Say What? Edition 4: Thoughts From Italy

A collection of random linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Italy four weeks ago.

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Language can provide anonymity in a crowd. One of my biggest linguistic pleasures when in Europe is hearing half a dozen languages spoken around me at any one time. I enjoy it partly because you feel a buzz, an energy around you, without having comprehension interfere with your own thoughts. But also, there’s a certain anonymity in being in a multilingual place. I could be anyone. Of any nationality. In any life situation. No one knows a thing about me until I speak. This makes me feel exciting and mysterious.

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All those indistinct sounds, but what is the sound of English? Some of the ways that names of Italian cities have been anglicized puzzles me. Venezia makes sense. Zia is a very Italian sound, while the soft c with the silent e at the end is very English. The same goes for dropping the o at the end of Milano. But why does Mantova = Mantua and Padova = Padua? The ua sound doesn’t seem particularly English to me. What common words in English use the ua sound, especially at the end? I couldn’t think of any while writing this.

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And what is the sound of Italian? I didn’t learn much Italian before I went, so I don’t know its structure or the common ways that words are formed or the cognates between English and Italian. So, without that knowledge, I sometimes found myself bothered by words. Specifically, words that began with s that seemed to me like they were missing syllables. For example, storico and strumenti. I desperately wanted to write the English prefixes (or even the Spanish e prefix) on the museum signs where these words were written. But doing so would probably have landed me in jail and I really didn’t want to be the next Amanda Knox, especially for a crime of linguistically-motivated vandalism.

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Continuing to think about the sounds of my mutt tongue. English sounds so dull and flat. I enjoyed listening to my travel companion speak Spanish with her “booos” instead of “buhs” for bus. And I loved listening to the Italian speech all around me. But what do native speakers of other languages think of their native tongue? Are they neutral toward it or can they appreciate its beauty?

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Let’s move from sounds to words. Prego! The word to obviate all other words. English has its own special universal word (OK? OK.) but prego is more fun to say. And now I know where the pasta sauce got its name.

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Beautiful and evocative. Natura morta. Or nature morte (French) and even натюрморт (Russian). So dark and moody. I love it. As I was looking at such paintings in a museum in Bergamo, I wondered why English uses the stuffy and dull still life. Ah yes, the German (Stillleben) influence.

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More of that German influence. Di. The Italian translation of of. And de in French and Spanish. Is the English of some twisted version of the German von? I can only assume so.

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Yes, I like making up strange word associations. Binari. The Italian word for tracks, as in railroad tracks. I spent a lot of time waiting for trains and looking at the signs warning people not to cross the tracks, so I had a lot of time to think about this. Is binari related to the English bin? Spatially, it makes sense if you think about bins on a shelf. I’m picturing a huge industrial shelf in a manufacturing facility, dozens of drawers, or bins, each filled with a different sized screw or bolt or washer. It looks to me like a bunch of railroad tracks all converging in the station in Milan.

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And sometimes I learn the truth. Cane. As in Cane Corso, the dog breed. Of course cane means dog. Canine! But I never thought of that back when I was living in the mountains and researching what kind of dog is bad ass enough to kill a mountain lion in a paw-to-paw fight. This is the one.

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Just like in Switzerland, in Italy there were random uses of English. Stop. The stop signs said STOP, at least where I was driving through all the towns between Venice and Milan. Surely there is a word for stop in Italian. Can anyone explain?

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Everyone uses English, sometimes in charmingly unique ways. The African immigrants in Italy speak so many languages. They are really impressive. I heard a man sitting on the train across from me conversing in English (after he ended phone calls in Italian and some other language) and he told his conversation partner that “we a bit late come.” I found this flexing of English word order endearing. Comprehension was not negatively affected at all.

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But what in the world is this language? Does Latin still exist? This language I saw on signs in the Dolomites near Badia drove me crazy because I’m really good at identifying languages, even if I can’t speak a word of them. But this one I couldn’t figure out. Turns out that it’s a bastardized form of Latin called Ladin. How cool is that? There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world and, while I’m grateful for all the opportunity being a native English speaker has afforded me, wouldn’t it be cool to be a native speaker of a language only a few thousand other people know?

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*Note, I am not a linguist. All thoughts expressed here (and anywhere else on my blog) on the origin of words and sounds in English are purely my own musings and not based on any research. If you are looking for trustworthy information, I highly recommend A Way with Words or Lexicon Valley.

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