Il retaggio culturale italiano
Italian Cultural Heritage
Every October the United States celebrates Italian heritage month (il mese del retaggio italiano) and honors the 26 million Americans of Italian descent (di origine italiana), who make up the fifth largest ethnic group (il quinto più grande gruppo etnico) in the United States. Since 2013 has been designated l'anno della cultura italiana (Year of Italian Culture), I am dedicating all of October's posts to Italy's many cultural contributions.
Italians created the first universities, law and medical schools, banks, and public libraries (università, facoltà di giurisprudenza e medicina, banche, e biblioteche pubbliche); taught diplomacy (la diplomazia) to Europe; showed the French how to eat with a fork (mangiare con la forchetta); mapped the moon (mappato la luna) in the 1600s; split the atom (diviso l’atomo); produced the first modern histories, satires, sonnets, and travelogues (storie, satire, sonetti, e diari di viaggio); invented the battery, barometer, radio, and thermometer (inventò la pila,il barometro, la radio, e il termometro); and bestowed on the world the eternal gift of music (il dono eterno della musica).
The gift I cherish most, of course, is la bella lingua. Centuries before there was an Italy, there was Italian. (Secoli prima che ci fosse un’ Italia, esisteva l’italiano.) Its roots (le sue radici) date back nearly 2,800 years when a band of itinerant shepherds and farmers settled on the hills above the Tiber. Their utterances evolved into the volgare (from the Latin sermo vulgaris, for the people’s common speech), the rough-and-ready spoken vernacular. Scrappy street Latin gave rise to all the Romance languages (le lingue romanze), including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.
The first miracle (il primo miracolo) of Italian is its survival. Brutally divided, invaded, and conquered, the Mediterranean peninsula (la penisola del Mediterraneo) remained a patchwork of dialects (dialetti), often as different from each other as French from Spanish.
Italian as we know it was created, not born (è stato creato, non è nato). With the same thunderbolt genius that would transform art in the Renaissance, writers of fourteenth-century Florence (autori fiorentini del Trecento)—Dante first and foremost—crafted the effervescent Tuscan vernacular into a language rich and powerful enough to sweep down from heaven and up from hell.
This priceless living legacy (questa inestimabile eredità culturale), no less than Michelangelo’s sculptures, Verdi’s operas, Fellini’s movies, or Valentino’s dresses, is an artistic masterwork (un capolavoro artistico).
“L'italiano è più di una lingua” (Italian is more than a language), the Società Dante Alighieri observes. “È un modo di vivere e di pensare.” (It’s a way of living and of thinking). “È uno strumento per comunicare con l’arte e la cultura.” (It’s an instrument for communicating with art and culture.)
“Riuscite a immaginare un mondo senza italiano?” (Can you manage to imagine a world without Italian?).
Io, no. (Not I.) Neanche un mondo senza italiani. (And also not a world without Italians.)
Words and Expressions
Italiano di prima/seconda / terza generazione –- first /second/third generation Italian
ricevere in eredità –- inherit
immigrante –- immigrant
cittadinanza italiana –- Italian citizenship
doppia cittadinanza –- dual citizenship
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
The brief video below captures the zest that Italy and Italian bring to the world.