Thursday 6 March 2008

Shopping in Italy

Let us consider for a moment the effects that those two great languages, Italian and English, have had on one another. Whether you realise it or not, much of what you read or hear in English would not exist without the underlying influence of the Latin language and Renaissance Italy. Cockney Rhyming Slang certainly has a place in the hearts and voices of the nation, but let’s face it, without the Romans we’d be nothing (on a controversial note one might argue the same of Chelsea…). Put it this way, most of you will probably have noticed that by adding an O or an A to the end of an English word, you have a more than 50% chance of being somewhere close to understood in Italian. For those of you who have not tried this particular trick, please feel free to give it a go; just don’t add an O to the end of ‘cats’, as I heard one delightful old English gentleman try out on the streets of Cortona a few years ago.

Charlie and I have been living in Italy for nine years, but it is only when we delve slightly that we realise quite to what extent we owe our linguistic heritage. Sometimes things hit you out of the blue, like the time I was reading a newspaper article about bankruptcy and realised for the first time that “bankrupt” comes directly from the Italian term banca rotta, meaning “broken bank”. Similarly the word “malaria” is a combination of two very commonly used Italian words; male and aria, meaning ‘bad/evil’ and ‘air’ respectively, originating from a time when the fatal illness was thought to derive from stale air. One of my favourites, a phenomenon common to all countries but surely originating in the base camp of all corruption, the Roman Empire, is “nepotism”. The Italian language makes no distinction between grandchildren and nephews/nieces, throwing both categories of relations into the one word: nipote. Looking at life in Italy, it is not hard to work out that if your grandparent or uncle is in a position of power, then you are more than likely to have both feet and most of your upper body already inside the door.

So, having covered some of the influences of Italian on English, albeit in a drastically brief and probably slightly crass way, shall we now have a look at the corresponding influences that English has given in return? I think it is fairly safe to say that the borrowing of English words or phrases is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, probably dating from the post-war period. At this point in Italian life, the country had been laid low by the horrors of World War Two, yet was only a few years away from the economic miracle that the 50s and 60s would bring to bear. With this boom period came all the trappings of the British and American pop cultures that were themselves taking the world by storm at the time. This era of economic stability and development heralded in pastimes heretofore unknown to the general population of Italy, who had begun to leave the hardships and penury of rural life for the promise of the new high-life in the rapidly expanding cities. So, where someone might once have gone to the market to buy some scraggly chickens and fare la spesa, now suddenly they were buying clothes and other consumer items. Somehow “doing the expenses” did not encompass the grand new activity so, in the absence of any other aboriginal word or phrase, people were now doing “lo shopping”.

This is just one example of many lifestyle words, such as lo jogging or il weekend, but there are others that have crept in over the years in all walks of Italian life. If you have ever watched football on Italian TV, then you may well have heard such classics as “sta facendo il dribbling”. In business you have joint-venture, marketing plan and you are considered all the more employable if you have know-how. As the world becomes smaller and boundaries corrode, so more and more English words will find their way into Italian dictionaries. The younger generation in Italy seems to give ever increasing credence to the UK, and particularly London, as a role model and a place many believe they would like to spend time, if only the weather were a little better... Take the weekend flight from Perugia to London and you will see many local youngsters heading over to see friends who already live there. English may never be able to match Italian for universal linguistic influence, but it is making great progress in filling up the Italian dictionary with modern day “isms” and phrases that the poor Italians never knew they had a need for.

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