Italian is a Romance language spoken by about 60 million people in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, the Vatican City, Malta and Eritrea. There are also Italian speakers in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK.
Italian first started to appear in written documents during the 10th century in the form of notes and short texts inserted into Latin documents such as lawsuits and poetry. For a long time, there was no standard written or spoken language in Italy and writers tended to write in their own regional dialects. In northern Italy, which was often ruled by the French, French and Occitan were used as literary languages.
During the 13th century such writers as Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Petrarch and Boccaccio were influential in popularising their own dialect of Italian - the Tuscan of Florence (la lingua fiorentina) - as a standard literary language. By the 14th century the Tuscan dialect was being used in political and cultural circles throughout Italy, though Latin remained the pre-eminent literary language until the 16th century.
The first grammar of Italian with the Latin title Regule lingue florentine (Rules of the Florentine language) was produced by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72) and published in 1495.
During the 15th and 16th centuries both Latin and Italian were used for technical and scientific texts. The Italian used was full of Latin words and over time Latin was used less and less as Italian became increasingly popular.
Today the Tuscan dialect is known as Italian (Italiano) and is the offical language of Italy. It is the main language of literature and the media. Each region of Italy also has its own dialect, some of which are so distinct from standard Italian that they are mutually unintelligible. The Sicilian dialect for example, is sometimes regarded as a separate language and has a literary tradition older than Italian itself.
The letters j (i lunga), k (cappa), w (vi/vu doppia) x (ics) and y (i greca) do appear in Italian but are thought of as foreign letters. They are used mainly in foreign loan words and their pronunciation depends on the word they appear in.