Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Letter to the Italian Language Academy

15 January 2001

Giovanni Nencioni , Direttore Responsabile
La Crusca per Voi
Foglio dell’Accademia della Crusca Dedicato alle
Scuole e agli Amatori della Lingua
Accademia della Crusca
Centro di Grammatica Italiana
Villa Medicea di Castello
Via di Castello 46

I finally finished your elongated address, Giovanni! For me, it says it all! (Parole! Parole!! Parole!!!)

I hope this my letter finds you well. I want to wish you and all the other xenophobes at the Accademia della Crusca a prosperous and joyous 2001.

I received the October, 2000 issue of La Crusca per Voi on 29 December 2000! Not only is the Italian language in via di estinzione, the Italian Postal System, also, is having a veritable crisis of existence! You have my deepest sympathy—to be sure.

I was shocked to see three grammatical/typographical errors in the October, 2000 number: on page one, column three there are three boo-boos (!); on line 13, procurarsene should read procurarcene; on line 18, suo should read nostro; and, on line 19, vive should read viviamo!

Today I want to tell you something about the English language in order to allay some of the apprehensions you possess concerning it. I am doing this so that you may not utter any more derisive statements which often render your argumentation silly, especially when you pontificate on and on—on English.

I take for granted that the popularity of the English language has made you green with envy, that it is the bete noire of your linguistic calculating, and that the English language—lying there in waiting on the written page and hissing like steam into the air from the mouths of hundreds of millions of its speakers—is lurking behind every shadow and at night is ready to jump out and beat upon you, the Defender of the Italian Language. You are overstating English’s puissance. The truth is that only a sixth or so of the planet converses in English and many of those loquacious ones use English as a second language—somewhat the way Italian is practised in many Southamerican countries. For sure, scientific and technical writings of any repute are published in English. The language of the air is English, and I think we are all happy that some language—even if it has to be English—was chosen to keep pilots and air controllers all over the world in verbal sync and on a uniform footing—with both hands on the controls. One world-famous individual, Larry King of C.N.N., broadcasts his talk-show to an astonishing 250,000,000 homes in more than 200 countries—naturally, in English. Still, English is not the hugest mother tongue in the world: Chinese Mandarin is. English is, nevertheless, the most enormously diffuse of parlances with some saying it is growing exponentially. (I doubt that.) Why Italian is voiced by less than 75,000,000 in the entire world is a detail that should leave you perplexed, Giovanni. (I will tell you the whys and wherefores later.) Always keep in mind also that English is the language of business and not William Shakespeare—just as Italian is not the language of Dante Alighieri!

Why is English so prevailing—so obstinate, if you will? The first element to consider is the very compactness of the language itself which makes it a more economical resource available to transmit the fingerprints of our minds: Ink, paper and time are used less when English is incorporated. It is said that English verbs are easy to learn; but, this is only true at the beginning when phrasal expressions have not yet been studied; so, if an individual says he or she found it easy to learn English verbs, he or she has not, unquestionably, progressed very far. And, there are hundreds of millions possessing this temperament worldwide with an extraordinary share of them in Italy! The most gargantuan number of words will be found in the English language, and that perk allows it to be a very flexible and rich expedient of expression. The quality of melodiousness is repeatedly attributed to English, and this singularity has made it the vernacular most recorded by singers and vocal groups from the beginning of Time. English is particularly well-adapted for use in advertising—both print and voice—where its succinct, non-interventional messaging and catchy phraseology has sold millions of products in this universe implying, incorrectly, that English is invested with some sort of semasiological powerfulness. The upshot of advertising English on our global consciousness is indeed superficial and fleeting in character—as it actually is intended to be so by most advertising executives. (What do the potentates of Madison Avenue care about English as a refined, influential phenomenon?) English is not “that enemy” infiltrating into your home stamped on a Coca-Cola label, Giovanni! Do not be afraid of it. Rather, it is a language in moda—as Greek and Latin once were—and above all is exceptionally fortunate to have had for better or for worse two political and economic giants (the United Kingdom and the United States) to help it along its merry expansionistic path during the last two-hundred years—or so. (In hindsight, it is in a certain sense unfortunate—indeed revealing—that Mussolini was not able to offer the Italian language a similar convenience. He, too, just as you Giovanni, wanted to keep Italian under lock and key!)

I personally believe that the most awe-inspiring property of English is its multifariousness which, for me, is a substantiation of its democratic bent. Please permit me to explain. No other language ever has accepted the words and phrases of other linguistic stocks as frequently and consistently as English. Almost a thousand years ago, the Norman Conquest set English on its way in the British Isles. French became immediately the dialect of noblemen and noblewomen there. English allegiants, tuned to the French of their lords and the Latin of their priests, began to envision today’s English. They employed, notwithstanding, a Germanic (not German) grammatical foundation which distinguishes English very much so from French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish. Forty percent of the English language is composed of French words or derivatives from them. Latin is found recurrently in English. Your very own Italian, Giovanni, is sprinkled all over English: aria, artichoke, bandit, broccoli, cameo, carnival, casino, concerto, duet, finale, ghetto, graffiti, incognito, inferno, influenza, larva, libretto, macaroni, maestro, mafia, malaria, paparazzi, piano, pizza, ravioli, regatta, replica, scampi, solo, soprano, spaghetti, studio, umbrella, vendetta, vermicelli, volcano…to name just a few. Loanwords from the Amerindian, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Flemish, German, Hebrew, Indian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish and Yiddish languages are found in English.

What we have then is an English, a combination of words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a vast community, which has been nurtured wisely and cleverly over the centuries. Instead of curling up in itself, English has intelligently sought to embrace other languages and ideas derived from them—all the while resisting the temptation to be ethnocentric. It opens up to what is heterogeneous and considers other ways of life a positive influence. What a wonderful asset! It may be said that English, an overflowing melange of linguistic appropriations, is stouthearted and salubrious in mind and spirit.

Lamentably, Italian is not sound. Among the many scary confirmations of this inconsolable certainty are these three: one of every ten of the 57,000,000 Italians purchased a newspaper today, and the one which has the highest circulation is La Gazzetta dello Sport; as much as 80% of the books published in Italy are translations of foreign authors; and, in Europe, Italy reads less than any other European nation. An Italian novelist will be happy to sell 15,000 copies of his work and will share the television podium, gloating over his “success,” in the company of a mundane Italian “intelligentsia” who applauds, exaggeratedly, his/her originality and importance on the airwaves of The Italian Wasteland. You do not see many Italians reading a book on buses and trains. A pocketbook can cost as much as a well-made dress shirt. There are no new promising literary figures on the horizon, and if you look at the indexes of Italian penmen and penwomen published in other countries, those wordsmiths belong to another moment. Today, Italians have little to say; and, while they talk and talk and talk…, all is being done for them!

Do you know why Italians outrank Europe in being the worst learners of foreign idioms, Giovanni? It is because they are not even studying Italian! Is it possible that there are in the world more students studying Latin than there are those studying Italian? Is Italian “deader” than Latin? How many copies of La Crusca per Voi did you publish in October? 500? 1000? Who paid for the production? Surely not your readers. Where did the funds come from? Italian is weak and getting more so. Italian is in via di estinzione.

* * *

Up to this point, I followed your cart-before-the-horse thinking about Italian reviewing it as an entity in itself and a reality that should be regarded exclusively from an objective point of view and reverenced and cuddled and protected and museum-pieced under a glass case and opened with a gold key. I wish now to reverse your logic and dwell on the spouters of Italian and their responsibilities to it.

Italians are not being serious with their language. Italian flails on because Italians are flailing on. For Italian to be vital, Italians must also be so. They are not. Are not the people the language? Or, do you believe, Giovanni, that the academies and the defenders of the language are? Italian is a “dead” language because Italians are dying. Is that not logical? Do Italians not hold distinction as being the ones with the lowest birthrate in the world? Italians are not creating. They are desperately trying to hold on. They are obligated to copy. They are too stressed and tired to invent, to originate things. Italians are seeking obsessively to be comfortable and well-fed. They are not saving for a rainy day—preparing for the future, any eventuality. They have no interest in it. Their future is being determined by others for them. And they know it. How can they be expected to spawn?

So, why should Italian be dynamic, alert when Italians themselves are not? It is no wonder that you, Giovanni, engender a dismal tone for all interested in the Italian language. You are afraid. You seek to build a very deep trench around Italian to keep it safe from mingling impurities and McDonald’s publicity campaigns. You are conservative, reactionary. You do not want Italian to expand, progress because to do that Italian must leave its neutral corner and learn to fight to survive—to live in the whole of the global society. You do not give hope to Italian youth. You teach them to reject all that is progressive, modern. You teach them to commit cultural suicide; and, the weapon of choice is xenophobia.

Giovanni, you can go to all the banquets you want; accept all the honors you want; and, pose for all the photographers and all the sculptors who will want to freeze you for decades to come. But remember always that just as Indro Montanelli was the Black Pope of Italian Journalism and Enrico Cuccia was the Black Pope of Italian Economics, you will be thought of forever as the Black Pope of the Italian Language!

Anthony St. John
Casella Postale 38

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