You’ll see them every time you flick through an Italian newspaper or magazine. You’ll spot them whenever you walk past graffiti daubed on an Italian wall, and you’ll overhear them in the slangy talk of Italian teenagers. Italian pop music is full of them. I’m talking, of course, about English words.
For decades, Italians have been borrowing thousands of English words and formally making them part of the Italian language – words like ‘sexy’, ‘weekend’, ‘stress’, ‘manager’ and ‘shopping’. Practicality prompts the adoption of words with no Italian equivalent (‘picnic’ is more concise than ‘merenda all’aria aperta’). But simple love of novelty inspires the snatching of many others (‘freezer’ somehow livens up what would be an otherwise dull chat about the ‘congelatore’).
English loanwords are most noticeable in Italian journalism, advertising, business and scientific talk. Ultimately, they are largely a result of the economic might of the United States and the pervasiveness of its culture. English is thought attractive because it’s linked to prosperous people. It’s an ages-old assumption: to be like the rich you must speak like them.
But other factors help keep English in fashion. Its short words with strong sounds are much beloved by Italian media and marketing folk, who judge them ‘punchy’ and stylish. What’s more, they’re useful in headlines and slogans because they save space! British design and British pop music are hugely loved in Italy, only fuelling the passion for English – especially among the young. The Union Jack flag is a style symbol widely worn on Italian t-shirts, wallets, handbags… And of course, with British and American tourists all scrabbling to visit la bella Italia whenever possible, Italians are constantly coming into contact with English-speakers.
As in a game of Chinese whispers, strange things often happen when one language borrows from another. Look at the English adoption of ‘al fresco’. To an Italian the phrase means ‘in prison’! Likewise, would you guess that an Italian ‘spot’ is a television commercial? Or that ‘footing’ means jogging, a ‘speaker TV’ is a newsreader/anchorman, and a ‘golf’ is a cardigan?
Borrowing from other languages is a creative activity. Not only have Italians appropriated English meanings, spellings and pronunciation to suit their own purposes, they’ve allocated grammatical gender (‘il budget’, ‘lo slogan’, ‘la gang’) and extended English words to make other Italian words (‘flirtare’ from ‘flirt’, ‘snobismi’ from ‘snob’, etc.).
While a tiny number of Italians fear that their language is being ‘taken over by English’, most Italians remain relaxed about the influx of English words. Indeed, some Italian language specialists argue that Italian’s readiness to borrow foreign terms is a sign of its vitality. This attitude contrasts sharply with that of a vociferous minority in France, where several bodies have been set up to do battle with incoming English vocabulary and where the issue provoked 56 separate pieces of legislation between 1966 and 1988!
But in both French and Italian the actual incidence of English loanwords is numerically low – about 1% of all the words used in the press and less than 0.5% of everyday speech. It’s true that when Italian computer technicians or marketing executives talk among themselves their vocabulary can be up to 30% English, but doesn’t every discipline have its own special jargon?
Shockwaves were widely felt in the year 2000, however, when a newly-published Italian dictionary revealed that about 3% of all existing Italian words and expressions were now English. These included up-to-the-minute additions such as ‘transgender’, ‘chat-line’, ‘new age’, ‘megastore’ and ‘piercing’. Politicians and intellectuals implored people to coin new Italian words rather than adopting foreign ones. But governmental commitment to limiting the use of English in Italy is hard to take seriously when you consider the slogan used by the Democratic Left party when it was in power in 2000: “We care”. (Yes, IN ENGLISH.)
Italy has been having a colourful relationship with English and its speakers for 300 years. In the late 1700s, so-called ‘Anglomania’ swept Western Europe, partly because everyone was tired of admiring the French (who were annoyingly good at everything thought important in the 18th century), but also because British scientific and technological innovations were spreading English words for new things. As the British became the new over-achievers of Europe, so the continent began to delight in all things English.
Italian interest in all other cultures and languages dried up in the 1800s, however, as the myriad states and kingdoms of Europe’s boot-shaped peninsula struggled to achieve a single national identity. (A unified Italy finally came into being in 1861). To bond together all the new Italians, everything had to be as Italian as possible.
As the 20th century got underway and the reins of the world seemed to be handed to America, Italians went crazy for the United States. Millions emigrated, seeking prosperity in the new ‘land of opportunity’. Back home, English was idealized as the language of American wealth and plenty, and many of its words were embraced into Italian - even when immigrants’ tales of hardship in the new world began to be heard.
And then the Fascists arrived. For 20 years, they encouraged Italy to be as economically, culturally, and politically independent as possible. Naturally, racial and linguistic ‘purity’ were very highly prized. Italian dialects and minority languages were suppressed, and action was taken to ‘cleanse’ Italian of foreign words – including any used in the names of towns, hotels, and even surnames. The Accademia d’Italia published lists of ‘illegal’ foreignisms and proposed Italian substitutes. The alien word ‘sport’, for example, should be replaced with ‘diporto’, ‘ludo’, ‘agone’ or ‘gioco’. ‘Bar’ must yield to ‘barro’, ‘mescita’, ‘quisibeve’, or ‘bevitario’. Violation of these guidelines could mean a hefty fine or even a 6-month prison sentence, but the vast majority of suggested alternatives failed to catch on.
A renewed craze for American culture, and for the English language, came with the end of World War II. It would only intensify as the 20th century progressed.
Current research suggests the Italians are becoming less fascinated by America and more intrigued by the blossoming European Union and all it offers them. It’s unlikely that their attention will shift to other European languages, however, because English’s status is so entrenched and the language deemed so useful. English is the world’s lingua franca – currently known by about 2 billion people, or a third of the world’s population. (The majority of the world’s English-speakers use it as a second language.)
Because no other language can put you in touch with so many people, English is overwhelmingly the most popular foreign language learnt by Italians (and all other continental Europeans). As more Italians acquire fluency, it’s likely they’ll smuggle fewer English words into Italian and keep the two languages separate.
About 39% of Italians now claim to have a good command of English, and two thirds of Italian schoolchildren are learning it. In fact, demand for English has become so great that certain secondary schools have made French compulsory for some pupils in order to avoid a mass unemployment of French teachers! [Figures accurate at time of writing in 2002.]
Many Italians view English as vital for career advancement. You might spot the occasional Italian job advertisement written solely in English (the implication being ‘if you can’t read this, don’t bother applying’). Scientists and academics suffer if they don’t know the language, as do international travellers. Increasingly, English is the language for young intra-European explorers when they meet each other abroad. They’re all learning the language back home, so it’s a practical choice. (Function is more important than form for these young learners, however! Witness an exchange overheard between a young Italian, Austrian, and Slovenian planning their evening’s activities: “I don wanna drink no alcohol.” “Me too.” “I also not.”)
While European Union policies (and every individual’s rightful instinct to use and preserve their native language) ensure that English will, thankfully, never be the only language spoken in Europe, many linguists predict that the whole continent may eventually be bilingual – with every European having his or her native language for local use plus English for international communication.
If you think such a situation wouldn’t be accepted, consider the results of a Eurobarometer survey conducted on thousands of ordinary Europeans in 2000. Asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Every citizen of the E.U. should be able to speak English”, 82% of Dutch, 76% of Italian, and even 66% of French people questioned firmly agreed.