The Anglo Invasion of Italy

Matteo Renzi passed the “Jobs Act” and mothers are taking their <i>bambini</i> to “baby parking.” But Italians are finally saying <i>basta</i> to the world’s lingua franca.


In the 1989 Italian satire Palombella Rossa, Nanni Moretti -- an actor and director often described as Italy’s Woody Allen -- plays Michele Apicella, a young politician who suffers amnesia after a car accident. He regains consciousness only to find that he doesn’t understand the world, or his own place in it.

In the 1989 Italian satire Palombella Rossa, Nanni Moretti — an actor and director often described as Italy’s Woody Allen — plays Michele Apicella, a young politician who suffers amnesia after a car accident. He regains consciousness only to find that he doesn’t understand the world, or his own place in it.

Midway through the film — and midway through Michele’s emotional breakdown — he is besieged by a journalist, who insists on peppering her Italian with non-Italian words as a badge of her sophistication. “Il mio ambiente è molto cheap,” she says. (“My surroundings are very cheap.”) “È così kitsch,” she adds. (“It’s so kitsch.”) The encounter pushes Michele over the brink: “Who speaks poorly, thinks poorly, and lives poorly!” he says, slapping her repeatedly. “Words are important!”

When Palombella Rossa was made, such Anglicisms were used mostly by tiny handfuls who, like the journalist, were mocked for their pretension. But if Michele had awakened from his accident in 2015, he would have found himself besieged: It’s no longer possible to avoid the language of Shakespeare and Dickens in the land of Dante and Petrarch. And Italians have recently decided to do something about it.

For the past 432 years, the Florence-based Accademia della Crusca has been entrusted with guarding the integrity of the Italian language. This year, the organization started setting off alarm bells about English. “A real war against our language is underway and I believe it’s plain for everyone to see,” Claudio Marazzini, the Crusca’s president, told a group of students earlier this year. This February, after hosting a summit on Anglicisms in Italian, the Crusca started a committee called Incipit. Composed of respected linguists, Incipit is charged with preventing the adoption of foreign words before they gain a foothold in the national psyche by suggesting Italian equivalents.

“It’s too late to do something about ‘car sharing,’” Marazzini admitted. “But we need to find Italian words in a hurry for ‘quantitative easing.’”

English, as the world’s de facto lingua franca, has a habit of creeping into many of the world’s languages, often to their speakers’ chagrin. And this isn’t the first time English has infiltrated Italian: In the wake of World War II, Anglicisms occasionally turned up. But these were typically technical words, borrowed to fill in vocabulary gaps in the fields of science and technology.

Today English words and phrases for daily life are being adopted wholesale: “copyright,” “slot machine,” “question time,” and “dress code,” among others, all make regular appearances. One of Incipit’s first targets has been the English word “hot spot,” which is being used in Italy to describe a processing center for the refugees streaming into the European Union. Italians, Incipit contends, may confuse it with a “Wi-Fi connection point” or “trendy place,” which fail to capture the seriousness of the migrants’ plight. What’s more, it notes, the Italian phrase “centri di identificazione” (“identification centers”) already exists.

It’s not just that Italians increasingly use English words when perfectly fine Italian ones already exist; they’re also incorporating pseudo-Anglicisms into the language — English words whose usage or formulation native speakers wouldn’t even recognize. Many Italians say “baby parking” when they mean “daycare.” A “spa” is a “beauty farm.” And you might go “footing,” rather than “jogging.”

In some cases, Anglicisms aren’t just used on the streets of Rome or Milan, but in an official capacity: A recruitment campaign by the defense ministry this year used an English slogan: “Be Cool and Join the Navy.” In February, the city of Rome swapped its Italian slogan — “Roma Capitale” (“Rome, the Capital”) — for the English “Rome & You.” And this year’s World Expo in Milan adopted the slogan “Very Bello.” Even Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has joined in, calling one of his key pieces of legislation the “Jobs Act.”

“Can you imagine?” said Annamaria Testa, a Milan-based advertising consultant and communications expert. “We have a law of the state with a name in a language that is not Italian.” Testa created an online petition in February using the hashtag #dilloinitaliano (“say it in Italian”) that has collected nearly 70,000 signatures.

“The Italian language is a common good,” said Testa. “It belongs to us, it has great worth and it’s our job to take care of it.”

Testa’s petition also comes in the wake of one of Italy’s most prestigious universities opting to teach in English. In 2012, the Politecnico di Milano announced that it would start teaching and assessing masters and doctorate courses exclusively in English as a way of attracting foreign students and building an international reputation. A group of faculty members at the school are challenging this decision before the Corte Costituzionale, Italy’s highest court.

Even those lamenting the trend can’t seem to land on a single cause behind the recent influx of Anglicisms. Testa blamed provincialism: “In Italy, a lot of people aren’t fluent in English, but they think they sound more sophisticated by using an English word,” she said. In Italy, the English language still helps to confer prestige and status — something the country is trying to earn back after years of economic malaise and dysfunction.

“There are some sectors that believe they are encouraging the international integration of our country, not so much by developing a comprehensive understanding of languages, as by weaving Anglicisms into the Italian,” said Michele Cortelazzo, a member of Incipit and professor at the Università degli Studi di Padova (Padua, in English). Cortelazzo laid the blame on, in particular, those who work in the fields of information technology, economics, finance, and politics.

In the face of these affronts, people like Testa are now looking to the Accademia for backing in their quest to keep Italian pure — but the question of how to officially regulate language in Italy is a politically fraught one, tangled up in the country’s history, geography, politics, and culture. As Antonio Gramsci, the Sardinia-born 20th-century philosopher and politician, observed, “every time that the question of the language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore.”

For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was a patchwork of city-states, each with its own system of government and its own dialect, often unintelligible to those living in the next city-state over. Italy didn’t have a single ruling class or a capital city until its unification in 1861. “Italy,” as Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich famously said, was a mere “geographical expression.” The lack of political cohesion meant an absence of linguistic unity. In the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri published a little-known treatise called “De vulgari eloquentia” (“On Eloquence in the vernacular”), which stressed the need for Italy to find among its numerous dialects an “illustrious vulgar” language that could serve as a common tongue. Despite the fact that he had been banished from the city and was living in exile, Dante suggested Florentine fill this role. The treatise started a seven centuries-long debate — the questione della lingua, or “language question” — which raged among intellectuals over what the best model for literary Italian should be.

Around the time of the Risorgimento, the 19th-century movement for unification, debaters settled on the Florentine spoken by the city’s educated middle class as the dialect that would heal these centuries-old rifts. But the process of imposing a single language throughout the country was long and arduous. Political unity only masked other forms of fragmentation among Italians. At the time of unification, more than three-quarters were illiterate, with illiteracy levels particularly high in the impoverished and underdeveloped south. Only 2.5 per cent of Italians spoke educated Florentine and the education system was a work in progress.

“For many Italians, Italian was actually an unknown language, closed in books, light-years away from the uses of everyday people,” said Claudio Giovanardi, a professor of Italian linguistics at the Università degli Studi Roma Tre and member of Incipit.

As Italy became more industrialized and internal migration increased, linguistic homogeneity slowly became a reality, but even during World War I, Italian soldiers often struggled to communicate with one another in the trenches.

In the inter-war period, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government, which governed Italy from 1922 to 1943, implemented a series of harsh language laws in an aggressive effort to build national unity: The laws outlawed dialects, foreign and borrowed words, and discriminated against linguistic minorities, including Italy’s German, Slovenian, and Croatian speakers. New Italian words were conjured up for a host of foreign words in common use: “cocktail” became “arlecchino”; “film” became “pellicola.” In South Tyrol, part of Austria prior to being annexed by Italy in 1919, German-language schooling was suspended, place names were Italianized — even the use of German on tombstones was prohibited.

The intervention had little effect. Italians still say “cocktail” and German is still spoken in South Tyrol. The effective result of Mussolini’s heavy-handedness, said Cortelazzo, was to make language purity laws taboo. (France, by contrast, is famously protective of its native tongue. In 1994, it outlawed the use of English words in fields such as business, education, government, and advertising. The country also requires that at least 40 percent of songs played on radio stations be in French.)

It wasn’t until after World War II that Italians really began to speak the same language, encouraged by the emergence of national media, improved education, and the de-regionalization of the military. But even so, Italians still feel a strong sense of campanilismo — literally loyalty to one’s bell tower. “Italians have a very weak sense of identity,” said Giovanardi. “They are ready to divide themselves over anything — even the language.” And that has always made the country fertile ground for the incursion of foreign words — French ones in the past, and in more recent years, English ones.

The Accademia della Crusca, the institution charged with protecting the language today, started in Florence in 1583. Its name is a bit of a highbrow metaphor: The word “crusca” means “bran.” Its symbol is the “frullone,” the blender that millers use to separate bran from pure white flour. The academy has seen itself as a linguistic sifter, separating good Italian from bad.

The first academy of its kind to deal exclusively with language matters in Europe, the Crusca provided a sort of model for other linguistic academies like France’s Académie Française and Spain’s Real Academia Española. Three decades after its inception, for instance, it published its Vocabolario, the first dictionary of any modern language. But it also developed a reputation for extreme conservatism. It included archaic words no longer in use in its dictionaries, and excluded modern scientific and technical terms because they did not meet the group’s purer-than-pure criteria. And when French emerged as a lingua franca in the 17th century, the Crusca refused to include any French words in its dictionaries.

In today’s Italy, the Accademia della Crusca, despite its mission, has no legal power over the proper use of Italian. It can merely offer advice and aim to persuade its countrymen on the importance of the language, via conferences, magazines, and research papers.

The Accademia’s work has been affected by Italy’s ongoing economic malaise: In 2013, the Crusca, which is heavily reliant on contributions from governments throughout Italy, received 200,000 euros from the region of Tuscany — an amount that was slashed in half the following year, in 2014. This year, the region left the Crusca out of its budget entirely. In August, Italy’s cultural minister promised the Crusca an additional 285,000 euros, but Marazzini says the funds still haven’t arrived.

Still, Incipit works away, confident that, despite the limited resources, it can make progress through its powers of persuasion. “The basic point,” Cortelazzo said, “is that there is someone making alternative proposals” to English words, so that at least Italians are given a choice.

“Without alternatives, the linguistic community can’t choose and is forced to resort, even against its will, to foreign words,” he said.

Incipit has not yet settled on a phrase for “quantitative easing” in Italian.

AFP/Getty Images

Amanda Coletta is a freelance reporter and journalism fellow at the University of Toronto.

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