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Italian is for rich people

Image: a miniature Danish-Norwegian-French dictionary. Photograph by Tomasz Sienicki

[…]la vanità di chi vuole col suo proprio arbitrio dar norme al parlare e allo scrivere. Le norme sono quelle dell’uso delle persone colte;[…]

The quote above is taken from the second edition of the “Vocabolario della lingua italiana” (Vocabulary of the Italian language) written by Nicola Zingarelli and published in 1922. It translates as follows:

[…]the vanity of those who want with their own will to give rules for speaking and writing. The rules are those of the use of educated people; […]

This will become, after the Second World War, the most widespread vocabulary in Italy, and it still is. Those words were a gut reaction from the author to some scholar who wanted to change the way Italian was written. To better understand this, let me give you a very quick lesson in Italian phonetic.

The Italian language has 5 characters for the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and 16 characters for the consonants (b, c, d, f, g, h, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, z). Let’s ignore most of them (cause they are written and pronounced in a unique way) and focus on e, o, s, and z. Each of this character can be pronounced in two ways (è / é, etc etc) but the Italian written language has no way of differentiate them. There are some limited cases for the vowels (as you see my Italian keyboard comes equipped with keys for é, è, and ò) but for the consonants there is no way to know the correct pronunciation.

Back to the quotation of Nicola Zingarelli, he said that meaningful words toward a group of scholars who wanted to introduce different characters for different sounds of these letters. His response was pretty clear “if you are educated, you know how to write and pronounce correctly in Italian.” In his mind he was a paladin of the language. He also said “a language is alive only if it is allowed to evolve.” He wanted to bring back Italian to the brightness of Dante and Petrarca, when Italian was the language you used if you were rich and noble. And most likely in his mind he thought that going into the 21st century everyone would have been educated! Ah, people at the end of the Italian “Risorgimento” really knew how to dream big.

It wasn’t even the first time that someone tried to reform the Italian language, around the time the nation was united under the banner of the Savoia family, who would become the first royal Italian family. Giovanni Gherardini first, with his “Lessigrafia Italiana” in 1843 proposed a series of rules that would unify how the words were written in the whole Italian peninsula, following the examples of France and Spain. Others in the first years of 1900 would try the same, like Policarpo Petrocchi, with his “Novo dizionario universale della lingua italiana”, and Pier Gabriele Goidanich, whose body of works on the subject is so vast I’m not gonna spend time citing them all. None of them had any lasting success, mostly because the majority of the population, the poor labor class, didn’t realize how important communication would become.

Flash forward 100 years, the world wealth is less equally distributed than it was in the 19th century. People die of cold and hunger in the most “civilized” countries. Most of our politicians and intellectuals are so unaware of the living condition of poor people, that they think of themselves as “poor”. And the epidemic of conspiracy theories and related news outlets show how we are NOT more educated.

As of today only a handful of people know the correct pronunciation of all the words: they are radio hosts, voice actors, anchormans, theater actors. All this people studied from the ones that 20, 50, 75 years before backed Zingarelli’s position: the elite educated class, most of them directly employed or related to the public broadcasting system founded in the fascist years.

Fun fact: EIAR (Ente Italiano per le Audizioni Radiofoniche), also known as “The voice of fascism”, was the public authority behind radio and television broadcasting from 1928 to 1944. On October, 26th 1944, after the liberation of Italy by the allied forces, the authority changed its name to RAI (Radio Audizioni Italia). While the upper management was changed (more than once, each new director being less anti-fascist) the mid to low level employee did not. A law was made (D.L.L.27/07/1944) and more than once the new democratic administration tried to purge the RAI but was unable to do it, to the point that the main Italian announcer, Guido Notari, was the voice every Italian heard every evening during the radio journal from 1933 to 1957. Isn’t it insane?

I think that all of these facts are related, all consequences of the laxness of Italy, its optimism one could say. People like Zingarelli assumed that since most of the people are good, also most of the rich and powerful would be good. Modern history teaches us that if you are good it’s statistically unlikely you would become very rich. They also probably had no idea of how much power and wealth would become synonymous in 100 year, and what would those rich people resort to to keep their wealth.

The story of the Italian language is a metaphor of the modern history of Italy. We think that somehow it is not as bad as it looks, and we don’t really need to change. We used to rule the world, we can do it! I got tired of this, and that’s one of the many reasons why I choose to not write in my native language.

I hope I gave you some fun facts and a glance at my point of view.

See you on Friday for my next post!

Posted on May 17, 2017 in writing

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About the Author

Design, book layout and typesetting are my passions. I love to take a work and make it as readable and appealing as possible. Right now I’m working on several projects as a freelance graphic designer and book layout artist.

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