La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language
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“Italians say that someone who acquires a new language ‘possesses’ it. In my case, Italian possesses me. With Italian racing like blood through my veins, I do indeed see with different eyes, hear with different ears, and drink in the world with all my senses…”
A celebration of the language and culture of Italy, La Bella Lingua is the story of how a language shaped a nation, told against the backdrop of one woman’s personal quest to speak fluent Italian.
For anyone who has been to Italy, the fantasy of living the Italian life is powerfully seductive. But to truly become Italian, one must learn the language. This is how Dianne Hales began her journey. In La Bella Lingua, she brings the story of her decades-long experience with the “the world’s most loved and lovable language” together with explorations of Italy’s history, literature, art, music, movies, lifestyle, and food in a true opera amorosa—a labor of her love of Italy.
Throughout her first excursion in Italy—with “non parlo Italiano” as her only Italian phrase—Dianne delighted in the beauty of what she saw but craved comprehension of what she heard. And so she chose to inhabit the language. Over more than twenty-five years she has studied Italian in every way possible: through Berlitz, books, CDs, podcasts, private tutorials and conversation groups, and, most importantly, large blocks of time in Italy. In the process she found that Italian became not just a passion and a pleasure, but a passport into Italy’s storia and its very soul. She offers charming insights into what makes Italian the most emotionally expressive of languages, from how the “pronto” (“Ready!”) Italians say when they answer the telephone conveys a sense of something coming alive, to how even ordinary things such as a towel (asciugamano) or handkerchief (fazzoletto) sound better in Italian.
She invites readers to join her as she traces the evolution of Italian in the zesty graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, in Dante’s incandescent cantos, and in Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron. She portrays how social graces remain woven into the fabric of Italian: even the chipper “ciao,” which does double duty as “hi” and “bye,” reflects centuries of bella figura. And she exalts the glories of Italy’s food and its rich and often uproarious gastronomic language: Italians deftly describe someone uptight as a baccala (dried cod), a busybody who noses into everything as a prezzemolo (parsley), a worthless or banal movie as a polpettone (large meatball).
Like Dianne, readers of La Bella Lingua will find themselves innamorata, enchanted, by Italian, fascinated by its saga, tantalized by its adventures, addicted to its sound, and ever eager to spend more time in its company.
morning they hear the little door through which they received food being hammered shut. I bit both of my hands in desperate grief, And they, thinking I acted out of hunger, All of a sudden stood straight up and wailed, “Father, the pain for us would be far less If you ate us! You put this wretched flesh Upon us and now you may strip it off!” Canto 33, lines 58–63, www.italianstudies.org/comedy/index.htm Slowly, agonizingly, on the fourth day, the boys begin to starve to death. One collapses at
pigeons swoop across the Piazza San Marco joked that my ciao sounded too Tuscan. Coaching me in the Venetian pronunciation, he explained that the word itself was a local invention. In La Serenissima’s glittering heyday, correspondents signed letters, “Il Suo schiavo” (“your slave”). Meeting on the street, acquaintances would bow and repeat the same ingratiating words. However, in the Venetian dialect, which softens the hard sound of sch (pronounced sk in other regions) to a chewy sh (as in
always affectionate but alternately provoking and cajoling, drew out the reticent genius on a variety of subjects. Words, I realized as I read these dialogues, were the gift she gave to, and inspired in, Michelangelo. Although he had written all his life, Michelangelo composed most of his muscularly energetic sonnets and madrigals between the ages of sixty and eighty and dedicated many to Vittoria. Historian’S rank him as one of the finest, if not the finest, of Italian Renaissance poets. “Those
although local gossip claimed the beguiling belly button actually belonged to an innkeeper’s daughter. The Renaissance increasingly emphasized simple, fresh, locally grown ingredients prepared in ways that brought out their true flavors—the essence of modern Italian cooking. The man behind this culinary revolution was Maestro Martino da Como, a combination of Mario Batali and Alice Waters, who cooked for a reverendissimo monsignor in Rome. Many details about this fifteenth-century master chef,
slipped headlong into the gap between the two parallel forms of the national language: italiano scritto (written Italian), the formal, literature-based language taught in schools, and italiano parlato (spoken or vernacular Italian), the feisty modern vernacular that no one masters in a classroom. Thanks to obligatory education and the mass media, the two have become more similar than ever before, but at times my formal Italian makes me feel like Petrarch in a pizzeria. Just as it has for the last