The Italic languages are a subfamily of the Indo-European language family, originally spoken by Italic peoples. They include Latin and its descendants (the Romance languages) as well as a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan and South Picene.
With over 800 million native speakers, the Italic languages are the second most widely spoken branch of the Indo-European family, after the Indo-Iranian languages.
In the past, various definitions of "Italic" have prevailed. This article uses the classification presented by the Linguist List: Italic includes the Latin subgroup (Latin and the Romance languages) as well as the ancient Italic languages (Faliscan, Osco-Umbrian and two unclassified Italic languages, Aequian and Vestinian). Venetic (the language of the ancient Veneti), as revealed by its inscriptions, shared some similarities with the Italic languages and is sometimes classified as Italic. However, since it also shares similarities with other Western Indo-European branches (particularly Celtic languages), some linguists prefer to consider it as an independent Indo-European language.
In the extreme view, Italic did not exist, but the different groups descended directly from Indo-European and converged because of geographic contiguity. That view stems in part from the difficulty in identifying a common Italic homeland in prehistory.
In the intermediate view, the Italic languages are one of the ten or eleven major subgroups of the Indo-European language family and might therefore have had an ancestor, Common Italic or Proto-Italic from which its daughter languages descended. Moreover, there are similarities between major groups, but how the similarities are to be interpreted is one of the major debated issues in the historical linguistics of Indo-European. The linguist Calvert Watkins went so far as to suggest, among the ten major groups, a four-way division of East, West, North and South Indo-European. He considered them to be "dialectical divisions within Proto-Indo-European which go back to a period long before the speakers arrived in their historical areas of attestation". It is not to be considered a nodular grouping; in other words, there was not necessarily any common west Indo-European serving as a node from which the subgroups branched but a hypothesised similarity between the dialects of Proto-Indo-European that developed into the recognised families.
|Originally Italy, parts of Austria and Switzerland, today mainly southern Europe, maximum extent worldwide intermittent (most of the Americas. Official languages of half the countries in Africa and parts of Oceania).|
The main debate concerning the origin of the Italic languages is the same as one that preoccupied Greek studies for the last half of the 20th century. The Indo-Europeanists for Greek had hypothesized (see Dorian invasion, Proto-Greek) that Greek originated outside Greece and was brought in by invaders. Analysis of the lexical items of Mycenaean Greek, an early form of Greek, raised the issue of whether Greek was formed within Greece from Indo-European elements brought in by migrants or by invaders, mixed with elements of indigenous languages. The issue was settled in favour of Greek being a language that developed from all of these elements but then also took its recognisable form all within Greece.
A Proto-Italic homeland outside Italy is just as elusive as the home of the hypothetical Greek-speaking invaders. No early form of Italic is available to match Mycenaean Greek. The Italic languages are first attested in writing from Umbrian and Faliscan inscriptions from the 7th century BC. The alphabets used are based on the Old Italic alphabet, which is itself based on the Greek alphabet. The Italic alphabets themselves show minor influence from the Etruscan alphabet and somewhat more from the Ancient Greek alphabet. There is no guarantee that the intermediate phases between Italic and Indo-European will be found. The question of whether Italic originated outside Italy or developed by assimilation of Indo-European and other elements within Italy, approximately on or within its current range there, remains. Silvestri says:
...Common Italic... is certainly not to be seen as a prehistoric language that can largely be reconstructed, but rather as a set of prehistoric and proto-historic processes of convergence.
Bakkum defines Proto-Italic as a "chronological stage" without an independent development of its own, but extending over late Proto-Indo-European and the initial stages of Proto-Latin and Proto-Sabellic. Meiser's dates of 4000 BC to 1800 BC, well before Mycenaean Greek, are described by him as "as good a guess as anyone's".
Gray and Atkinson come up by using their Bayesian phylogenetic model that the Italic branch separated from the Germanic branch 5500 years ago, roughly the start of the Bronze Age.
The Italic family has two known branches:
The relationship of the Venetic language to other Indo-European languages is still debated, but the majority of scholars agree that Venetic shared some similarities with the Italic languages, and so is often classified as Italic or as a separate branch transitional to Italic.
Some other languages belong to the Italic branch, but too little is known for further classification: Aequian, spoken by the Aequi just east of Rome, and Vestinian, spoken by the Vestini in northeast Italy. It is unknown whether the Indo-European language spoken by the Sicels in Sicily was Italic or not.
As the Roman Republic extended its political dominion over the whole of the Italian peninsula, Latin became dominant over the other Italic languages, which ceased to be spoken perhaps sometime in the 1st century AD. From Vulgar Latin, the Romance languages emerged.
From the point of view of Proto-Indo-European, the Italic languages are fairly conservative. In phonology, the Italic languages are centum languages by merging the palatals with the velars (Latin centum has a /k/) but keeping the combined group separate from the labio-velars. In morphology, the Italic languages preserve six cases in the noun and the adjective (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, vocative) with traces of a seventh (locative), but the dual of both the noun and the verb has completely disappeared. From the position of both morphological innovations and uniquely shared lexical items, Italic shows the greatest similarities with Celtic and Germanic, with some of the shared lexical correspondences also being found in Baltic and Slavic.