Italian Fear of English Words: The Story of An Increasing Dangerous Nationalism?

Alarmism for the safety of the Italian language reflects an attitude visible in Italy in the last few years, characterized by intolerance and repulsion for everything that comes from outside.

In the last few years, some Italian linguists and professors warned about an ‘invasion’ of English words in our vocabulary. Supposedly, the figures show a relevant danger for the survival of Italian words. For example, the advertising consultant Annamaria Testa wrote in an article in September 2017 that Anglicisms increased by 773% between 2000 and 2009, reporting a 440% spike in 2014. For this reason, she submitted a petition named #dilloinitaliano (#sayitinitalian) that has been signed by almost 70,000 people in 20 days, including members of ‘Accademia della Crusca’, the most important research institution on Italian language.

Is the Italian language really in danger?

This initiative led to a debate between linguists: is Italian really in danger? Do reports show a significant increase in the use of Anglicisms? How can a language be damaged by the introduction of foreign words? It is true that the Anglicism rate is rising every year, but it is equally true that every language has its natural antibodies, which rarely allow external elements to undermine its stability. Indeed, foreign words are often adapted both semantically and structurally. For example, the adjective ‘optional’ becomes a noun in Italian; ‘golf’ is used for the sport and to refer to a sweater; while the adjective ‘leader’, always associated with a person in English, in Italian is often used with unanimated objects, like in ‘azienda leader‘, literally translated as ‘leader company’.

An optical illusion

Furthermore, most Anglicisms are exclusively adopted in the written language and in very sectorial language registers such as those sued for economy, sport and fashion, not entering everyday speech. However, the number of foreign words is calculated mostly in newspapers and novels, preventing a complete and realistic overview of this phenomenon. Moreover, looking at the percentage of Anglicisms inserted into the main Italian dictionary, they represent an average 1-2% of the lexicon. Not a real ‘invasion’, I would say. The percentage is higher (10-15%) in neologisms, but it is impossible to determine whether those new words will be permanently incorporated in the future or whether they will disappear.

Fear of the unknown

Therefore, the alarmism for the safety of the Italian language reflects a fear caused by an impulsive perception (fueled by the media and the social networks) rather than the proper awareness of a concrete threat. This is an attitude that has been visibile in Italy in the last few years, characterized by intolerance and repulsion for everything that comes from outside. It is no coincidence that, during the Fascist period, foreign words were banned, as they were deemed capable of contaminating the purity of the Italian language and identity. The alternative to this dangerous and sometimes scary attitude is to consider every foreign element as an additional treasure, given that a new word is often the vector of a new concept.

Whoever controls the words, controls the power

On the other hand, it is common ground that English words have been used too much by Italian politicians lately. Expressions such as ‘jobs act’, ‘flat tax’, ‘spread’, ‘stepchild adoption’, ‘spending review’, etc., have become very popular. The problem is not the use of foreign terms itself, but it has more to do with the fact that in Italy a lot of people have a very limited knowledge of English. For this reason, these expressions have been deemed by Annamaria Testa and other several linguists like an inappropriate abuse of power. However, this stance seems to withhold the crux of the matter: everyone in today’s Europe should be able to understand basic English terminology and should make an effort to improve it.

A living organism

Of course, the Italian language has a various and prolific lexicon, and it would certainly be a shame to stop using some of our beautiful words. Nonetheless, every language is a living organism and it is impossible to steer it in a direction, to arrest its natural course. It is possible, however, to study different languages and become aware of their different use, in order to pick the word which best expresses a concept from time to time. That is why, even today, we prefer to use some Latin expressions, although we would be able to say exactly the same thing in our language. And a wide range of possibilities is exactly what allows us everytime to catch different nuances of reality.