In today’s Italian lesson, we tackled the Subjunctive. As in English, it is used to express ‘various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred‘. Unlike modern English, in which the subjunctive is hard to make out, in Italian it is a minefield for foreigners and, according to my teacher, when used properly is the mark of an educated native speaker.
This lead to a long conversation about the differences between English and Italian. My teacher said that Italians pick up the lax English grammar rules (what there are) quickly; what they struggle with is pronunciation, the sheer magnitude of English vocabulary and the way English speakers use word order and qualifiers to provide nuance and meaning. Conversely, the English pick up basic Italian vocabulary quickly (aka restaurant Italian) but can have problems with rigid grammar rules, pronouns, reflexives and cases such as the pluperfect and of course the subjunctive.
But a key difference between the two languages is that English lacks an official language academy whereas Italy has the world’s oldest such institute, the Accademia della Crusca founded in 1583. The first modern dictionary of any language was in Italian and published in 1612. The Accademia remains charged with regulating the Italian language and, to this Englishman, conjures up images of old white men sitting in a dusty room in Florence heroically maintaining the language’s purity against foreign invasion. English, conversely, remains a ‘master borrower’, casually absorbing words as it goes along. As the Economist said ‘English is …a global language for hundreds of years now, and a mongrel for a thousand. Flexible, growing, always being renewed, but never again to be “pure”. The content of English thus is unregulated, fluid, democratic and driven by its speakers; Italian (at least officially) is statist and regulated, even if Italians themselves use many English words daily.
The search for Italian linguistic purity has taken some odd turns. This article explains that the Fascists were the worst culprits, banning foreign words completely and calling for ‘Italiani, boicottate le parole straniere!’ despite the irony of using the English loan word ‘boycott’. Bars were called ‘qui si beve’ (here one drinks). A Fascist law ‘prohibiting the practice of giving foreign Christian names to Italian children stayed on the books until 1966’. And the word soccer (from Association) was banned in favour of ‘calcio‘, meaning kick.
So now you know. Worth bearing in mind during the Summer FIFA Kicking World Cup when England play Italy in Brazil on 14 June 14.
Photo c/o An American in Rome