Both English and Italian are Indo-European languages. English is descended from the Proto-Germanic family of languages while Italian is a Romance (or Romanic) language. The Romance family of languages comprises languages descended from Vulgar (= of the vulgus, the common people) Latin, i.e. the colorful, vernacular form of Latin spoken throughout the Roman Empire. Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian (the Romance languages) emerged from the interaction of Vulgar Latin with the local idioms. For Italian, this process is attested as early as the 10th century. In the 14th century, the works of Dante and Boccaccio laid the groundwork for a standard Italian national language. A few decades later, the dawn of the Italian Renaissance triggered the direct influx of Italian vocabulary into the English language.
At first, Italian was perceived as “a maner Latyn corrupt” (a kind of corrupt Latin), to use Chaucer’s turn of phrase from The Man of Law’s Tale. Soon, however, English welcomed Italian loanwords with no intention of ever returning them. Italian became a major source of lexical supply and enriched the semantic fields of music and art (cantata, concerto, libretto, opera, oratorio, violin, chiaroscuro, alto-rilievo), food (bologna, broccoli, cappuccino,dolcetto, pasta, pizza, zucchini), literature and literary criticism (scenario, stanza, sonnet, novel, canto), and politics (fascism, incognito, partisan).
The following list is a sampler of (more or less) commonly used Italian words and phrases in modern English.
al dente (literally: “to the tooth”): pasta that is cooked but not too soft
al fresco (literally: “in the fresh”): in the fresh air, outdoors
bambino (Italian for “baby, infant, child”): in art criticism, a representation of the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes
ben trovato (literally: well found): an appropriate and apt fabrication
cinquecento (literally: five hundred): the 16th century (i.e. the 1500s, hence the name), esp. in Italian art (cf. quattrocento, seicento, trecento)
da capo (literally: “from the head”, i.e. from the beginning): to repeat (e.g. a musical piece) from the beginning
dolce far niente (literally: (it is) sweet doing nothing): the pleasures of being relaxed and lazy and doing nothing (cf. la dolce vita)
duce (Italian for “leader”): title of fascist leader Mussolini
inamorato (modern Italian spelling: innamorato; literally: in love): sweetheart, boyfriend; inamorata (innamorata) is the feminine form: girlfriend
la dolce vita (literally: the sweet life): a life of self-indulgence and luxury (cf. dolce far niente)
numero uno (Italian for “number one”): the boss, the big cheese, the top banana
padre (Italian for “father”): priest, clergyman
paparazzo (plural: paparazzi; originally a reporter, then a freelance photographer): the price of publicity and fame…
prima donna (literally: first lady): leading female opera singer; a “difficult” and temperamental professional (derogatorily)
quattrocento (literally: four hundred): the 15th century (i.e. the 1400s, hence the name), esp. in Italian art (cf. cinquecento, seicento, trecento)
seicento (literally: six hundred): the 17th century (i.e. the 1600s, hence the name), esp. in Italian art (cf. cinquecento, quattrocento, trecento)
simpatico (Italian for “congenial”): likable
trecento (literally: three hundred): the 14th century (i.e. the 1300s, hence the name), esp. in Italian art (cf. cinquecento, quattrocento, seicento)
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