So you Speak Italian….
Or maybe you don’t. I don’t, not yet at least, but I can say I’ve always wanted to, and I’ve been perpetually fascinated with the idea since being introduced to learning languages in the 6th grade. Even if you don’t know the language, perhaps you love just hearing the rhythmic flow of someone speaking it as I do, and there are many places to hear this beautiful dialect being spoken all over the world, even in your own back yard!
But first, let’s start with a history of the Italian language. As most of you probably already know, Italian is considered a Romance language, one of the many that descended from the Latin language that the Romans spoke when they ruled their enormous empire. It is believed that the modern Italian we hear today began as a “popular” version of the Latin spoken by the empire, and it spread quickly through the Italian peninsula, although in the form of many different dialects. As dialects struggled against each other for wider acceptance, the language as a whole continued to spread through Sicily, Gaul (which would later become France), the Iberian Peninsula (known today as Spain and Portugal) and would eventually reach what is now Germany and Switzerland, the British Isles, and even northern parts of Africa (later Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia).
By about 400 A.D., many of these areas were invaded by nomadic attackers from central Asia, and inhabitants were fleeing everywhere. Rome had also long been abandoned by now, left for the more favorable Ravenna across the country on the Adriatic, which was a better location for the Romans to utilize their military defenses. Through all of this frenzied movement and the establishment of province-based power centers, the Romans lost their power as the linguistic and political authority of the area. The new “barbarians” that ruled the area attempted an adaptation of the Latin language, but their accents and pronunciation were a far cry from the Latin spoken under Roman rule, and this impacted the outlying regions even more harshly than the Italian peninsula itself.
The Italian spoken today is essentially a copy of a copy; a simpler version of the Latin used in classical literature that is itself a simpler form of Latin. Traditional Latin had very liberal sentence structuring, communicated heavily through more subtle inflections, which were used to modify words and change their meaning. Today, much of that is now lost, being communicated instead by separate words or phrases, and a comparatively rigid word order. As continual changes made it increasingly difficult for peninsula inhabitants to speak Latin, well schooled writers of the area worked on developing “Italian” as a written language, mostly by extending and modifying their native Tuscan language of the 11 and 1200s. Clearly in high demand, this new dialect caught on with ease, and would later be recognized as the literary language of Dante, Ariosot, Boccaccio, Tasso, and other authors of the time.
In 1860, Italy was officially unified as a Kingdom, and standard by this point written Italian was the model for speech throughout the region. As far as dialects, “the language of Tuscany as pronounced by a native of Rome” was deemed the most audibly pleasing and ideal. Today, Italian is the official language of both Italy and San Marino, and, along with Latin, is one of the only two languages spoken in the Vatican. It is also one three official languages of Switzerland, accompanied by German and French, and in many former Italian colonies such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Libya, and Tunisia Italian is utilized as their language of commerce. Spoken by an estimated 66 million people, it is primarily found in Italy’s own peninsulas, but smaller communities inhabit areas such as Southeastern France, Slovenia and Croatia as well. Some different Italian dialects can be also be found in Brazil, Argentina, and even in the US, but these have died off significantly with each new generation.
Tell me where to go already!
All history aside, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you can find access to the internet, you can easily get your hands on a plethora of Italian resources, from music, to literature, and even newspapers! One of the most comprehensive websites I’ve encountered for these kinds of Italian delights is that of the World Language Center, and you can visit the Italian portion of their website here. Though geared towards teachers, their website makes a great starting point for everything Italian, some of the most interesting links being to Italia Mia, (a more comprehensive website linking surfers to hundreds of smaller Italian and Italian-American communities, web pages and more), as well as two Italian newspapers, il Manifesto and L’Unione Sarda.
Through immigration, the US has become a great place to find Italian culture, language, and experience, right in our own back yard. My Italian friends have all told me that usually, the best place to find a true Italian experience, be submerged in the language, and find Italian company, is local Italian restaurants. And when I say Italian restaurants, I’m talking about the real Italian restaurants, the ones you usually hear about from a friend of a friend of a friend. In addition, many major cities around the U.S. are home to yearly Italian festivals usually during the month of September. I attended one in New York City near Canal Street last month while visiting, and one of my Italian friends assures me that the festival here in Seattle was just as fun. The pizza offered there left much to be desired, but the sausage, cannoli, and other array of Italian desserts were an excellent display of the traditional offerings of Italian food. You can keep up with next year’s Festa Italiana’s Seattle plans in through their website, or if you’re in a different area, look for a festival near you on the main Festival Italiano website.
If you’re located in the Seattle area, or are planning a visit here and want a true Italian experience without the hassle of customs and high-priced international flights, there are a few restaurants in the area that are well worth the trip. Nonna Maria is an exceptional choice, offering a reasonably priced dining experience, and an always-changing menu, offering something new and delicious every time you visit. You can schedule reservations by calling them at (206) 378-0273, and they are located in the heart of Seattle next to Key Arena, 530 1st Ave N, Seattle, WA 98109.
If you prefer West Seattle, Alki Beach boasts another delectable Italian find called La Rustica, a modestly priced and romantic spot, with outdoor seating for the warmer months and a smoking section for those truly European at heart. You can reserve your table by calling (206) 932-3020, or simply dropping by 4100 Beach Dr Sw, Seattle, WA 98116. If something closer to North Seattle is a better fit, Marcello’s is also an excellent Italian dining choice, located at 7115 Roosevelt Way Ne, Seattle, WA 98115. Reservations can also be made by phone at (206) 527-4778.