In Praise Of La Bella Lingua
I sincerely hope the story I'm about to relate is apocryphal. I can't vouch for its verity because I found it on a site called Faking News.
Seems there was an incident at a popular vegetarian restaurant in Mumbai in which the cook, busy checking social media rather than tending his pots and pans, burned a patron's order of fried rice. Naturally, the customer was quite upset, refusing to eat the ruined food and threatening to sue the restaurant. A quick thinking manager defused the situation. “My presence of mind kicked in,” he said. “So I renamed the dish to Risotto Tonato. A fancy sounding Italian name and within seconds the situation took a u-turn. From screaming at our cook, the customer started praising him for a wonderful dish.” Allegedly, the customer not only bought the story and consumed the faux-Italian offering, he also gave the restaurant a five-star rating.
Okay. Not sure I believe it, but it does lend credence to my longtime assertion that everything sounds better in Italian.
Here in the US, a certain “Italian” chain place once made a big hoopty-doo about a new addition to their menu, something they touted as “Piatto di Pollo.” Ah, piatto di pollo. Piatto di pollo. It just sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn't it. What could be more Italian than an exotic dish called “Piatto di Pollo?” You want to know what it means? It means “chicken dish.” Yeah. Plain ol' “chicken dish.” You've got to admit, it sounds better in Italian. And even if the food turns out to be bad, “il cibo succhia” sounds a lot better than “the food sucks.”
I think few would deny that Italian is one of the most beautiful, lyrical languages on the planet. It is la bella lingua; the language of music and of art, of love and romance. Some people even get all swoony when they hear someone speaking English with an Italian accent. Come to think of it, Rudolph Valentino never spoke a word onscreen and women fell at his feet. Guess the Italian accent was implied in the title cards.
“I love you” sounds nice in English, but ti amo or ti voglio bene are practically guaranteed to melt the heart, while “baciami” literally invites a kiss. Even less inspiring words sound better in Italian. Doesn't spazzatura sound more appealing than “garbage?” And “dirty words” certainly sounds less offensive in Italian: “sporco parole.”
Speaking of dirty words, I sometimes have fun cursing at people or situations in Italian. Not long ago, something had me pissed off and I expressed myself with a colorful Italian phrase or two. Somebody nearby asked me what I had said. I told them. They looked kind of shocked and said, “Wow! It sure sounded nice in Italian.”
Reminds me of a story I was told by one of my high school teachers. Mr. Erikson had served in the US Army in Korea. Bunking with a Greek buddy, he picked up a few of those “colorful phrases” himself. And on occasion, he would let one fly. Well, one day he was entering the classroom burdened down with a load of papers. The load shifted and the papers hit the floor and scattered. Justifiably upset, I suppose, Mr. Erikson resorted to his vocabulary of Greek curses. That's when he heard a startled gasp from the back of the room. And as he looked into the wide eyes of student Michael Stavrakos, he made a mental note to himself to be more perspicacious regarding his use of Greek in the future. You just watch; someday I'm going to call somebody “un rompicoglioni” and there's gonna be a shocked Italian in the room. (Probably not too shocked; “rompicoglioni” just means “pain in the ass”.)
With around sixty million native speakers, Italian ranks down around nineteenth among the world's spoken languages. But a recent survey reveals that Italian ranks fourth among the world's most studied languages, right after English, Spanish, and French. Such study is hardly a new phenomenon. Writing in 1511, Florentine playwright Giovan Battista Gelli observed, “In our present times, many diverse people of intelligence and refinement, outside Italy no less than within Italy, devote much effort and study to learning and speaking our language for no reason but love.” What's more, in many circles nowadays Italian rivals French as the language of culture and refinement.
Another interesting development comes out of a Pew Research study conducted last year (2016). Researchers asked Italians which factors they considered “important for being truly Italian”. Surprisingly, only about half of the respondents thought sharing national culture and traditions was a key factor. Fewer than half, just forty-two percent, felt that being born in Italy was “very important” to national identity. But a substantial six in ten Italians believed that learning the Italian language was the most crucial factor and the most critical element to “being Italian”.
Italian doesn't even need twenty-six letters to express all that fluid beauty; there are only twenty-one letters in the Italian alphabet. The letters j, k, w, x and y don't exist in Italian, except for in “foreign” words like “jeans.” J and k occasionally pop up in some regional dialects, but they are lacking in “official” Italian. And speaking of official, besides being the obvious official language of Italy, Italian is also an official language in Switzerland, Vatican City, San Marino, the European Union, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It's also a minority language in Slovenia, Croatia, and Brazil. And there are more than a million Italian speakers in the United States.
In case you were mildly curious, the longest “regular” word in Italian is precipitevolissimevolmente. Meaning “very quickly” it clocks in at twenty-six letters. There are a few specialized medical terms that are longer, but that's generally regarded as the longest word anybody might use in conversation. Although I'm not sure I know anybody who ever has. By the way, the longest word in English is a medical mouthful; “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” has forty-five letters and refers to a lung disease.
And you know how nothing in English rhymes with “orange?” Italian has one of those unrhymable words, too. It's the Italian word for “liver,” fegato. Unlike other Italian words that end in “-egato,” the accent in fegato is on the first syllable, rendering it pretty much impossible to rhyme.
Of course, a big part of the Italian language is expressed not through words but through gestures. You know the old joke: “How do you silence an Italian? Tie his hands.” But that's a topic for another day.
For today, try to add a little Italian to your life. Walk into the office and announce a cheery “buongiorno!” Say “grazie” instead of “thank you.” Call your significant other “mi amore”. Stop by Chick-fil-A at lunch and order un panino di pollo. So what if people think you're pazzo? According to the survey I mentioned earlier, you'll be well on your way to being a true Italian.
Ciao for now.