Article published on June 2009 on the BAIA Blog.
As an Italian, I always loved my mother tongue. When I was a kid, I believed Italian was the most musical, easy to write, and enjoyable among all the languages. My first experience as a student with French grammar was a confirmation of the indisputable superiority of Italian. Only later did I realize that any language, if approached with interest, perseverance, and curiosity, can be as enjoyable as my mother tongue and would reveal its beauty. Over time, Italian has become like an old friend. The sound of well-spoken Italian and the words of a well written Italian book are among the pleasures of my life.
Knowing how long has it taken for me to begin mastering English, despite living in the US, I felt surprised by the in-depth knowledge and “padronanza” Dianne Hales (blog) has for the Italian language. Her recent book La Bella Lingua is an incredible source of information not only for students approaching the Italian language but also for Italians. She goes through words and expressions, revealing fascinating details, connections, stories, and unexpected etymologies. Dianne’s sparkling writing style keeps us on the page, stimulating our curiosity and providing for a delightful read. As I know Dianne personally, thanks to the ItaLingua school in San Francisco, I asked her a few questions about her new book and her love affair with the Italian language.
Franco: Dianne can you tell us a bit about yourself and your activities as a writer?
Dianne: I’ve written thousands of articles and dozens of books, both for a general audience and for students, and I’ve served as a contributing editor for several national magazines in the U.S., including PARADE, Ladies Home Journal, and American Health. But nothing I’ve done has been related to Italy or Italian. This is brand-new territory for me—which makes it exciting.
Franco: The same features that make Italy and Italians so lovable and exciting can also be irritating. How did you manage to stay always so enthusiast about Italy (and Italians) while learning the Italian language?
Dianne: Maybe we all feel the same mix of affection and irritation with our countrymen, perhaps because we see the best and the worst of ourselves in them. Italians always went out of their way to help me with my research and were so delighted that I was writing about their language that I never had any reason to feel irritated.
Franco: In Italy, dialects are very important in preserving local cultures. Dialects can also be an obstacle toward a more integrated and strong nation. What is your view on this topic? Should we dump our dialects and pursue English as the global language?
Dianne: No, please! Dialects are the spices that make Italian such a delicious brew of a language. Isn’t it wonderful that different regions came up with so many different ways of saying the same thing and that you can still hear echoes of their individual histories in their dialects? If I were Italian (forse una Romana de Roma), I would be just as proud—and protective—of my dialect as of the national language.
Franco: Despite your brilliant writing skills, writing a successful book about a topic such as the Italian language can be a challenging goal. What motivated you in sharing your passion for this language in a book?
Dianne: As a journalist, I know a great story when I see one, and the tale of how Italian became Italian—which even few native Italians know—has everything: drama, war, beautiful women, heroic men, art, humor, mystery, food, music, movies and, of course, love. My goal was to write a book worthy of the Italian language, and my greatest gratification has come from Italians who tell me that I have given them a new perspective on and appreciation for their language. At my book presentation here, Valeria della Valle of La Sapienza said that I wrote of “l’Italia e l’italiano che vorremmo,” the very best of the country and the language.
Franco: Italians seems to be obsessed with food (soccer and women also score very high). In your experience how do Italian food and Italian language mix and influence each other?
Dianne: Italy’s food and language meld together as smoothly as “cacio sui maccheroni.” Both boast a rich and rollicking history dating back to ancient times. Both vary greatly from region to region. Both reflect centuries of invasion, assimilation and conquest. The very words for simple culinary techniques—rosolare for make golden, sbricciolare for crumble, or sciaquare for rinse—make my tongue tingle with delight. Of course, one pleasure always trumps reading about Italian cuisine: eating it!
Franco: While we can name several exceptional Italian writers, the Italian language seems to miss the extraordinary talent of a Shakespeare or a Pushkin. The most important Italian writers seem to be too old or too academic to excite the current generations. Is Italian language too big and multi-medial to fit comfortably in the pages of a book?
Dianne: Franco, your countrymen, particularly Florentines, would be horrified! Only Shakespeare, with all his collected works, can even compare with Dante Alighieri. More than seven centuries after his birth, Dante still rocks—literally. Bruce Springsteen, Patty Smith, and bands like Radiohead and Nirvana cite him as an inspiration as did John Milton, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound, and Sigmund Freud. Roberto Benigni is selling out his TuttoDante shows around the world. College professors in the U.S. tell me that students flock to their courses on Dante and Italian literature. Pushkin? That was the name I gave my first cat. Dante? Vive sempre.
Franco: You list many great reasons to start studying Italian. Almost all of them are about passion, art, music, and history. Can studying Italian make also sense from a business point of view?
Dianne: Italian may not seem the obvious choice for business, but no other language embodies the ideals of Western culture and civilization. For many centuries knowing Italian was the mark of a well-bred, well-educated person. I believe the same can still be true. With Italian, you learn courtesy, respect, diplomacy, a deep appreciation for all dimensions of culture. No other language may be better at distinguishing the sfumature, the subtle nuances of a situation. As long as business involves people—unique, complex individuals with so much to express and communicate—Italian will be relevant.
Franco: Many of the people reading this interview are struggling, like me, with a similar experience: we are trying to improve our English language skills. Based on your experience, do you have any suggestions for us?
Dianne: To my surprise, Italian followers of my blog, which focuses on Italian colloquial expressions, have told me that the posts have helped them learn idiomatic English. To me, that is the most difficult thing in any language. I would suggest reading English newspapers and magazines to pick up expressions that Americans use every day—such as “hit a home run” or “make a long shot”—that aren’t taught in language classes. How else would you know that our equivalent of “in bocca al lupo” is “break a leg”?
I would like to thank Dianne Hales for taking time for this interview. If you have a question for Dianne or for BAIA please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. If you enjoyed Dianne’s interview do not hesitate to order a copy of “La Bella Lingua“. I promise you will not be disappointed! I also suggest to visit Dianne’s blog for daily “pills” of Italian vocabulary and culture.