Italian as a Language of Communication in Nineteenth Century Italy and Abroad (with M. Colombo, Italica, 89, 2012)

Italian as a Language of Communication in Nineteenth Century Italy and Abroad (with M. Colombo, Italica, 89, 2012)
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   Italian as a Language of Communicationin Nineteenth Century Italy and Abroad 1. State of the question. It is a truth universally acknowledged thatnineteenth century Italy, a country in possession of a good literature,was in want of a national spoken language. The languages spokenacross the country were in fact dialects: the Italian language, based onfourteenth-century Tuscan, as codified for literary purposes in the six-teenth century, was used only as a written medium.This assumption has been held by many famous Italian authors:during his stay in Paris, Alessandro Manzoni wrote, in an oft-cited let-ter to Claude Fauriel of 9 February 1806, about the envy he felt at see-ing how the people of Paris understood and applauded Molière’scomedies, while in Italy there was such a distance between the spokenand the literary language that the latter could be called a dead lan-guage (Botta 4). Also Giacomo Leopardi, in his Zibaldone di pensieri ,noted on 7 May 1821 that outside Tuscany, people did not speak Italian(Pacella 620). A few years later, in the third of his Epoche della lingua ita -liana (1824), Ugo Foscolo asserted that it was apparent to whoeverlived in or travelled through Italy that the Italian language was notspoken (Foligno 153). The list could easily go on. 1 It was not only the language that was at stake: a famous, but apoc-ryphal, sentence by the Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire Klemensvon Metternich stated that Italy was no more than a geographical ex-pression (Brunetti). Indeed, until political unification in 1861, the maincharacteristic that justified talk of Italy as a nation was its literature.This is by no means an exception: Adrian Hastings (31), talking aboutthe birth of nations in Western Europe (and beyond), has claimed that“the most influential and widespread single internal factor in [the formation of nations] is [. . .] the literary development of a spoken ver-nacular.” Nevertheless, to cite Hastings again, “only extensive use [of the literary language] can bring with it a nationalising effect, andthat means use at a popular, and not merely academic, level” (Hastings23). 2 This statement recalls the famous title of a series of articles pub-lished in the Spettatore in 1855 by Ruggiero Bonghi, Perché la letteraturaitaliana non sia popolare in Italia . 3 The title expressed a widespread idea: the majority of the Italian people were not able, at that time, tounderstand the national language and literature (Serianni,  Il secondoOttocento 15–16).In twentieth century scholarship this belief received powerful ex-pression in Tullio De Mauro’s pioneering estimates of the numbers of   I  TALICA Volume 89 Number 1 (2012)  110 Colombo and Kinder Italian speakers at the time of unification. De Mauro started from theprinciple that only the inhabitants of Tuscany and Rome could easilyspeak the common (literary) language without a great amount of schooling, because their dialects were close to Italian. For all otherItalians, it is reasonable to assume that only those who had attended atleast some years of the secondary school were able to speak Italian.Given these assumptions, De Mauro (34–43) estimated that, in 1861,only 630,000 citizens, in a population of more than 25 million inhabi-tants, were speakers of the national language: that is, in the united Italyof the nineteenth century only 2.5% of the population was able tospeak Italian. Some years later, Arrigo Castellani adjusted the percent-age, arguing on the basis of new criteria that almost one-tenth of Italians spoke Italian as their everyday language in 1861. Nevertheless,the idea that there was in Italy an incurable division between written and spoken language until the second half of the twentieth century has become almost a truism. This opinion has been discussed and de-fended recently in a sharp essay by Pietro Trifone, who talks about the linguistic holocaust of millions of Italians who have been excludedfor years from the use of the national language, with dramatic socialconsequences.While the main point of this argument is undoubted, that in nine-teenth century Italy everyday use of the Italian spoken language wasrestricted, some scholars have tried to highlight different aspects of theproblem. These contributions have exploited three areas: explorationof the evidence of some sort of spoken Italian in Italy before the unifi-cation of 1861; documentation of the spread of passive competence inthe national language; evidence about the use of Italian outside Italy.2. Spoken Italian in nineteenth century Italy . The first line of research ismainly represented by the studies of Francesco Bruni (“Introduzione”),Luca Serianni (“Lingua e dialetti d’Italia”) and Giuseppe Antonelli.According to Bruni, it is necessary to overcome the stark opposition between the literary language and the dialects: there must have beenan extended ‘grey zone,’ where Italian was spoken with more or lesspronounced dialectal or regional features. This grey zone has two mainsenses: first of all, the use of the Italian language was established onlyin certain fields: literature, of course, but also religion, economic tradeand private law. In these fields one could find the alternating use of Italian, dialect and varieties that were intermediate between the two.Secondly, Italian could reach communicative adequacy only at the ex-pense of its unity. The more one tried to express in Italian the whole of one’s thinking, the less one could avoid using dialectal terms in one’sdiscourse. What emerged was a partial linguistic competence, whichcan even be observed in famous writers. For example, it is known thatone of the main Italian novelists of the nineteenth century, Giovanni  Italian as a Language of Communication111Verga, was never able to form correct conditional sentences in Italian: but that does not mean, obviously, that he did not master at least onepart of the language (Bruni, “Introduzione” xxxii–xxxiii).Looking at the problem from a new point of view, Serianni studiedthe reports of foreigners who travelled Italy in the eighteenth and nine-teenth centuries. Many travellers, in their accounts, merely recountstereotypes. But some are more reliable. Stendhal, who was greatlyaware of the dialectal variation in Italy, nevertheless in 1817 mentionsa spoken Italian ( toscan ) used with foreigners: “On parle toujourstoscan aux étrangers mais dès que votre interlocuteur veut exprimerune idée énergique, il a recours à un mot de son dialect.” In the sameyears, George Byron writes: “As for Italian I am fluent enough, even inits Venetian modification—which is something like the Somersetshireversion of English—and as for the more classical dialects, I had not for-got my former practice during my voyage.” What kind of language ishe talking about? It is unlikely that Byron mastered the main dialectsof Italy: rather, it is reasonable to assume that the people who talkedwith him used a sort of weak version of dialect, which Byron couldperceive as a modification of Italian, comparable to the Somersetshireversion of English.Not only the judgements, but also the experiences of foreign trav-ellers may prove to be significant. The Englishman Patrick Brydonewas in Italy from 1767 to 1771 and, in relating a conversation withsome Sicilian highlanders, states that even if they talk to each another“in their mountain jargon, which is unintelligible even to Italians [. . .],most of them speak Italian so as to be understood.” Moreover, CharlesDickens writes in his Pictures from Italy (1846) about his conversationsin Genoa with an old man, named Antonio, and his son: “two burnt-sienna natives with naked legs and feet, who wear, each, a shirt, a pairof trousers, and a red sash, with a relic, or some sacred charm like a bonbon off a twelfth-cake, hanging round the neck. The old man isvery anxious to convert me to the Catholic faith; and exhorts me fre-quently. We sit upon a stone by the door, sometimes, in the evening,like Robinson Crusoe and Friday reversed; and he generally relates, to-wards my conversion, an abridgment of the History of Saint Peter—chiefly, I believe, from the unspeakable delight he has in his imitationof the cock” (Dickens 286). Passing over Dickens’s colonial condescen-sion, one may ask: In which language did the old man speak?Certainly not in the Genoese dialect: it was probably some sort of re-gional Italian, as imperfect with respect to the literary standard as itwas useful for communication.Giuseppe Antonelli has touched on the problem of spoken Italian ina different, more indirect way. He has studied the language of the letters written by cultured men and women in the first half of the nineteenth century, such as Alessandro Manzoni’s mother Giulia  112 Colombo and Kinder Beccaria or Giuseppe Verdi. The findings of Antonelli’s study show animpressive degree of standardization of the language, which can beeasily defined as “normal Italian.” The incidence of regional features isvery low, and the language is usually set between the boundaries fixedin the grammatical treatises of the time. As Antonelli writes, it is diffi-cult to imagine that the same people who could so well write theItalian language could not also speak it in everyday life. It is more rea-sonable to think that the written language functioned as training forspoken Italian, used together with the dialect by people who were almost perfectly bilingual (219–25).3. Passive competence in Italian. Here we may take as our startingpoint another statement of Francesco Bruni (“Introduzione” XXX). It isreasonable to assume that the relationships of the peasants with thepriest, the doctor, the lawyer or the notary should take place not onlyin dialect, but also in Italian, or rather, in one of the intermediate stages between the dialect and the national language. Lack of education lim-ited or prevented the passage from passive to active competence: butthat does not mean that peasants were drowning in a completely dialectal environment. Literary evidence of this can been seen inGiorgio Diritti’s 2009 film, L’uomo che verrà . The film tells the story of what is usually known as “strage di Marzabotto:” from 29 Septemberto 5 October 1944 Nazi soldiers killed more than 800 civilians, mainlywomen and children, in the Appennine mountains near Bologna.Diritti represents the fact in a moving and yet sober style, describingthe daily life of the peasants, their relationships with the Nazis and thepartisans, and the madness of the slaughter. The majority of the char-acters speak in Bolognese dialect, as was still normal in Italy at thattime. But some of them speak in Italian: mainly the priests, the publicofficials, the schoolteacher and an evacuee who arrives from the city.The remarkable fact is that they speak in Italian also with the peasants,who understand them, even if they reply in dialect. We may assumethat a similar situation, perhaps not so advanced, but neither qualita-tively different, was on stage in the nineteenth century.Evidence for this view comes, for example, from preaching: even if there are testimonies of the use of dialect by preachers in nineteenth-century Piedmont, Friuli, Calabria, Sicily and Sardinia, the most common practice was to preach in Italian. Sure enough, the sermons of abbot Antonio Cesari and his followers, who used the archaic fourteenth-century Italian, were unintelligible to the common people; but the usual practice was to employ a language as simple as possible,so as to be understood by believers (Colombo, “Gli Strumenti” 76–87).As Pietro Trifone has argued, passive competence is more a matterof pragmatics of communication than one of real language use (33).Nevertheless, what is at stake here is the question whether cultural  Italian as a Language of Communication113products in Italian, particularly Italian literature, were intended onlyfor the happy few or could they have had a wider circulation.Obviously we are not referring here to Petrarch, Parini or Leopardi, butto popular literature. In nineteenth century Italy the level of illiteracywas extremely high: on the whole, at the time of political unificationabout 80% of the population was illiterate. This striking percentage isnot to be cited without care: there were profound differences betweenareas. For example, in 1861 one may find that in the province of Milan43.18% of the population was literate (10.39% were readers only),while in the same year, in the province of Naples, only 4.04% couldread and 17.53% could read and write (Sallmann 233, 61, 322). 4 How -ever, the impact of popular literature on the population can not be understood without taking into consideration the phenomenon of oralreading.There is convincing evidence that the practice of reading aloudItalian books was not uncommon in nineteenth century Italy, not onlyamong cultivated people, who were obviously perfectly able to readfor themselves, but also among the lower classes. The testimoniescome from very different sources: for example, one may quote the re-ports of evangelical hawkers who sold Protestant books throughoutthe whole Italy. One of them, Angelo Castioni, writes from Eboli, in theprovince of Salerno, in 1879: “Alla sera quattro o cinque individui,padri di famiglia, mi dissero che avevano capito che i libri che vendevoerano molto buoni e che essi li avrebbero fatti comprare ai loro figli eche li avrebbero uditi leggere volentieri.” Also important is the memoirof the Abruzzese shepherd Francesco Giuliani about evening gather-ings: “Prima del 1860 nel nostro paese imparare a leggere era la cosapiù difficile [. . .] e pure tanti riuscivano a imparare. [. . .] Nelle sered’inverno, riuniti attorno a un gran foco si leggeva e tutti ascoltavanoattentamente, e i libri preferiti erano l’ Orlando innamorato , l’ Orlando fu-rioso , la Gerusalemme liberata , i Reali di Francia , il Guerrino Meschino e la Storia dei paladini di Francia e Paris e Vienna .” The most reliable evidencecomes from the Jacini inquiry of 1879 about the conditions of peasantsin Italy, promoted by the Italian government. Many reports fromNorthern Italy note that in the winter season it was a common practicefor the people to get together in the cowsheds. The men repaired thework tools, the women spun, and there was often someone who read a book to the others: the titles were usually the same already cited in thetestimony of the shepherd from Abruzzo (Piazza and Colombo 69–77).Further evidence derives from the spread of books designated topopular classes in nineteenth century Italy. A recent srcinal mono-graph by Isotta Piazza (55–101) shows that from 1852 to 1869 there wasan impressive crop of initiatives in the Italian Catholic world aimed topublish and spread “good books” among workers and farmers. Some books, mainly novels around 100 pages long, were intended for the
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