Italian Language, one of the Romance group of languages of the Indo-European language family. It is spoken principally in the Italian peninsula, southern Switzerland, San Marino, Sicily, Corsica, northern Sardinia, and on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, as well as in North and South America. Of all the major Romance languages, Italian retains the closest resemblance to the Latin spoken by the Romans.
During the long period of Italian's evolution, many dialects were created. South and central Sardinian dialects are so distinct that they constitute a separate branch of the Romance languages, and an Italian dialect of the Eastern Alps, Friulian, is considered by most linguists to be a Rhaeto-Romanic dialect. The large number of dialects presented a difficulty in the evolution of a form of Italian that would reflect the cultural unity of the entire peninsula. During the 14th century the Tuscan dialect began to predominate, because of the central position of Tuscany (Toscana) in Italy, and because of the aggressive commerce of its most important city, Florence. Moreover, of all the Italian dialects, Tuscan was most similar to classical Latin. In modern Italian, the Latin qualities of the Tuscan dialect are preserved, but vocabulary has developed to meet the changing conditions of Italian life.
Il Presepe: The Tradition Of Crèches
Multinational Linguistic Roots
Both crèche and manger entered English from the French, but beyond that, their ancestries differ, reflecting something of the history of the French language as a whole. French, a Roman-derived language, is descended from the popular Latin of ancient Roman soldiers and settlers who dominated the area now known as France. Mandeoire--the present form of the French word for manger--derives from the Latin verb, mandere, to chew.
In contrast the word crèche springs from a German cousin. In the vocabularies of some Romance languages, there are a number of words of Germanic origin. These words, many having to do with agriculture, descended from the languages of the Germanic tribes who conquered much of the Roman territory, including France. Crèche is one such word. Were its first letter not "c" but "k," its German forebears would be more evident.
During the Middle Ages, the words crèche and manger spread from France to England. In its turn, English, a language of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic tribes, contributed its own relative, crib, to the terms, crèche and manger. As expected, all three words have come to describe the Nativity scene.
Interestingly, although Italian, another Romance language, includes the words, mangiatoia and greppia-- relatives of manger and crèche/crib respectively, Italians use neither word to denote the Nativity model. They use instead "il presepe", a descendent of the Latin praesaepe (the form "il presepio" also exists; in both cases the plural is "i presepi"). Despite the seemingly different word, presepio has some equivalence with the others. In the ancient word, a combination of prae, "in front," and saepire, "to enclose," meant, among other things, a manger or stall.
History and Tradition in Italy
From Bethlehem to Greccio: The creche before St. Francis
In Italy the style and materials used in creating the manger was characterized by geographical origin and historical periods. The Sicilian presepe, for instance, featured materials such as coral, ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, alabaster, and other sea materials, while the Roman presepe reproduced the typical landscape of the Roman country, including pine and olive trees and the ancient aqueducts.
San Gregorio Armeno - Crib Street, Napoli
Today that tradition lives on in Via San Gregorio Armeno. In the center of Naples, this narrow street, which runs past the 16th century Benedictine convent of the same name, is crowded with hundreds of artisan workshops with colorful window displays and stalls overflowing with Nativity scenes. Also in Naples at the Museo Nazionale di San Martino is "Il Presepe Cuciniello", a monumental collection from the 1700's that includes shepherds, angels, and animals.
Modern Nativity Celebrations
The tradition of crèches in Italy exemplifies a culture rich in artistic patrimony, and provides insight into Italian religious, linguistic, and storytelling history.