Who exactly is teaching Italians how to speak English?
Who exactly is teaching Italians how to speak English? Let’s take a look at some recent and not-so-recent examples.
A campaign to support medical research bears the name: F – – k the Cancer. Now, such a terrible disease, or collection of diseases, is sure to generate strong feelings, for which strong language is needed to express them, but f – – k is the most vulgar word in the English language (although not the most vulgar expression, but more on that later), and it is shocking not only to see it in print, but to hear it as well. I saw a poster for this campaign on Striscia La Notizia, so the word appeared on television in both written and spoken form, coming out of the mouths of Gerry Scotti and/or Michelle Hunziker no less (I can’t remember exactly who said it). I imagined Italian children watching this show and learning, albeit passively, that they were free to use the word liberally, when in fact just the opposite is true. Complicating matters even further was the inclusion of the article: F – – k the Cancer. This was clearly an Italian use of an English word in an Italian phrase despite the fact that all of the words are English. The proper English phrase would be: F – – k Cancer.
It was not the first time I have heard non-native English speakers use the word as if it were nothing at all, so I understand that if a person was not raised in a culture in which the word was assigned the heaviest censure, that it would not provoke a particular emotional response. But this is not true for native speakers of English, for whom the word is absolutely forbidden in all but the most intimate or extreme settings. The same is true of the gesture. I recall how a Japanese exchange student who I was supervising would create the f – – k sign wherever she could. For some reason, wooden hands with adjustable fingers, the kind you use to store rings and other jewelry, were found in many retail shops that year, leaving me to frantically undue the gesture — the raised middle finger — everywhere she went. As she sweetly explained to me, it meant nothing to her.
Several months ago I was in a small bar near Milano Malpensa Airport where I met, as luck would have it, an Italian flight attendant who had just completed a long flight and had a night to relax before flying out again. She used the word f – – k casually and often until I felt obligated to tell her that the word ‘hurt my ears’ and that maybe she might want to reconsider using it so enthusiastically, lest she come across as a person who was a bit crude and aggressive. She did not take my suggestion very well, and in fact she stopped talking to me, but I felt I had to do my duty to let her know. It was a shame because she was quite a nice person.
Other examples of strange uses of English in Italian and by Italians do not involve vulgarities, but rather seemingly random insertions or substitutions of English words for Italian ones in situations where the Italian term is perfectly fine or even preferable. One of the earliest memories I have of this is of a commercial on tv for a record album by what I believe was a group who used the name, The Martini Family. I asked the Italian woman with whom I was watching television why they did not call themselves La Famiglia Martini. She told me, and keep in mind that this was in the early 1980s, that the use of English lended a certain prestige to just about anything, and so it was used abundantly and somewhat indiscriminately. As a native speaker of English, I find that idea to be very strange. I am thinking this tendency began postwar but is most likely rooted in the 1960s, and so a result of Beatlemania.
A much more recent example comes from coverage of this year’s Giro d’Italia. One of the on-air commentators was lamenting the use of English terms in international cycling when in fact the the sport has its origins in Europe, particularly Italy and France. ‘Cycling’ was the word he took issue with first, but he followed this one example with several others, and I could only agree with the point he was making. Why not use the word ‘ciclismo’ when narrating the Giro d’Italia, particularly on Italian television?
I suppose one reason lies in the fact that in addition to being an Italian event, the Giro d’Italia is an international one, and since English is the de facto international language, it is only practical to use it in all international contexts. And yet, it seems English is used in international contexts where it does not really have a place. I recall being at an academic meeting on terraced viticulture in the Alps, in which one of the organizers said he did not understand why the conference was being held in English, since none of the countries in the Alpine Arc — France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Slovenia — had English as an official language. It was a fair point in that it revealed one of the conflicts of designating any language as international, but at the same time, it was the only language that everyone could be expected to have in common, since language acquisition and use is not something that can be adjusted easily.
Still, the use of English in Italian can be tricky. One recent exchange I witnessed involved the recommended substitution of the Spanish ‘timbale’ with the Italian ‘sformatino’. If instead the English equivalent was called for, the translation of sformatino provided by an online dictionary is ‘pudding’, a word that has several meanings depending on where it is used in the Anglosphere. In English, one would use the Spanish word for the Spanish dish and the Italian word for the Italian dish. A timbale is a timbale and a sformatino is a sformatino; the words are merely borrowed into the language. To complicate things even further, the dictionary provides as an alternative translation ‘flan’, which is originally a Spanish word but has become very much an English word as well. And yet, are a timbale and a flan identical? I think not. And are either pudding? The flan could be a kind pudding or for pudding in England, but not in America.