Are there any historic reasons why Italian spelling is notably simple and logical?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by orlando09, Sep 30, 2008.

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  1. orlando09 Senior Member

    France, PACA
    English (England)
    I am interested by the fact Italian is very clear and logical in its spelling compared to my native language English. I wondered if anyone knows why this might be -- any specific reforms that took place to simplify it and remove irregular spellings etc? Or is it just that it developed mostly from Latin which is also (as far as I know) quite regular, instead of being a mixture of languages like English (Germanic plus Nordic, plus French, plus Latin and Greek and Hindi etc etc).
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2008
  2. ajo fresco

    ajo fresco Senior Member

    Hi Orlando,

    It would be hard to give a quick answer here, since there are historical and societal reasons as to why this is so (Spanish and Italian are spelled very phonetically; English and French much less so).

    I would like to recommend a book that I found very informative and helpful:
    Western Languages AD 100-1500 by Philippe Wolff (English translation by Frances Partridge).

    It's the story of how Latin and the early Germanic dialects developed into the modern languages of Western Europe. It's an interesting account of how conquests, politics, trade, religion, cultures, and societies all had a hand in shaping these languages over the centuries, and how these languages also influenced each other.

    In particular, there's a great section (pages 139-146 in my paperback edition) about the development of Italian spelling. (The development of English spelling is covered in a different part of the book.)

    The English translation is sometimes awkward in places, but overall, it's a very lively read. I recommend it to anyone who's interested in languages or the history of Western Europe.

    I can recommend other books, too. In the interest of keeping on topic, if you (or anyone reading this) are interested, send me a PM and I'll be happy to oblige. :)

    Ciao,
    Ajo Fresco
     
  3. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    In a nutshell, the main difference between Italian an English spelling is that spelling in Italian followed the development of the spoken language while English spelling evolved only little from 15th century Chancery English.*

    As to the reason why the two languages evolved so differently, most people argue that this was due to the early creation of a strong central state in England and the early introduction of official spelling, i.e. Chancery English. The combination of fixed spelling and relatively sudden and drastic sound changes (most of the Modern English sound changes happened during the 16th and 17th centuries) resulted in a separation of spoken and written language in English. None of these factors applied to Italian.
    ________________
    *You probably know all this but just in case you don't: To give you an example how much English phonology has evolved, late Middle English laughen (to laugh) was probably pronounced [laʊxən]. If you have problems imagining how to pronounce this, try to find on the internet a sound sample of the German word "Lauch". This should give you an idea.
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2008
  4. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    All standard languages have, to a greater or less extent, an element of artificiality. Modern Standard Italian is much more the result of conscious choice than, say, English where natural development has played a greater role. The influence of the Tre Corone (Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch) is not to be underestimated. Although most Italians use Italian it is by no means the first language of most Italians. Those first languages, where they are derived from Latin, are not dialects of Italian, but separate developments. There is a high degree of diglossia in Italy.
     
  5. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Chancery English was just as much a "result of conscious choice" at the time as Italien is today. I am afraid your observation regarding diglossia in Italy only shifts the question and doesn't answer it. Modern Italian is based on Tuscan. The question "why is Tuscan spelling so regular" would be equally valid.
     
  6. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish

    Probably true, but the alphabet had been through the evolution of a couple of other languages before they learned it - and thus came a lot of weird spelling with it.

    I think one could reverse the question and ask, wouldn't it be strange if Italian spelling were not notably simple and logical? It would have been absolute nonsense if the Romans had introduced an alphabet that did not fit the phonetics of their language as well as they could think of at that time. Their language changed and their alphabet changed gradually with it - or at least the interpretation of the single letters. Nobody came to them with an alphabet and had them try to make that function with a totally different language. By the way I find Spanish spelling very simple and logical too. Catalan too. It is when we reach French it starts drifting off. And I am wondering if it had not been a good Idea to make a whole new alphabet for the Celtic languages.
     
  7. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    What are you thinking of? To my knowledge Chancery English was a quite regular representation of late Middle English (where e.g. the infinitive suffix -en had already disappeared). The most visible difference to earlier forms of Middle English was the replacement of the three extra letters: Yogh was replaced by either y or gh and Thorn and Eth by th.
    French is certainly not a Celtic language. There is no reason to assume that Old French spelling did not represent the phonology of the language in a regular way. In French we also observe the phenomenon that spelling represents an earlier stage in the development of the language.
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2008
  8. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,

    I start to have the impression that we're getting off topic. We don't mind comparisons with other Romance languages or with English, but the main focus of this thread should be Italian orthographic rules.

    Groetjes,

    Frank
    Moderator EHL
     
  9. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    When a language is first written it is usually the case that the spelling is more or less phonemic, or at least that is the aim. When pronounciation changes, but the writing system does not or only changes a little, the spelling is usually described as "historical" or "etymological". But all writing systems are historical or etymological; it is just that a language whose orthography has been devised relatively recently is more likely to be phonemic. (There are of course intermediate positions where orthography has been the subject of varying degrees of reform or continuous revision.)

    The spelling conventions of Chancery English reflected current pronounciation more closely than the spelling of Modern English reflects pronounciation today. In the case of Italian it is not so much that the spelling has kept up with the language, but rather that the language has not changed sufficiently to make changes in the orthography necessary to keep it more or less phonemic. Modern Italian is based on the Tuscan of Dante's day - Tuscan has moved on since then.
     
  10. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    This is a description of English and French. I don't think you can generalize this.

    Be that as it may. I agree with you that Italian has been much more stable since Date's time than English has been during the same period. Under these conditions it has been relatively easy for Italian to preserve the phonemic nature of its orthography even if spelling is slow to follow changes in pronunciation. If a languages changes fast this is much more difficult. Therefore I said that it is the combination of fixed spelling and rapid change which caused English spelling and pronunciation to diverge so much.
     
  11. orlando09 Senior Member

    France, PACA
    English (England)
    Thank you for these explanations and recommendations. I think I need to brush up on my language history, as I had either forgotten, or never knew the expression Chancery English (which I've looked up on Wikipedia). I can see how early standardisation plus more recent sound changes have caused some issues in English. As for modern Italian, if it is still based on the Tuscan of Dante's day, would it be correct to say also that the spelling was also fixed/standardised around then? How early would you say the idea of a proper standard Italian became formalised, considering Italy was made up of seperate states until the late 19th Century?
     
  12. franz rod Senior Member

    Italiano
    The Italian was the first European language to be formalised thanks to the creation of the first "linguistic institution" the Accademia della Crusca (1583) and its dictionary (1612).
     
  13. orlando09 Senior Member

    France, PACA
    English (England)
    Ah, thanks, I had vaguely heard of that. And would you say from that time there was already a strong sense among educated people across the peninsula of being Italians and speaking and writing Italian (at least in formal circumstances) , not just being Piedmontese, Tuscans, Romans, Neapolitans, Sicilians... etc? In other words the was a certain linguistic unity long before the political one was (re)esetablished?
     
  14. franz rod Senior Member

    Italiano
    The Tuscan became the language of literature in 14th century: Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Petrarca (1304-1374) were seen as a models for prose and poetry by the other men of letters.
     
  15. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    In the Middle Ages, at least in their latter half, the Romance languages had fairly phonemic orthographies. It was only in the Renaissance that the love of classical Latin and Greek led some authors to adopt many etymological spellings which imitated these ancient languages. In French, the etymological spelling caught on. In Spanish and Italian, it did not last more than a few centuries.

    A similar thing happened in English, but here there was also another factor at play: English went through dramatic phonetic changes during the Renaissance, while its orthography remained unchanged. Thus, spellings that were fairly phonemic in the late Middle Ages became less and less so, as the pronunciation changed.

    Suggested reading: Great Vowel Shift, Phonological History of English.
     
  16. Montesacro Senior Member

    Roma
    Italiano
    Let's not forget that also Italian spelling has some illogical features:
    - cieco (blind) and ceco (czech) are pronounced the same though spelt differently,
    - in words like scienza (science) there is an etymological i that is silent,
    - pèsca (peach) and pésca (fishing) are spelt the same but pronounced differently (the accents are usually omitted; they are compulsory only if the stressed syllable is the last one),
    - fòsse (pits) and fósse (imperfect subjunctive of essere) are spelt the same but pronounced differently,
    - the word razzo (rocket) is pronounced [radzo], but the word pazzo (crazy) is pronounced [patso],
    - the word casa (house) is pronounced [casa], but the word musica (music) is pronounced [muzica],

    etcetera etcetera...
     
  17. Corsicum

    Corsicum Senior Member

    Sophia Antipolis è Capicorsu
    Corsu in casa è u Francese à scola
    Ciao, saluti
    Hi,
    About Italian spelling and writing system :
    Italian language :
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_language
    Writing system
    Italian uses the acute accent .
    The letter H at the beginning of a word is used to distinguish ho, hai, ha, hanno (present indicative of avere, 'to have') from o ('or'), ai ('to the'), a ('to'), anno ('year').
    The letter Z represents /ʣ/, for example: zanzara /dzan'dzaɾa/ (mosquito)
    The letters C and G represent affricates . (cf Voiceless postalveolar affricate)
    However, an H can be added between C or G and E or I to represent a plosive
    There are three other special digraphs in Italian: GN, GL and SC..

    Ps: Unfortunately I do not know enough Italian or Latin, so I copy…and past
     
  18. Montesacro Senior Member

    Roma
    Italiano
    The letter Z represents two sounds:

    - /dz/, like in zero (zero), orzo (barley), razzo (rocket),

    - /ts/, like in zio (uncle), marzo (March), pazzo (crazy).

    Generally speaking, from the spelling you can't tell which of the two sounds Z represents.
     
  19. federicoft Senior Member

    Italian
    There are some very competent answers in this thread, anyway I have to agree with Montesacro.
    The Italian spelling is quite rational compared to other languages, however it is not completely devoid of illogical features such as etymological spellings with no real phonetic justification, or identical graphemes which represent different phonemes.
     
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2008
  20. orlando09 Senior Member

    France, PACA
    English (England)
    Hi, thanks, that's an interesting point. I can see that the same letter relates to two different sounds in zero and zio.I would probably have pronounced orzo and razzo with a 'ts' I think - not that I am saying I would have been right to do so.
    Can you think of any other examples of words where Italian is not completely clear and logical?
     
  21. federicoft Senior Member

    Italian
    Sure, just a few examples off my head (Montesacro has already suggested some interesting ones):


    • Plurals of words ending with -cia and -gia. The correct etymological spellings would be -cie and -gie, anyway they would sound exactly as -ce and -ge so nowadays both forms are accepted.
    E.g.
    ciliegia (cherry)
    ciliegie/ciliege (cherries)

    • Verbs with -gn steme in the first person plural of indicative and the first and second person plural of subjunctive. The i of the verb ending is silent, so the form without i is accepted too.
    E.g.
    consegniamo/consegnamo (we consign)
    bagniamo/bagnamo (we bathe).

    • The S letter is pronounced [z] between vowels (e.g. rosa), however there are some exceptions: casa, spesa, riso, naso, sorriso, desiderio, asino, cosa, così, chiuso, mese, resa, offesa, difesa, pretesa and others, which are pronounced . There isn't a way to tell which sound S represents in those cases, you just have to know it.
     
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2008
  22. marchinoberta Junior Member

    Italian
    Hi!

    We can also notice, for instance, famiglia (family), in which the letters g-l-i are pronounced as [ʎi] and geroglifico (hieroglyph) in which the same three letters are pronounced as separated [gli].

    I think the reason has to be found in the etymological origin. Usually the pronunciation of /gli/ in words of latin / germanic origin is [ʎi], but for greek words, just as geroglifico (< ιερογλύφος), we can have the pronunciation [gli].
     
  23. orlando09 Senior Member

    France, PACA
    English (England)
    Wow, I think I have been lead astray by thinking Italian spelling was super-logical... I wasn't aware of a lot of these examples people have given, e.g. I would have pronounced the "I" in scienza and I pretty much thought the sound in all these was "Z":casa, spesa, riso, naso, sorriso, desiderio, asino, cosa, così, chiuso, mese, resa, offesa, difesa, pretesa

    So looks like my Italian pronunciation is not as good as I thought is was.. :(
     
  24. federicoft Senior Member

    Italian
    If you have some doubts regarding the correct pronunciation you can type the word on the DOP and hear it properly pronounced.
     
  25. orlando09 Senior Member

    France, PACA
    English (England)
    mm that's cool, thanks. I was sure that things like casa and cosa had Z sounds in them, funny I had not noticed I was saying them wrongly
     
  26. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,

    It was an interesting thread! But we think that the original question (about the historic reasons) has been more or less answered.

    We're sorry to say that we cannot list all the orthographic peculiarities of Italian. This can be further discussed on the Italian Forum.

    We therefore close this thread.


    Take good care,

    Frank
    Moderator EHL
     
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