Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Jan. 2003, added part 2, April 2023

Language(s) & Communication

Here’s a bit of off–the–cuff anthropology. It's related to the entry, Naples, Survivor Culture, and to my perception that there is less of a difference between “insider” and “outsider” in Naples than in many other places. Perhaps it relates also to the local ability, or lack thereof, to learn foreign languages. 

Anyone who teaches English as a foreign language abroad (as I do) comes away with the feeling that some cultures are better at it than others. A cursory stroll down almost any street or into any store in northern Europe will leave you with the impression that everyone —say, in the Netherlands— speaks English. Movies and TV are routinely in the original language and subtitled in Dutch, and local children will no doubt hear thousands of hours of English before they get a chance to study it formally in school. They are primed for French and German in much the same way. It is a polyglot culture.

In Naples and in Italy, in general, everything is dubbed into Italian. Young people seem to approach the study of another language the way they do Latin in school —as a dead language, totally unconnected to their daily lives. They almost never experience English directly. Admittedly, the onslaught of American popular music has modified that somewhat, so that a sentence such as “How ya gonna do it if ya really don’t wanna dance?” is part of the same local perception of the English language mosaic as, “Little we see in Nature that is ours;/We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” It’s all English. It’s in the same ballpark. (That can cause a few problems at exam time. EBL—English as a Ballpark Language? Maybe.) 

So, my sharp and highly intelligent students in Naples don’t really care that indirect questions follow normal subject-object word order and not that of direct WH-questions. They say, “Do you know where is the station?” and are quite amused at my insistence on “Do you know where the station is?” And I can see “What difference does it make? You understand me, right?” running through their minds. Maybe that is related to the fact that Naples is a "survivor culture". They are a flexible, hospitable and outgoing people and totally undemanding of you when it comes to your own ability to speak their language. They will gratefully accept any kind of Italian from you and thank you for it and sincerely compliment you on it. You become an “insider” almost by declaration. You say in your worst Italian, “Hey, I want to belong” and their answer is “Fine. No problem.” 

You communicate anyway, even without proper verb conjugations, and those little niceties of language fall by the wayside as the difference between insider and outsider gets more and more muddled. You communicate, and it is almost like being present at one of those mighty births of creole language that linguists tell us occur when cultures and languages blend. Thus —here’s the point (you knew there had to be one in here, somewhere!)— Neapolitans are as willing to accept their own mistakes in other languages as they are to accept your mistakes in theirs. 

Yes, there are cultures in the world that are so xenophobic that they reject any attempt on your part to speak their language, much less take out membership in that culture. If that is one end of the spectrum, there certainly must exist cultures at the other end, the place where all the “flexible, hospitable, outgoing and undemanding” xenophiles gather and get along.

====================part 2========added April 2023======================

                                Language and the Games People Play
                                Beating the Drum for Noise Abatement

ROME, March 31, 2023. News agencies report that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's party has proposed fines of up to 100,000 euros (US$108,750) on public and private entities that use foreign terms, most notably English, instead of Italian in official communications.

"It is not just a matter of fashion, since fashions pass, but Anglomania affects society as a whole," said the text of the draft bill. It called for the Italian language to be protected and nurtured. The bill was presented by Meloni's Brothers of Italy party and must be approved by both houses of parliament to become law. There was no hint when this might happen. The bill says the spread of English "demeans and mortifies" Italian and proposed that all public and private bodies had to use the "language of Dante" to promote their goods and services. The bill also says names and acronyms of jobs in companies operating in Italy should be in Italian, with foreign words only allowed if they prove to be impossible to translate; furthermore, that the widespread use of English in Europe was "even more negative and paradoxical" given that Britain had quit the European Union. If the draft becomes law, the government might have to get its own house in order. When it took office in October 2022, it approved "Made in Italy" as a useful tool for the minister of industry. And Meloni, in her inaugural address to parliament as prime minister in October, described herself as an "underdog".

                                The Language Games People Play

The questions here are sociolinguistic ones and complicated. Is she right? Is there a lot of English in Italian media and even official use. Yes. Is it too much? How much is too much? You judge. I copied these English or meant to be English terms in about 20 minutes from the on-line edition of La Repubblica yesterday (not from the articles themselves but from their respective headlines or secondary heads:

                        gadget, final rush [to mean "finishing touches"--nice try!] Bugaloo Bois, Playboy, il[the] Meetoo,
                      The big door prize,
fiction-puzzle, 'Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies' - Il trailer [of a tv series], chinese job

Has this happened before? This to-do about language? Does Italy even have an official language? What about the "melting pot" metaphor? Not very good here, I'm afraid. Not much has melted. Lots of big pieces floating around that don't always get along. The Constitution of the Italian Republic was enacted in December 1947 and has since been amended 16 times. The Constitution acknowledges the great ethnic variety within the nation. Most of those groups speak so-called neo-Latin languages, even Meloni's vaunted Dante, who took the revolutionary step of writing his "Comedy" in vernacular Tuscan so everyone could understand it. The "Divine" in the title was added by Boccaccio (who later sniped, "It would hav
e been better in Latin.")

Generally, Italy has been lax about what language you speak. It wasn't until 1925, under Mussolini, that Italian was first declared Italy's official language. The post-war Italian constitution does not explicitly say that Italian is the official national language, but some laws on the procedures of criminal cases explicitly state that Italian should be used and, in many case, that "Italian is the official language of state." That has yet to be tested and I doubt that it will be, in spite of the current government's "language purity" agenda. That is uncomfortably close to "racial purity". Various Italian regions print a lot of material in foreign languages for members of their immigrant communities. The regions also offer Italian lessons. It's what Italians say they do very well
smooth things over. Italian is the de facto official language of state. Whatever may be wrong with the Italian legal system, no one has ever been denied a fair trail because he or she could not understand the language spoken in court. They can use interpreters and have done so. This "language purity" nonsense is a red herring. She ran it up the flag-pole and I can't believe many people are going to salute.There must be at least a few members within her own party with enough common sense to ask, "Why in the world are we doing something so totally unnecessary?"

                    to portal on literature and language        to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023