My partner travels a lot for work and whenever he goes somewhere that he can snag Italian pubs, he brings me back an armload. Usually two editions of an Italian newspaper (La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera), one or two of the news weeklies and a lifestyle or travel mag like Bell’Italia.
I array them all on the dining table and prepare to immerse myself in an Italian mag reading marathon. It’s a ritual we’ve been performing ever since leaving Italy years ago to come back to the States.
Yet in the past few years, there’s been a fly in my spaghetti, so to speak. My beloved Italian periodicals are littered with English words and phrases. That complaint can extend to many of the news articles I see online or in my inbox on a more-or-less daily basis.
Recently, a promotional email from the Italian women’s magazine “Io Donna” about an article on swimwear caught my eye (I love swimming). The email read, “4 accessori must have per la spiaggia.” (Four “must-have” accessories for the beach).
Something snapped—and I began writing this essay. Or really, this rant. It’s one I’ve been honing in my head, if one can hone a rant, for years. I’ve held off on sending this thought out into the wider world because it somehow felt churlish, as if I were a Luddite.
At first blush, the complaint has nothing to do with the literary world or the world of literature in translation that Asymptote celebrates and chronicles. An ad for swimwear: of all the silly things to write about!
But who learns a foreign language only to read, say, Dante? I want to read Dante and the Italian newspaper and the weeklies and advertisements on the Metro and the underground comic books and so on. I want to know the Italian equivalent of “must have.”
Something about the email just seemed to cross a boundary, but it’s probably more accurate to say it was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Other examples are far more egregious, such as giving an English name to a major piece of economic legislation created in and for the country of Italy: “Il Jobs Act.” You can thank Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for that. But Renzi is not the culprit (or the only culprit). I’ll limit myself to saying it requires a certain myopia, or a penchant for swaggering, braggy one-upmanship, to conceive of proposing domestic legislation whose name requires knowledge of a foreign language.
That example is somewhat singular, but you don’t need to look too far to come up with dozens of other instances where English is used in Italian, and it’s often completely unnecessary (i.e., not referring to a computer or Twitter or, ahem, Big Macs).
You can look, sadly, in just about any edition the major Italian newspapers and periodicals that produce serious journalism. A recent article in La Repubblica, for example, talked about “la spending review.” My first thought, to be quite honest, was: WTF? In the history of Italy, has no government ever ordered a spending review, and hence there are no words in Italian for ‘spending review’? At this point, English words and phrases like babysitter, graphic novel, manager, password and privacy are in wide circulation in Italy.
Cataloging Italian’s encroachment into Italian is a bit of an obsession for me so I consulted with two other Italophiles to confirm my fears but also to sound out whether my alarm is warranted. And the answer is yes and no. One of those experts, Janaya Lasker-Ferretti, teaches Italian at the University of Michigan, and she confirms the problem is getting worse. “When I first went to Italy in 1996, I could recall only a handful of English words used in Italian.” Now she reports she’s just returned from an extended stay in Italy, where, in a town on the Ligurian coast, she found several businesses selling “American specialties—such as brownies and Coca-Cola cake (the woman told me she had modified the recipe from Cracker Barrel!).” Il Cracker Barrel?
The august Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s linguistic brain trust which is based in Florence, weighed in earlier this year on the use of “stepchild adoption” in everyday Italian. Stepchild adoption. That ain’t no ‘n’est-ce pas’ or ‘al dente.’ In other words, it’s not a quick or minor foreign reference that anyone would grasp. Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine a phrase as long and as complex as that entering the English language now whole, from another tongue. La Crusca stated that the phrase should absolutely be not used by journalists, to cite one group, and it provided an alternative—because an alternative, of course, exists. Because Italian is a mind-bogglingly rich language.
Perhaps I’m overthinking things. After all, I, myself, am a journalist so I can appreciate the perceived exigency of using ‘killer’ instead of ‘assassino’ in a headline; it’s shorter. It fits. I also certainly don’t challenge the use of words like computer, not just by Italians but many other non-native speakers of English. That’s the word for the box we all look at obsessively all day long, from Naples to New York to Hong Kong—an invention that was perfected in America.
And with the social media revolution, Italians use Twitter and Facebook just as much as Americans, and hence it’s not so surprising that they would begin to adopt our hashtags, among other things. Indeed, Lasker-Ferretti views the use of English as an act of “appropriation,” that speaks to Italy’s history of absorbing words and phrases from other languages, going back to ancient Greek.
But I wonder if it’s so logical to presume that every Italian woman who reads Io Donna knows the words “must have.” I also wonder if she wants to know the words “must have” or ‘stepchild adoption,’ for that matter. I, for example, don’t care to know the words “must have” or “stepchild adoption” in, say, German or Slovenian. And I wouldn’t want my inbox to be cluttered with information that’s cluttered with words I may not know when I think I’m reading something in my native language.
The most striking examples of the Italian world’s slow but inexorable seduction by English largely appear in newspapers, magazines and advertisements. So perhaps no need to worry, right? It has little to do with the literary world.
But like I said, I don’t want only to read Dante. I want to read everything written Italian has to offer. And yes, damn it, I’d like all of it to be in actual Italian! That may be an unreachable goal at this point. But as an aspiring literary translator, all of these communication founts are part of the laboratory of Italian where I “study” each day.
Plus, the English creep in modern Italian is also evident in literature. If for no other reason than novels typically include dialogue. Two novels I absolutely love and which I’d like to translate contain the English word ‘stalker’ multiple times. It’s a good word and I can certainly see why it’s so attractive to native Italian speakers. The very sound of the hard ‘k’ in stalker manages to telegraph something negative—a sonic phenomenon common in Italian. But what’s ironic is that stalking is not merely the province of American men (and some women). Italian men stalk, too! (And have been practicing stalking since before Caesar was born.)
I suppose there’s something else. I love Italy and Italian as if they were part of my family. And I sometimes see this slavish devotion to English phrases and concepts as a sign of a grave illness. If Italy were truly a person, I’d fear a diagnosis of depression (or bipolar). If Italy were my child, I’d fear he was unable to properly love his own identity. Lasker-Ferretti has developed an interesting (and legit) theory about Italy’s English obsession: “I think that the encroachment of English into everyday Italian speaks [to] Italy’s desire to declare itself modern and international. In many ways, Italy can be seen as provincial,” she says. “Think of il campanilismo and the use of dialect and the importance of accents…so by incorporating English into Italian it’s a way of moving out of campanilismo and showing [itself] to be part of the larger world.”
She has a point. While it’s hard to imagine Americans nowadays adopting long, complex foreign phrases (particularly if English has an alternative), that may speak to our own parochialism. Nonetheless, to my ear, nothing about “Oggi parliamo di stepchild adoption” sounds right, even if it may seem hip to Italy’s cultural elite.
Over the years, people have howled at the purists in places like L’Academie Francaise which aims to safeguard French. There’s also The Royal Academy in Spain, which launched a campaign this year against what it terms an “invasion” of English terms in every day Spanish. A recent article in The New York Times spotlighted the challenges the guardians of Hebrew face in translating words like ‘hashtag’ and ‘shaming’ into a language with ancient roots.
Many say it’s pointless (inasmuch as you cannot stop the tide of English into French or Spanish) and seems provincial besides. Lasker-Ferretti, for one, thinks the approach of L’Academie Francaise “isolates [French] and closes itself off to others.”
Fair enough. Languages are living, breathing entities. Yet I would argue: Who wants to be fluent in Frenglish? Who’s ever majored in Frenglish? Do they give out PhDs in Frenglish at some university? (I might actually have a chance at earning one of those, ahem!) Are people writing books I’d want to read in Frenglish?
Language in any form is interesting to me. I even find it fascinating to hear how Italians have adopted some English words and phrases in ways native speakers would not. For example, a common refrain in Italian newspaper headlines is the phrase “in tilt.” It means disarray or freefall. Cool!
And, sure literature has been written in Spanglish, often emerging from storied Spanish-speaking enclaves in New York. But that speaks to a very different cultural phenomenon, involving actual immigration. This Italian tic, I fear, speaks to an obsession with catching up. I fear it’s an instance of Italy failing to properly quantify and safeguard its linguistic patrimony. As I said recently in a lecture on Italian literature, Italy in English is fun. But Italy in Italian? It’s fantastico! Italian, in fact, is one of Italy’s richest inventions.
I used to teach English in Italy so I am aware that many Italians need to learn the language for their jobs. Others love it in the same way I love Italian. Ma certo! But the whole country? Because the periodicals I’ve cited are written for a general Italian audience. If you’re trying to communicate something, why risk alienating a large part of your audience?
Perhaps the problem is really more one for Italophiles like me. I wonder: In 100 years, will foreign students of Italian have to be really choosy about where they study abroad because a semester in Florence won’t sound all that different than a semester in Cambridge or Williamsburg? In 100 years, will all students of Italian have to know English, even if they grew up speaking Hungarian in Budapest, because otherwise Italian literature will be almost illegible?
Here’s a question for Italy: In 50 years, will Italian children want their parents to speak English at home?
Exaggerations, right? And besides, perhaps this is how the rest of modern polyglot Europe has already become.
I suppose there’s no point in ending this piece on cataclysmic conclusions. We’re not talking about national security or climate change. My main sounding board, again Janaya Lasker-Ferretti of the University of Michigan, believes Italian can absorb these Englishisms without doing itself harm, and she believes it isn’t excessive.
My other expert on Italian literature, Stiliana Milkova, points out that interest in the Sicilian dialect, among other regional varieties, has swelled in Italy.
“Even if English is pervading spoken Italian, I think there is also a counter tendency in the literary language—an interest in regional dialects, in the uniqueness of local idioms,” Milkova, a professor of comparative literature at Oberlin College, told me.
She uses as an example Andrea Camilleri’s novels, which interweave the Sicilian dialect with “literary Italian, calling attention to the regional specificity of Italian identity.” She notes even the TV series adapted from Camilleri’s Montalbano mystery novels likewise incorporates dialect.
I truly hope they are both right. Because we are talking about something that’s a vital element of any country. Would I fallen in love with Italy that long-ago semester in Siena if I’d spoken English with my new Italian friends? No. And that’s maybe the only point I want to make. I don’t want to imagine a world where Italians cease saying something like “l’altro ieri” to indicate the day before yesterday (literally: “the other yesterday.” The other yesterday! Even after all of these years, I am dying over here at how that precious phrase provides insight into their frame of reference). Oh Italy. A country where children simply use the words “i miei” (“my”) to refer to their parents. A country whose language in its pure form sounds to me like a love song.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her creative writing, including nonfiction essays and book reviews, have appeared online at Literary Hub, Catapult and Consequence. She’s contributed reporting to The New York Times and CNN. She studied Italian Literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.
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