Those who made Italian: their stories

The Never-Ending Search for Italian: hunting for the Invisible Panther

The Middle Ages are famous for their fantastic creatures. For instance, the panther wore a camouflage that made her invisible and a perfume so powerful that prey was drawn to her. She was so fast that no hunter could hope to grab little more than her scent. That is the doom of the Italian language, Dante complained in De Vulgari Eloquentia, his treatise on European and Italian languages (1303-4), where he deems the Italian dialects unsuitable for literary exploits (The first document in the Italian language had appeared in 960 A.D. but was basically Capuan dialect). However, he makes an exception for the Sicilian School (1230-1250). Headed by Giacomo da Lentini, father of the sonnet, these notaries from Frederick II’s entourage had written a collection of songs and sonnets in a new literary language, a blend of Latin, French and Sicilian dialect. Though its use was confined to literature, literary Sicilian was easily understood by Italians. It also shared so many traits with the Florentine dialect that Dante could easily graft it onto his own language. The language that resulted from that marriage appeared in the poetry of Dolce Stil Novo, founded by Guido Guinizzelli, and continued by Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia and Dante himself. Finally, the Divina Commedia sums up the linguistic achievements of a century, giving birth to the first unitary Italian literature and language.

Wheat and Chaff

After Dante, the buck passed to Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Petrarch (1304-1374). The former wrote a best-selling collection of short stories (Decameron) that would become standard for the prose, the latter worked on poetry, perfecting the sonnet: his Canzoniere is one of the first intimate diaries ever written in a romance language. In it, he tells of of his unrequited love for a French lady – Laura – in such clear language as can be read without much effort even today. Both works were so successful as to be widely imitated in Italy and abroad for more than three centuries: compare the Sonnets by Marot or the Olive by Du Bellay on the one hand and the such collections of short stories as Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptameron. The Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, and then Ezra Pound have carried the sonnet to new heights. Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), a Venetian scholar friend of printer.

Aldus Manutius (1449/1450-1515), was also among Petrarch’s imitators, but went beyond sonneteering. He analysed the language to pin down the rules of an ideal Italian grammar (Prose della volgar lingua, 1525). His model included Dante and Boccaccio but ruled out 16th-century usage raising strong objections among his contemporaries. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) asserted the superiority of present, popular Florentine, while Baldassarre Castiglione (1478-1529) and Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550) advocated the independence of regional varieties of Italian. Bembo eventually had his way, and took good care to mould the sentence after Cicero’s prose. The new standard was to become the canon of the Accademia della Crusca (founded in Florence in 1582-3), the official legislative body of the Italian language. To its members, who started out as the eccentric fraternity of crusconi, or ‘chaff-eaters’ we owe the the first dictionary of the Italian language, the Dizionario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612).

Modern Italian

The Accademia della Crusca strove to preserve Bembo’s model. A few years later Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) also chose Italian for his speculations, becoming the father of scientific Italian. While Baroque encouraged dialect contamination and extravagant neologisms, the 1700s saw the demise of ‘classical’ Italian. In fact, the enlightenment opened the way to a marked French influence: the S-V-O order prevailed, though it never got to replace other variants: a horde of French words made their way into the language, only to be stopped by general disillusionment when it appeared that The Italian Republic had become a province of France. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Risorgimento, the long march towards Italy’s Unification, re-kindled the old debate about usage and grammar. Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) revamped the language by using spoken, present-day Florentine for his new novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed, 1840). More progress followed with Italy’s Unification (1861), when King Victor Emmanuel II called for a fresh bureaucracy and a new army: thousands of recruits from all over the country moved from North to South. This melting pot had far-reaching consequences: the draft also acted a social leveller, where the classical Italian met dialect, and vice-versa. As a result, the Italian language incorporated many new words and phrases from current, oral usage – bringing fresh blood to a language still based on fourteen-century poetry. By that time, however, Bembo’s ‘classical’ grammar was well established and taught in schools. While linguistic conservatism did not much to bridge the gap between written and spoken language, it helped preserve a number of archaic traits, making it one of the languages closest to Latin.

Language, art, music

We know that every word has its place in a sentence and that depends on the grammar. English and French speakers live by this conviction. S-V-O (subject-verb-object) in the affermative, as in |dad | reads | a book |. This is because French and English, like Italian, are non-flexive: you know who is the main actor in a sentence (subject) because it comes first.

The italian language has looser rules with different word orders, and whereas context is important to understand the meaning of a sentence, inflection and accent play an equally important role. While the traditional S-V-O is correct and your first choice, there are many more ways to rearrange the sentence that allow you to shift emphasis from the subject – to other actors. You can phrase a sentence correctly even if you omit the subject pronoun (io, tu, lui/lei – noi, voi, loro). Actually using them too often may sound redundant: always using IO may sound like you are calling attention to yourself – and not think of other speakers than you!

Sono andato a casa – I went home

sounds better than

Io sono andato a casa

Use IO to answer questions where people are already placing the emphasis on you. Your boss may want to pay special attention to YOU if you were absent from work without informing him. He calls you by TU:

TU non eri al lavoro ieri, eh?

(YOU were not at work yesterday, huh?)

IO ero malato ieri! (I – was ill yesterday!)

This is because the verb indicates both WHO is doing the action and WHAT they are doing. The answer to the sentence. If the subject is a person’t name you may use it without fear of being too emphatic, just don’ t repeat it too often.

Dov’è Maria (where is Maria?)

can be:

1. Qui è Maria

2. Maria qui è

3. E’ qui Maria

4. Maria è qui

Is there a reason for that? Pehaps, but more than one. The fist three examples place the emphasis on thee different things:

1. place 2. Maria 3. Maria’s presence

Although emphasis is not typically italian, such freedom to rearrange words is. Italian is one of the languages closest to Latin, a flexive language like German. Because the function of a word did not actually depend by its place in a sentence but by its case Cicero could write such long-winded sentences placing the words in what order he saw fit without fear of being misunderstood.

Consider that the sentence:

Caesar amat Cleopatram

can be re-written as

Cleeopatram amat Caesar

because an -am word is accusatve, no matter where you put it. When Pietro Bembo, the Venetian scholar devised the modern Italian grammar, he had been widely read in the classics. As Boccaccio, Bembo loved using rich sentences, and wherever possible, he moulded Italian on the way Cicero spoke. Using a looser word order helps you apply infinite shades to your styles. Communicating especially on social occasion is always a way to use Italian not just for what you want to say, but how.

“Gusto” and “bella figura” is something Italians are fond of – maybe too much – rearranging words to impress you and give it their personal touch is also art – in every language. A rich “rich” sentence sometimes recalls Baroque decoration. Don’t trust me on that, though, try that by listening and looking to a piece of baroque art, like the goden stuccos of St. Peters.

Or the twisted, screw-like wodden columns of the altar (colonna torsa): don’t they look like they are rotating or dancing as you walk round them? Try that with the Moses of Michelagelo. For a vast outdoor effect watch the round columnade by Bernini in the Piazza San Pietro as you pass by it.

Or listen to the arias of opera, just the melody, you need not undestand the words to feel the effect – even italians can’t without a libretto. An Italian sentence is melodious, words are glued together to conjure up one tune.

I wonder whether gesticulating reflects the music in the speech – the use of hands seems, scientists say, related to the area of language. I wonder whether the Italian language relfects the color and sound that is in art and music. Many foreign visitors have made similar remarks although Italians sometimes disagree – but whether this is true or not is for you to find out – by taking a walk through the piazza yourself, or sip a coffee in a café in Piazza Bra – a Sunday ritual in Verona as old as the evening walk along El Liston, our favorite passeggiata.

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