Italian belongs to the Romance group of languages along with French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian languages. Apart from Italy, it is considered one of the official languages in Switzerland, Vatican City, Slovenia, San Marino, and Croatia as well. It is still used in some parts of the African continent that were colonised by Italy at some point of time. Migration of Italian communities has made the language popular in the United States, Canada, Australia, South America, and other smaller countries such as Malta and Montenegro too. It is the third most widely spoken language in Europe.
An estimated 85 million people can speak Italian all over the world of which 65 million are native speakers. There are many dialects of the language that vary from one city to another. Most cities in present-day Italy were originally city-states with a language that, at times, was quite different from the others. For instance, the Tuscan dialect is totally different from the Sicilian one. What is commonly known as the Italian language is the Tuscan dialect which held centre-stage in medieval times when Tuscany was more powerful politically as well as economically. Latin was the language of literature at the time but by the 16th century, it gave way to the Tuscan dialect in the cultural sphere along with the political and economic one.
The Italian alphabet is derived from the Latin one and consists of 21 letters: five vowels and 16 consonants. Unlike the English alphabet, the Italian one does not have the letters J, K, W, X and Y. Of course in present-day Italian, these letters have come into the language due to words that have entered from other languages. At times, accents are used to modify the sounds of vowels.
The earliest written documents in Italian can be traced back to the 10th century. Till then Latin was the language used in most spheres, especially for literature. There was no uniform language and writers wrote in their regional dialects. Gradually, short texts in what later came to be known as Italian crept in the literature of the times.
Many words in Italian have their roots in other languages such as French and German. Scientific literature of the Renaissance era saw introduction of Greek words into Italian. Entry of Arabic words in the Italian language came through proximity to the Spanish language.