Degradation of Italian

April 23 2012

Giovanni Caselli, an Italian historian, archaeologist and illustrator, offered a comment on the Italian language under yesterday’s post. I’d like to publish it again here. I have already posted his description of the modern Appian Way.

He writes about the substitution, since unification, of an impoverished national Italian, both spoken and written, for the old Tuscan/Florentine lingua franca. This happened all the more easily because there was no strong literary tradition in much of Italy to offer resistance.

Giovanni’s summary is broad-brush, but it is interesting. We are used to the phrase “loss of wisdom” to describe a consequence of the disappearance of minor languages. Here, it refers to a consequence of the decay of a major language. (By major language, I mean the language of an advanced culture in which important literature has been written.)

I have added some links.


“Italy is a nation state and one may speak about a nation called Italy. To speak historically about ‘the Italians’, one must qualify, and explain which Italians one is speaking of.

“But since the introduction of television in Italy exactly [?] half a century ago, there has been a loss of regional identity, and no national identity has [ever] been achieved except in a negative sense. All that may have been regarded as good and positive about the Italians as described by the Grand Tour writers has been lost, whereas all that is generally regarded as bad has become part of the national character.

“With mass immigration into Italy from Albania and Romania in particular, the Italians (speaking of whatever national identity has been achieved) have gained further negative traits. The former dictatorships of Eastern Europe, and particularly those countries where the highest peak of civilization had been reached under the Ottoman Empire, have lost most of their positive cultural traits, and paradoxically their ways are emulated or copied by the Italians (still in the sense expressed above).

“The only region in Italy that has a history of literature is Tuscany. The Italian language from the 14th century to the 19th century was in fact Tuscan or Florentine. Since unification there has been a reaction against this cultural supremacy, and a hybrid language has gradually been introduced, especially since television. 70-80% of the vocabulary has become obsolete, since people from outside Tuscany would not understand such words. Paradoxically, upwards of 40% of the entries in the Italian equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary consists of words no longer used by anyone. They have been replaced by less specific terms or by foreign words. Example: chiocciola (snail) has been relegated to the description of a spiral staircase only, it no longer means a snail. This animal is called a lumaca (slug). When I look at a menu and see the word lumaca, I feel like leaving, my stomach is upset. Since language is the instrument for thought, one can imagine the loss of thinking ability and the loss of wisdom which has occurred in the process of language degradation which is taking place in Italy.

“I must mention an exception: Sicily, where brilliant writers such as Bufalino, Sciascia and Camilleri have boosted the language of Sicily, which is one of the places of origin of the Italian ‘vernacular’. [Giovanni has explained the Sicilian role in the development of Italian vernacular in an email to me. I hope to summarise some of this in a post soon.] Their Italian has successfully reclaimed some of the Sicilian syntax and vocabulary. Modern Italian writers outside Sicily fall into two categories, obligatory for any success with the tiny population of readers in the country: on the one hand are writers with a vocabulary as thin as a notebook, and a high percentage of totally misunderstood English words, and on the other are potentially good writers who do not dare to use 80% of their own vocabulary and must copy the others since they would not otherwise be understood. One of the reasons why Italians don’t read – they may buy some books occasionally, but they don’t read them – is the fact that Italian writing is tedious.

“The bottom line is: When a people or a population denies its own culture – a regionally-based peasant culture in the case of Italy – it will end up with no culture at all. Italy is a nation of conspicuous consumers (see Veblen) and not a nation of proletarians like our President said he wanted it to be when he was a Stalinist.”

6 Responses to “Degradation of Italian”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Letters from the Grand Tour would be a good subject for a blog.

    • giovannicaselli Says:

      The best letters from The Grand Tour in Italy are Smollett’s. They are hilariously truthful. I will dig one or two out.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Knowing Giovanni’s impatience with swathes of the post-war Left, I asked him what he thought about Pasolini. “His ideas about the decay of regionalism, impoverishment of language, advance of conspicuous consumption, destructive influence of television etc are ideas which you yourself express or refer to.”

    His reply:

    “Pasolini distinguishes himself for not having been a propagandist of the Soviet Union and of East Germany, like practically all his contemporaries.

    Leaving aside his private affairs, Pasolini was a genius, both as an artist and as an observer of Italian life and culture during the chaotic period of transformation, following WW2.

    I cannot bring myself to an understanding of any of those who have sympathised with the Soviet Union and East Germany. I, as a teenager, perceived the monstrosity of the Soviet system and the criminal rudeness of its leaders, notwithstanding the fact that I was a factory worker from 1953 to 1959 and constantly exposed to such propaganda. Pasolini’s contemporary intellectuals were self-deceivers, and they are still there, having now turned ‘liberal’, not ‘socialist’, since ‘democratic socialism’ was the most feared enemy of Stalinism. I don’t agree with Berlusconi’s idea that they are still Stalinists. No, they are simple self-deceivers to this day.”

  3. davidderrick Says:

    I then asked: “What about Moravia? I’ve enjoyed quite a lot of his fiction. But his politics? I once read his book on China, but I can’t remember much about it. My copy used to belong to JB Priestley, a sentimental fellow-traveller.”

    Giovanni’s reply:

    “Moravia is a controversial figure in Italy. Enjoyable novelist indeed, but as a personality is criticised. From a wealthy Venetian Jewish family, fancied playing the Communist, à la Sartre. Like Sartre, a coffee bar Communist in fact.

    One of the best Italian novelists nevertheless, a friend of Pasolini, shared many of his views. He lived a long time with the writer Dacia Maraini, the daughter of Fosco Maraini, an explorer and expert in Japanese culture, whom I knew personally. Moravia, from a family with Fascist inclinations, joined the Communist Party and helped the reformists and intellectuals who wanted a gradual change in the USSR. He was made to shut up when addressing the rebellious students of Rome in 1968, since he was a rich man who led the life of a hedonist. The students shouted ‘Yes to Mao, No to Moravia!’. In my opinion, a typical Italian intellectual, a morally and socially transgressive hedonist. What he did he did chiefly to amuse himself, and shock the conservative public.

    But I am no authority to speak of Moravia, I have only read one of two of his books.”

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Caselli to me in conversation: “Language is an instrument for thinking, so if you know two languages, you have two instruments.”

  5. […] before: with a piece about the Appian way between Rome and the Alban Hills, and one about the impoverishment, or rather creation, of the Italian language since […]

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