongized in other Romance languages as well. In Spanish /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ became /je/ and /we/, e.g. fiero, nuevo, fuego, and in French they were developed into /je/ and /ø/, e.g. fier and feu.

Interestingly, the opposite happened as well: Latin diphthongs were merged into single vowels in Italian, like in most Romance languages. So ae (pronounced /ai/ in Classical Latin) and oe (pronounced /ɔi/) became e, e.g. praemium ‘prize’ changed into premio and poena ‘punishment’ changed into pena ‘sorrow, pain’. In addition, au became o, e.g. aurum changed into oro.

Finally, vowels in open syllables were raised, so in those cases e became i, e.g. de ‘of’ > di and fenestra ‘window’ > finestra. In contrast, i and u in closed syllables were often lowered and became e and o: strictus ‘tightened’ > stretto ‘narrow’ and productus > prodotto ‘product’.

OK, enough phonology. Let’s get back to grammar. We already covered the loss of cases and the neuter gender and of various endings. But the Italian language also gained some things, for example the definite articles. You have probably read about this somewhere, but I feel obliged to describe it shortly here as well. Like in other Romance languages, they were developed from the Latin demonstrative pronoun ille ‘that’. In singular, the masculine nominative form ille became ill, pardon, il, after loss of some unnecessary sounds. Similarly the feminine form illa became la. In plural, the masculine form illi became i, and the feminine form illae became le. Now phonology kicks in again. In Italian melody is very important, so things like il italiano, il stato, la arancia and i italiani are not accepted because they don’t sound good. Therefore three other articles were developed for special cases: l’ for words beginning with a vowel (from ille or illa), lo for words beginning with s + another consonant or with z (from illum), and gli for plural nouns beginning with a vowel or with s + another consonant or with z (from illi). Then we get l’italiano, lo stato, l’arancia and gli italiani, which, I must admit, sounds better.

This thing is called grammaticalization. It basically means that a word loses its original meaning and transforms into a grammatical marker. In Italian there is another good example for it – the future tense. In Latin there were actually two future tenses, but people maybe didn’t like them because conjugation was very complex so they got rid of them. Therefore, in most Vulgar Latin the future tense was formed by the infinitive of the verb + the forms of habere ‘to have’. In most Western Romance languages they were later combined into a single word – the future tense we know from Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc. Here is a neat little table that shows you how this happened:

person, number infinitive of the verb scribere ‘to write’ (Vulgar Latin) forms of habere ‘to have’ (Vulgar Latin) infinitive of the verb scrivere ‘to write’ (Italian) forms of avere ‘to have’ (Italian) future tense forms of scrivere (Italian)
1. Sg. scribere habeo scrivere ho scriverò
2. Sg. scribere habes scrivere hai scriverai
3. Sg. scribere habet scrivere ha scriverà
1. Pl. scribere habemus scrivere abbiamo scriveremo
2. Pl. scribere habetis scrivere avete scriverete
3. Pl. scribere habent scrivere hanno scriveranno

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the evolution of the Italian language. I am always fascinated by the way languages change. Maybe you too, if you are a language maniac like me. Do not forget that this is a perverted linguistic view of one of the most beautiful languages in the world. For a more human approach, you may want to visit Bernardo’s Blog My Five Romances. But if you like the perverted linguistic stuff, please, come back here!


13 comments on “How Latin Became Italian

  1. Hi, great stuff. I chuckled over your line about the four paragraphs and several minutes. Thanks too for the mention, but perverted is good too. If you agree, I will reblog this post next time I am focusing on Italian but I will wait till I get the OK from you. Cheers
    P.S. how do you do those neat tables? Is it via a plug-in?

    • Thank you! Of course you can reblog the post, I’ll be very happy. Spread the word! 🙂
      Actually, I write most of the stuff on Microsoft Word (including the tables) and then paste it on the blog. I’m sure there are great plug-ins and tools available, but I’m just used to working with Word.

  2. Reblogged this on My Five Romances and commented:
    I hope to look at some Italian next, so to get us in the mood I have reblogged this item from Damyan Lissitchkov’s Blog, which is always very educational in an enjoyable way. I think he has a great sense of humour. (Check out the first paragraph of his item headed ‘Linguistic Diversity’, for example. And do read the other paragraphs too! ) I look forward to his next instalment (hint, hint, Damyan, haha). Cheers

  3. Alfredo says:

    Lei e’ un genio. La sua spiegazione dell’evoluzione del Latino e’ veramente eccezionale.

  4. Mario Strada says:

    This was a very nice and simple article. One observation I had was that many latin words that evolved into similar italian words had then reverted (or were never changed) in the local dialects.

    An easy example would be Wheel = Rota (in latin) = Ruota (in Italian) = Rota (in the Roma dialect).

    Another word with similar pedigree is Window, “Finestra” in italian, “Fenestra” in latin and back again to Fenesta in the neapolitan dialect (missing r but otherwise identical). There is even a great old song called “Fenesta ca Lucive (e mo no luce)”. Window that was lit (and has no light now). A better translation (non literal) would be “Window that used to shine bright and now is dark.

    I am actually more interested in the various dialects than I am in what I call “Telegiornale Italian”. Since most of the state TV studios are or at least were based in rome, many of the anchors have a slight Roman inflection in their speech. Since I left Italy I noticed that as TV reached more and more remote parts of italy, the general accent has tended to mimic the roman accent and cadence for many words, as long as the individual is trying to speak proper italian. The moment they switch to their dialect, it goes away almost instantly.

    Anyway, good job with this article. Looking forward to reading more about other languages.

    • Thanks for your comment and sorry for the enormous delay of my reply. You brought up very interesting cases that can be observed in the dialects. I am well aware of the linguistic diversity in Italy, but in order to make a broad review of the changes that took part, I had to confine myself on a single variety of the language and for a set of reasons I chose “Standard Italian”, although it’s probably debatable what exactly constitutes this official variety. However, I’ll take a look at the things you mentioned because they intrigued me.
      Thank you for the time you took to write this comment. Lately I haven’t had much time for the blog, but I’ll strive to whip up something soon.

  5. Elisabetta says:

    So much useful and interesting information. I’ll re-blog you too. Thank you! (Un sacco di informazioni utili ed soprattutto interessanti. Anch’io ti menzionero` nel mio blog. Grazie!)

  6. Alfredo says:

    Your piece is absolutely genius. I am amazed by your eruditeness regarding this subject.

  7. Dominique says:

    Hi! I really needed this information for school. Could you tell me from where you get the information? I would be really grateful. Thanks, anyways c:

    • Hi!
      Thanks for your comment. The article was written a long time ago, so unfortuantely I do not remember all the sources I used.
      However, the main source of information was M. Vitale, Studi di Storia della Lingua Italiana, LED Edizioni Universitarie, Milano, 1992.
      I hope this is helpful.

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