Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Dianne Hales, LA BELLA LINGUA: MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH ITALIAN, THE WORLD'S MOST ENCHANTING LANGUAGE
I bought the book because my family had just returned from Italy, and I found it was just the right time to read Hales's conversational presentation of Italian history and culture through the lens of the evolving language of Italy--what she calls "the wiliest of Western tongues." The book itself--with chapters on religion, music, art, literature, food, film, love, and curses--reminded me of the stroll I took in Venice one morning, when the streets were still empty ... where I saw a man, cigarette cupped in his hand, walking his tiny dog past one of the old wells in a square; and street sweepers in their sea-green shirts wielding their long-bristled brooms over the stones; and where I smelled the bread for the day coming out of the ovens. It felt like the real city before the day's cruise-ships arrived. Hales's pages are full of anecdotes and curious factoids, the twists and turns to the language, that tickled me, surprised me, made me think. For example, "The manhole covers of Rome are still emblazoned with S.P.Q.R., the Latin abbreviation for the Senatus Populusque Romanus, the senate and people of Rome. Italians joke that it really stands for sono pazzi questi romani--These Romans are crazy." She emphasizes the uneven progress of what came to be "Italian" from Latin, through Greek, through the various waves of Germans and Saracens, and which was consolidated from (and despite) the various local languages: e.g., watermelon is "cocomero in the south, anguria in the north--and an insulting way to say 'blockhead' throughout Italy." She explains how "ancient Romans, such as Gaius Julias Caesar ... bore three names: a basic first name, a clan name, and also a family name that was handed down. By medieval times, the latter two names disappeared ... which became confusing ... Occupations inspired names ... such as Botticelli for 'barrel maker' (the nickname later given to the artist Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filpepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli, whose brother made barrels)." She takes us along on her discovery of new foods and friends, and it was a treat being in her company.