Italiano: No Longer la Bella Lingua?

If you spend any time in Italy these days and watch TV or read the newspapers, you’ll soon notice English words and phrases which are creeping into every aspect of Italian life. There are usually perfectly useful Italian words which serve the same purpose, but English words seem to have more status.

The trouble is, that in adopting certain words, it is assumed the words will be understood by English speakers, whereas often a word becomes a part of Italian vocabulary whilst having little or no relevance to its original meaning.

Recently I saw a bumper sticker in English on an Italian car presumably belonging to a driver with a concern for the environment. It read:
We live to fast.
What a difference an ‘o’ makes!

A new act of parliament has recently been introduced in Italy which they call the Jobs Act. We would never use a word such as job in official English, of course, preferring to use employment. They do have their own suitable word, naturally, but they seem to prefer our catchy little word “job.”
You get curious slogans in English on Italian TV adverts. “Life is Now” advertises a mobile phone company, but what on earth does it mean? Another similar company has the slogan “Been Touch.” I assume this is based on a misunderstanding and should say “Be in Touch.”

Driving through the countryside and passing through villages, you will often see boxes of books on the pavement outside a shop. The boxes bear the mysterious label “Book Crossing.” What they mean is a book exchange, where locals can donate a book and help themselves to another.

Odd bits of strange English constantly appear on tee shirts. It’s very frustrating when you want a souvenir or a gift and would prefer to buy something written in Italian. A cute, small English girl who likes My Little Pony would not be happy to wear a slogan like “Sweet Little Horse” and no one who speaks English would wear the nonsense of “If you prove imagine the rainbow you would have light passion.”

I’m sure we’ve all spotted amusing notices in mangled English (“Please do not hang” is a favourite, next to railings around a source of very hot water) or menus where the chef has tried to describe a dish with curious results: “Wet balls, a slice of sword and stained milk” was a perfectly good lunch in a Roman restaurant.

I think my all-time favourite example of strange language has to be the semi-official sign I spotted in Venice near the Rialto Bridge where you often find people selling fake designer goods arranged on sheets on the pavement. “When buying bad bag you may also be fined.”
This warning is so impressive that it has inspired me to call my whole collection of mangled English “The Bad Bag Collection.” But these are worthy attempts to be of help to foreign tourists. They pose no threat to the Italian language.

Italy has a similar organization to the Academie Française, the Accademia della Crusca founded in Florence in 1582, which monitors and guards the language. Interestingly, crusca means “bran,” using “sorting the wheat from the chaff” as a metaphor. The current president, Professor Claudio Marazzini, lists concerns such as new verbs (chattare instead of chiacchierare – to chat), the gradual disappearance of the subjunctive and the sprinkling of the language with Anglicisms.

“When Italians use the word ‘location,’ they are effectively killing off three perfectly good Italian equivalents: luogo, sito and posto,” he cited as an example.
But so often they get it wrong anyway. Who, for instance, understands what footing is? It means jogging. The word mister, which means a football coach, has been in the language for a century. They seem to have adopted the word educazione to mean education instead of istruzione. We all know about the Italian invention of Slow Food these days, although they now like the word slow so much that they use it for Slow Tourism, whatever that is. The list goes on and on. Some Italian universities have begun moves to offer all teaching through the medium of English and I happen to know that many, if not most, of the lecturers do not have a fluent command of English. One wonders what kind of language the graduates of the future will speak. My guess is a kind of incomprehensible Euro-English.

Of course, what is happening now is only the opposite of the same phenomenon in the 16th century when in England, and throughout Europe, Italian words concerning music were absorbed into other languages. Everyone knows Italian words such as crescendo, allegro and even bravo. The difference is that there was, at the time, no equivalent vocabulary in other languages. Today’s situation in Italy prompts Professor Marazzini to complain that “We are heading towards a more meagre Italian. If we go on like this, Italian will have vanished by the year 2300.”

Myra’s amusing book about her life in Italy, “The Best Mud in Italy,” is available via her website or Amazon Kindle.