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Italian: Not Just for Italians

By Tom Thompson

My step-daughter, who's just finishing university, recently asked me what my favorite language is.

During the conversation that followed, I realized that my abilities in various languages have been directly related to academics or business. In fact, I've never studied a language for the simple pleasure of learning it, especially to be able to navigate the terrain of the people who live where the language is both spoken and written.

My choice is Italian. And hers, too! We are both bilingual in English and Spanish, and that helps. So we've optimistically agreed to test our efforts over the next year and possibly even to plan a family trip to Italy.

What other nation produced the only empire to have united Europe and the greatest cultural transformation in the history of the West (the Renaissance), or shaped our entire modern view of life? Along the way, Italy emerged as the preeminent seat of Christendom. Then there are the painters and sculptors, the writers, and, of course, the composers.

My step-daughter's interests are complementary. She's memorized Dianne Hales's energetic commentary in La Bella Lingua, that Italian is "una lingua polisensoriale capace di aprire le porte al bello." (a multisensory language able to open the gates to beauty"). She's often mentioned the idea of charming people, stylish men, and delicious food. That food has recently conquered the world, along with improving wines. She has no memory of Italian food as a poor man's gruel - little more than pizza, macaroni with sauce, and red wine in a box!

Nowadays as famous as Italy is for Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, it's equally well known for its delicious cuisines in varying degrees of regional glory. Then, too, the regionalism of an overstretched peninsula whose dynamic has been social and political fragmentation has also had its linguistic expression. In fact, it was not so long ago that a majority of Italians did not speak Italian, but instead regional dialects. Only 2 or 3% of Italy's population could speak the standard language when it became a united nation in 1861.

The standard Italian language of today is based on Tuscan, specifically its Florentine variety, and the majority of the language in Italy do not derive from Tuscan but directly from Vulgar Latin, the colloquial language of the late Roman empire. It was only during the second half of the twentieth century that standard Italian became a spoken language that a majority of Italians were able to use in everyday life as their ordinary medium of communication, although many Italians use regional dialects and languages to talk to family and friends.

These days Italian is not just for Italians. Italian ranks fourth among the world's most studied foreign languages - after English, Spanish, and French, with Chinese gaining in popularity.

Sentence structure in Italian and Spanish is similar. Both languages have genders. Reflexive verbs have the refexive pronoun on the end in an infinitive.

The Italian alphabet has 21 letters, while Spanish has 29. Italian has seven vowel sounds. Spanish has five.

Unlike most other Romance languages, Italian retains Latin's contrast between short and long consonants. But there's a significant lexical similarity with Spanish. The Italian words che, quando and quanto mean exactly the same thing as the Spanish words que, cuando and cuanto, but they're spelled differently. There are plenty of "false friends," words in one language that look like a word in another language but have a different meaning. An example: pronto in Italian means ready; Spanish pronto means soon.

Some differences include that Italian words with a vowel. Words in Spanish generally do not begin with an s. Not a problem in Italian. Spanish counts possessives as articles, as in English, but Italian does not. Thus, in Italian a construction like il mio libro is typical.

There are lots of wonderful books on Italian, and Italians. In addition to Dianne Hales' popular book, they include John Hooper's The Italians and Giulio Lepschy's Mother Tongues and Other Reflections on the Italian Language.

Two lessons of our early reading have been confirmed with our first experiences with native-born Italian speaking tutors. One is that a common mistake made by foreigners learning Italian is to go around saying "Ciao" to everyone. But ciao is the equivalent of "hi" in English. And while in the U.S. you might say "Hi" to somebody you don't know very well, in Italy you don't. Buongiorno (Good morning) or Buonsera (Good afternoon/evening,") work much better!

Another is that nobody expresses themselves more visually than Italians. We both agree that it's the Italians who can draw on such a vast array of hand gestures, each linked to a precise linguistic meaning so that even if we don't understand what's being said, we can often get the overall gist just by watching. Of course "the gesticulation" quotient varies from person to person.

That combination of the gesticulation and the smooth, melodic, musical quality of spoken Italian is simply great fun.

About the writer

Tom Thompson writes often on foreign language topics. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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