Dante Alighieri and the birth of the Italian language. Portrait by Agnolo Bronzino (1532).

Dante Alighieri and the birth of the Italian language. Portrait by Agnolo Bronzino (1532).

The birth of the Italian language and the medieval Florentine

Dante Alighieri is one of the most important Italian poets who also had a fundamental role in the birth of the Italian language. He was the first to believe in Italian. That’s the truth. In fact, they called him, appropriately, the “father of the Italian language”. Why? Because Dante did more for Italian than all other writers combined. This is the reason why Dante’s tomb is celebrated in Santa Croce, the most famous church of Florence. In the XIV century, the century he lived in, everyone considered Latin the perfect language, and new languages born from Latin were considered worthless. However, Dante wrote that Italian was worth as much as Latin, and could serve for writing high literary works.

The Divine Comedy and Florentine

In the new language he wrote the most beautiful and famous opera in Italian literature: The Divine Comedy. Dante wrote in his mother tongue, which was 13th century Florentine. He used elegant expressions as well as vulgar ones. In certain parts of the Divine Comedy, Dante even used bad words! The people, who weren’t educated, used the vulgar language (which means those languages which aren’t Latin). So today we say something is vulgar if it isn’t refined. Dante writes in vulgar Florentine. The style varies according to the theme. In fact, it varies from a more colloquial register (in Inferno) to a more refined register (in Paradiso).

Florentine and the birth of the Italian language

The Divine Comedy was so successful that Dante’s Florentine, with some transformation, became the base for today’s Italian. Just think that 90% of the words we use today in everyday Italian were already around in the Divine Comedy! Of course, some of these words have changed meaning over time. For example, the word gentile, or kind, for Dante meant nobile di sentimenti, or nobile sentiments, which today means a polite person. However, most words and their meanings have remained the same! Dante transforms words deriving from Latin into common-use words that we still sat today. And not only Italian, since many words deriving form Latin passed through other languages, like English!
For example, the word “fertile”, fertile: it was the Divine Comedy that introduced this Latinism into the common language. The word derives from “ferre”, or “portare, produrre”—carry, produce. Dante uses it in the XI canto of Paradiso. The celebrated passage by Saint Francis, where the “fertile costa” (fertile coast) indicates the place where the saint was born. That’s how it contributed to the birth of the Italian language!