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La Bella Lingua


Reviewed by Richard West

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse," imperially declared Charles V in Dianne Hales' La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair With Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language, (Broadway Books,  301 pgs., $24.95). It's a delightful, informative tour of both  the history of the Italian language

and her own account of innamoramento (crazy head-over-heels love) with la bella lingua.

    But did the amoroso (amorous) or amato (beloved) women understand the Holy Roman Emperor in the 16th century?  It was only in 1996, 135 years after Italy's unification, that a majority of  the country's citizens spoke standard Italian. Throughout its three-millennia history Italy has been divided by countless dialects. Neapolitans could not understand Venetians, Romans remained baffled by the speech of citizens living in Padua and Milan.

    Yet today, Hales reports, Italian ranks fourth among the world's most studied languages and is the fastest-growing language taught in universities. Why? Because of its "ability to transform anything from marble to melody from the humble noodle to life itself into a joyous art," writes Hales. La Bella Lingua proves this point by countless examples of  the language's creativeness and by her interesting account of its development with a look at highlights of Italy's literature, opera, cooking, art, and the movies. 
    A few milestones:
  In 813 Charlemagne ordered prelates to preach sermons in the local idiom instead of Latin. This vernacular became lingua maternal, the mother tongue; Latin became la grammatica, the more formal language learned in school.
 Dante, Italy's greatest poet, refused to write his La Divina Commedia (1310-14) in Latin, using instead Italian (including 36 dialects) and a dab of Greek. Boccaccio did the same with his Decameron, (1349-53), Italy's first great prose work.
 Lorenzo de' Medici, Florence's statesman/scholar/banker, funded Italy's first printing press and allowed only Italian to be spoken at his dinner table.
 Librettists writing Italy's popular opera buffa, or comic opera, most popular with the people, used Italian and street idioms as were done earlier with traditional Commedia dell'Arte. As did the later-and-greater Verdi and Puccini. Poetry of the ordinary through Italian.
     When silent movies became talkies in 1930 "theaters became schoolhouses. Millions of Italians learned to speak the national language at the movies," Hales writes. The scripts were written for the widest possible audience.
    For me the most pleasurable part of the book was learning the infinite clever idioms and slang born from Italian. My travel notebooks are truffled with linguistic examples encountered on the road in other countries: Gap yoq, no problem in Uzbek, literally means talk not; the Inuit words for television, bi yeekihadinaayee, translate as something that is talking in there; the Chinese word for uncouth yokels literally means dirt dumplings; ka par, Tibetan word for telephone means between mouths; in Austrian, bureaucrats are schreibtischtater, desk-murderers. 
    Ms. Hales' examples are delightful: drenched in a rainstorm? You're inzuppato, literally dunked in the soup; got a back pain? it's il colpo della strega, "the strike of a witch"; is the sea bluer than blue? Then it's  azzurro-azzurro; while in Texas a blowhard is all hat and no cattle, in Italy they're tutto fumo e niente arrosto, "all smoke and no roast."
    Speaking of food, the linguistic plate runneth over: the pastas lingue di suocera, "mother-in-law tongues" and strozzapreti, "priest stranglers"; dita degli apostoli, crepes filled with sweet ricotta, "fingers of the apostles". And the most valuable sentence for any husband? Mia moglie ha sempre ragione, "my wife is always right."
    Finally, Ms. Hales wondered who was the model speaker of the language. The answer came from one of her favorite Italians, the Oscar-winning actor and Dante one-man show performer, Roberto Benigni. "No one speaks Italian more beautifully than Mastroianni. Listen to Marcello, and you'll sound more Italian." The late actor's 140 movies await your viewing pleasure as well as this inviting book.

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