On the occasion of the 21st edition of the Week of the Italian Language in the World, dedicated to ‘Dante, l’italiano’, we take stock of the state of the art of our language with Mariarosa Bricchi.
Living Italian. Interview with Mariarosa Bricchi, language historian (University of Pavia)
By Laura Pugno
Mariarosa Bricchi teaches Italian Linguistics at the University of Pavia, Cremona campus. She is particularly interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century prose, and in vocabulary and grammar between the eighteenth century and the present. She dedicated the book ‘La lingua è un orchestra. Piccola grammatica italiana per traduttori (e scriventi)’ (il Saggiatore, 2018), to the Italian of translations. She recently edited books by Curzio Malaparte, ‘Il buonuomo Lenin’ (Adelphi, 2018) and Carlo Emilio Gadda, ‘Norme per la redazione di un testo radiofonico’ (Adelphi, 2018). Her latest book is ‘Manzoni prosatore. Un percorso linguistico’ (Carocci, 2021).
The States General of the Italian Language in the World organized by the Farnesina a few years ago had the theme ‘Italian, a living language’. And a living language has to transform. How is today’s Italian – in the year of Dante Alighieri’s 700th anniversary – changing between rules and freedom, contributions from foreign languages and new speakers?
Italian, like all languages, is a living organism. It walks, it evolves and involves, it gets dirty and is enriched, it is subject to constant changes: to mention only the most recognisable aspect, the lexicon, there are new words and forms that make their way; sometimes they explode in the fashion of a moment and then withdraw; and there are other words that, after decades or centuries of honourable militancy, gradually pale until they are no longer used. This vitality must not, however, make us forget that our language is ancient, and in particular that fundamental Italian, that hard core of a few thousand words that we all say and write most often, goes back to the very origins of Italian. In a much cited study, the linguist Tullio De Mauro calculated that when Dante began writing the Divine Comedy, 60% of today’s fundamental vocabulary was already in use; and about a century later, at the end of the 14th century, the percentage had risen to 90%. Looking at these figures, the renewal rate seems very limited. The situation changes, however, if we move from basic words to more cultured vocabulary, or to specialized, scientific or technical terms, to words related to current affairs; to morphology and syntax. In all these areas, there have been, and continue to be, many changes.
In the 1980s, linguistics isolated a number of features typical of what was called ‘neo-standard Italian’. These customs were often already present in the past, but marginalized and opposed by traditional grammar; and finally accepted unchallenged in speech and non-formal writing. A list that today, forty years later, needs to be added to and updated. Certainly, the influence of English is growing, but the number of foreign languages from which we draw new forms and new terms is multiplying; and the weight of Italian spoken by people who have come to live here is growing, without them knowing it yet; local Italians, with their colourings and their liveliness, spread and enrich the basic language; the spheres of use of old words are changing, driven by the urgencies of the present (think of virus, a Latin term that entered Italian, through French and English, in the mid-19th century; used, since the last decades of the 20th century, mainly in the field of computer science, and today back in the limelight with its medical and scientific meaning); there are issues where grammar is intertwined with renewed visions of society (the discussed problem of feminisation, not only of professional names, but also of the system of grammatical agreements).
Finally, there is another interesting fact. As well as language, the way of describing it has changed, because today’s grammar is not as normative as that of the past: rather than imposing rigid rules, it tends to explain directions and trends, it takes into account not only literary Italian, but language in its variety and multiplicity, guiding people to adapt forms and words to the situation and context; it recognizes, alongside the rules, spaces of freedom and creativity and encourages speakers to use them consciously.
Italy has always been a country that translates a lot of foreign books into Italian. Today, however, Italian books in the world are experiencing a new vitality thanks to a renewed attention to translation by countries such as France and the United States, thanks also to the influence of the media (think of the ‘Ferrante effect’…) and to the important contributions made by the Farnesina and the Centre for Books and Reading (Cepell) to support the publishing sector. As a scholar, how do you read and interpret these phenomena? What do they tell us about the impact of Italian literature on an international level? What are the trends at play?
Yes, attention to and support for translations from Italian are positively growing, both with economic contributions allocated by the Farnesina and the Centre for Books and Reading (fundamental for publishing, and already in place for decades for other national literatures) and with the dissemination of targeted information (the website newitalianbooks and its ancestor, booksinitaly are excellent examples). Alongside the translation of new fiction and non-fiction, a trend that seems very significant to me is the rediscovery of our classics. Which of course has an impact not only on reading habits, but also on research paths, i.e. on studies devoted to the Italian language and literature in other countries. I would like to mention three examples, all of which are important and, I hope, will not remain isolated. The first is the English translation, published a few years ago, of the complete works of Primo Levi: an exercise with few precedents, which involved the new translation of some works and the complete revision of translations that were already available, all carried out within the framework of a joint project that benefited from the scientific advice of the International Primo Levi Studies Center in Turin. Second example: the ongoing translations, by Penguin in England and Sexto Piso in Spain, of several works by Gadda. Finally, the imminent publication of a new English translation of The Betrothed – a truly epoch-making event. It would be nice if it could act as a trailblazer for the rediscovery of Manzoni, who is as well known in Italy as he is ignored abroad.
Do translations have a major impact on Italian today?
We all know that many of the texts we read are translations. Our language is also that filtered through the words of the translators. They are, and must be, discerning, hyper-specialized, knowledgeable writers. Starting from foreign languages, translators come to Italian in order to build their work, and they ask of Italian things not unlike those that Italo Calvino listed over three decades ago: ‘I believe that prose requires an investment of all one’s verbal resources: snap and precision in the choice of words, economy and poignancy and inventiveness in their distribution and strategy, momentum and mobility and tension in the sentence, agility and pliability in moving from one register to another, from one rhythm to another’. The adventure of translating reaches our language and, in high-quality cases (which are, today, quite numerous), consciously uses not only the native competence, but also the tools of grammar, lexicography, Italian literature: a heritage of knowledge available to the translator to enrich his or her skills. But there is also the opposite. Translators can do a lot for the Italian language (and also for grammar): to know it, to respect it, to transgress it, to force its limits, if appropriate – which is a sacred right of its users. Above all, walking around in it with a mixture of flair and awareness, using it not only correctly or deliberately, but responsibly.