Thoughts about Italian

When I’m asked about the languages that I know, I usually include Italian among them, since I can speak it, understand it (even the stilted language of opera) and read it without much difficulty (I’m not so sure about writing it). But unlike the other languages in which I consider myself fluent — English (my primary language), Polish (my first language), German (my primary language in the past), Hebrew (ditto), Yiddish, French, Spanish and Catalan — I have never lived in an Italian-speaking environment. I have been in Italy many times over the past six decades, but never longer than a few weeks at a time, and my communications with Italian colleagues and students has been in English. So I’m not quite so sure of expressing myself correctly in Italian as in the other languages. I’m not always sure where the stress in a word is, or whether a given e or o is closed or open, or if an intervocalic s is [z] or [s]. But I’ve discovered that in Italy these things vary with region, and my when-in-doubt default seems to coincide, for some reason, with the Milanese variant (which includes using the perfect tense instead of the simple past, as in French).

I have recently been think about some qualities of Italian. Not its esthetic qualities (“Italian is a musical language”) or even linguistic ones, but its relationship to other languages,

Italian is, on the one hand, quite welcoming to foreign loanwords, usually with no change of spelling or any other attempt to Italianize them: computer, würstel, Bohème… Acronyms are borrowed as well: for AIDS and NATO Italian has Aids and Nato (usually only the first letter is capitalized in Italian) where French, Spanish and Portuguese have SIDA and OTAN. And when originally Italian words are modified by alloglots to express another meaning, Italian accepts the modifications by respelling: the Italian casino (‘brothel’), modified by the French (with the accent on the last syllable) to mean ‘gambling establishment’, became casinò; and getto (‘casting’), which in its Venetian form geto came to mean ‘foundry’ and to designate a neighborhood in Venice around a foundry, became ghetto when this neighborhood was settled by German Jews who pronounced the g hard rather than soft.

On the other hand, some words common to a great many languages have no Italian counterparts: ‘hotel’ is albergo (though hotel names usually include the word Hotel); ‘football’ (soccer) is calcio (though American football is football americano). And the old habit of converting foreign forenames to one’s own language (as in ‘Ferdinand’ for Fernando) is alive in Italian; thus the British queen is Elisabetta and her husband is Filippo, as is the king of Spain. And French characters in Italian operas have names like Alfredo, Violetta, Rodolfo, or Marcello.

All languages, of course, have quirks, one can even say personalities, beyond vocabulary, phonetics and grammar, and getting to know them is part of learning a language.


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