Estimated native speakers: 65 million
Estimated total speakers: 85 million
Official/de facto official language in: Croatia (Istria County), Italy, Malta, San Marino, Slovenia (Slovenian Istria), Switzerland, Vatican City
Language family: Indo-European - Romance
A brief history:
After the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe plunged into the so-called Dark Ages, the Vulgar Latin spoken by traders, soldiers and settlers started evolving into the separate Romance languages of today. The one which most closely resembles Latin is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Italian. But within Italy, each city has a distinctive dialect evolved from a blend of Tuscan and the traditional local language.
The modern Italian language stems from the work of Dante Alighieri in the fourteenth century, who wrote in his native Florentine (a Tuscan dialect). His epic poem, now known as the Divine Comedy, became a sensation throughout Italy and his written dialect became the standard for all educated Italians. When the Renaissance was in full swing, purists headed by Venetian Pietro Bembo declared that the Divine Comedy was not dignified enough to form the basis of a language and that Petrach was a better model. Their arguments led to the formation of the Accademia della Crusca and the publication of the first Italian dictionary in 1612.
The conquest and occupation of Italy by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century encouraged the unification of Italy and propelled Italian from a language used by clerks, aristocrats and bureaucrats to a language used by the bourgeoisie. At the time of unification, only 2.5% of Italians could speak Italian and many of the old languages survive to this day.