«But sir, what are you asking me? I’m truly in love with this beautiful language, the most beautiful in the world. I just need to open my mouth and unintentionally it becomes the source of all the harmony of this celestial tongue. Yes, dear sir, for me there is no doubt that angels in the sky speak Italian. Impossible to imagine that these blessed creatures use a less musical language.”
This is a true statement of love for the Italian language. Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize laureate in Literature in 1929, made the protagonist of his novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, give this answer to a hotel manager who asked him if he knew Italian. Mann, born in Germany, beyond this fascinating confession has gifted us with works such as Death in Venice, that later originated an award-winning film.
So, if it is the language of the angels, I bet it is also the official language in the sky, don’t you think? I’m not surprised Italian crossed to the sky and even went abroad as the most romantic, sweet, melodic, harmonious and seductive of all languages. Everyone knows that beauty is subjective and that a language is not more beautiful than another, but in the case of Italian, how can we explain the fact that so many people share the same feeling? It’s true that famous linguists and many of us modest words ‘laborers’ have carried out many studies trying to explain all of this, but I have the intuition that surely the angels will someday explain it better.
Italian was born from Dante’s poetry.
In the past, Italy was a babel of dialects most of them derived from Latin. The division in fiefdoms frequently warring with each other also set up the fragmentation to the language. The inhabitants of the peninsula in the many regions spoke local dialects, incomprehensible to each other. As the Unification of Italy became a reality in 1861, a concern about the language came up. Italian intellectuals gathered and chose Florence’s dialect as Italy’s official language. “They had to reach back in time two-hundred years to find the most beautiful dialect and have decided by the personal language of the great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri”, says the American writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-seller Eat, Pray, Love. Therefore, Italian as a language was born from Dante’s poetry.
When the Divine Comedy was released, in 1321, Dante sparked a reaction in the world of letters by not writing it in Latin. To tell his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, he looked to the streets for the true Florentine dialect, spoken by the people. “The language that we speak today is basically Dante. No other European language has a lineage so artistic”, highlights Gilbert. She adds that everyone who knows modern Italian can easily understand the Italian written by Dante: “In the last line of the Divine Comedy, in which Dante meets the vision of God himself, he writes that God is not just a dazzling image of glorious light, but first of all, he is l’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle… (the love which moves the sun and the other stars…).”
The fourth most studied language in the world.
In 1861 only 2,5% of people in Italy spoke Italian correctly; another 10% could understand it even though they did not speak it. In the 1950’s, Italian still lost against the dialects: 18% of Italians communicated in the official language, another 18% did it alternating between the two while 64% still spoke only the local dialects. Italian became the main language only about 60 years ago with literacy in the schools and the advent of television. According to the 2015 statistical data by ISTAT-National Institute of Statistics, 45,9% of the population speaks primarily in Italian, 32,2% in both Italian and dialect and 14% predominantly in dialects (6,9% speaks other languages and are characterized by immigrants).
Currently, Italian is the fourth most studied language in the world. This news, published exhaustively in the last few days by Italian newspapers and blogs, was broken by Ethnologue: Languages of the World, a SIL International publication in print and online. The first three are English, Spanish and Mandarin, respectively. So, Dante’s language overcomes French and German, among others. In the ranking by number of speakers, English keeps the leadership, Portuguese appears in 10th and Italian occupies the 21st place.
There are probably several reasons why Italian is the fourth most studied language in the world and certainly among the most important ones is the Italian culture. I believe that spoken Italian musicality impacts a lot and also the food. Some time ago I read an article in an Italian newspaper in which an Italian teacher said something along the lines of: “Perhaps, many foreigners feel motivated to learn our vocabulary only to read our divine recipes”.
From the beginning of my university studies in Brazil I enrolled myself in an Italian course. The main motivations were my familiar roots, the bonds with the culture and the appealing Italian songs, but not only. The beauty of the words, the literature, cinema, history, art, food, the crave of visiting Italy some day and the feelings experienced by the language. all of these made Italian my second language. Later in life I felt the need to learn English, and if today I’m proud of having Portuguese as my mother tongue which I really love it, Italian for me became the language of pleasure.
Spoken in heaven and abroad.
Again, it is Elizabeth Gilbert who explains to us the Italian language’s power of seduction. “The interesting thing about my Italian class is that nobody really needs to be there. There are twelve of us studying together, of all ages, from all over the world, and everybody has come to Rome for the same reason—to study Italian just because they feel like it. (…) Everybody, even the uptight German engineer, shares what I thought was my own personal motive: we all want to speak Italian because we love the way it makes us feel. A sad-faced Russian woman tells us she’s treating herself to Italian lessons because ‘I think I deserve something beautiful'”.
After having made us cross Hell, go through Purgatory and reach Paradise where the angels possibly learned to speak Italian, Dante’s language of the Divine Comedy overcame not only the barriers within the Italic peninsula but went beyond the borders and conquered new and incurable enthusiasts. Not even in the neighboring lands it stopped as it slowly showed itself irresistible to those living in the Americas and now too in the Asiatic world. The latest news comes from Elaph, the first independent Arabic newspaper online that states: “Italian is the most beautiful language”. This conclusion is the result of a personal analysis by journalist Sarah al-Shamali about the most known languages.
In her analysis, Sarah al-Shamali took into consideration English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Hebrew. Arabic and Chinese, among others. The Elaph’s journalist evaluated the sonority, structure, versatility and use of the languages concluding that Italian is by far the most beautiful. According to her, Italian is the best language due to its strong expressiveness and eloquence. In addition, the romantic tone and the gestures used by Italians gives it a more human dimension”. The news was published by the ArabPress and has a link to the original release.
So, based on Elaph’s article and the Italian teacher’s words we can conclude that whether by Dante’s Divine Comedy or by the divine recipes of the Italian cuisine, the fact is that Dante’s language seduces. This reminds me of a book which I studied called L’italiano, una lingua maliarda (Italian, a bewitching language), by Romolo Traiano, published by Centro Studi Ca’Romana, in 1987. Well, Traiano already knew that Italian is a seductive language.
The Italian language in Brazil.
During the most intensive period of Italian migration, between 1875 and 1935, one million and a half Italians arrived in Brazil. Among them, more than half were from Veneto, as were my great-grandparents Valentino Fasolato e Elvira Pressato, and spoke a Venetian dialect that was in consonance with Portuguese. Then, it happened that during World War II, Brazil’s president, Getúlio Vargas, prohibited the spoken and written use of the Italian language in Brazil closing all its schools. The prohibition caused the Italians and their descendants to communicate with each other using a mixture of Venetian and Portuguese which allowed the birth of a new language: Talian. Also known as ‘Brazilian Veneto’, in 2014 it was officially recognized as a language and became part of Brazil’s historic and cultural heritage. Ma cos’elo sto Talian? (But what is this Talian about?) Well, we will talk about this in another post.