A Week to Savor the Sweet Italian Language
This week marks the quattordicesima Settimana della Lingua Italiana (fourteenth week of the Italian language). This annual evento culturale internazionale (international cultural event) promotes Italian as una grande lingua di cultura classica e contemporanea (a great language of classic and contemporary culture).
Organizza ogni anno nella terza settimana di ottobre (organized every year in the third week of October), each year's commemoration has un tema che serve da filo rosso per conferenze, mostre e spettacoli, incontri con scrittori e personalità (a theme that serves as a "red" or uniting thread for conferences, exhibits and performances, meetings with writers and personalities). This year's theme is "Scrivere la nuova Europa: editoria italiana, autori e lettori nell'era digitale" (Writing the new Europe: Italian publishers, authors and readers in the digital age).
Italian itself dates back to the Stone Age. Nearly three millenia ago a band of itinerant shepherds and farmers, possibly led by the legendary Romulus, 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, not the classical, cadenced rhetoric of Caesar and Cicero, gave rise to all the Romance languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian.
The first miracle of Italian is its survival. No government mandated its use. No mighty empire promoted it as an official language. No conquering armies or armadas trumpeted it to distant lands. Brutally divided, invaded, and conquered, the Mediterranean peninsula remained a patchwork of dialects, often as different from each other as French from Spanish or English from Italian, for centuries.
Italian as we know it was created, not born. With the same thunderbolt genius that would transform art in the Renaissance, writers of fourteenth-century Florence—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, no less than Petrarch’s poetry, Michelangelo’s sculptures, Verdi’s operas, Fellini’s movies, or Valentino’s dresses, is an artistic masterwork.
As a national spoken tongue, Italian is nuovissimo (very, very new). Rallying for one nation united by one language, Italians won their country’s independence in 1861. At the time four in five of its citizens were illiterate. Fewer than 10 percent spoke Italian exclusively or with greater ease than a local dialect. Word by word, generation by generation, village by village, the people of the peninsula became Italian speakers.
Ever-growing numbers of people around the world are trying to do the same. With only an estimated 60 to 63 million native speakers, Italian ranks 19th among the world’s most spoken tongues. Nonetheless it has become the fourth most-studied language (after English, Spanish and French).
Why do so many people want to study Italian? For its beauty, its musicality, its history, its role in the global marketplace, its link to family roots. So students say, but I suspect that many, if not most, pursue Italian for the simplest of motivations: love of the language.
Only a sweet tongue could inspire a love song like La Nostra Lingua Italiana, written in 1993 by Riccardo Cocciante. Its verses celebrate Italian as serene, sweet, welcoming, universal, generous and sensual, the language of everyone looking for "un po’ d’amore" (a little love). Click below to listen to the melody as you read -- or sing -- the lyrics:
As part of the international Week of the Italian Language, Dianne Hales will present her new book, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (Italian Cultural Institute) in San Francisco on Wednesday, October 29, at 6:30 p.m.