[For the Oxford Words blog:] Why learn Italian?

Cala Gonone

“Marjorie!”

Sighing with relief, I looked around the rows of old-fashioned single desks, wondering who the unfortunate Marjorie was. Our fierce and flame-haired Italian professoressa was picking on lone students to perform grammatical acrobatics. It was eight o’clock on a dark December morning and my Introduzione all’italiano module was not going well.

Marjorie!” – poor girl – “dico a te! The third person plural imperfect subjunctive of redimere, now! In a complete sentence!”

That’s when I realized that everyone, including the professoressa, was looking straight at…me. I was (apparently) “Marjorie”. At that moment, impaled on the imperfect, I did indeed ask myself why I had chosen to learn Italian on my year abroad (as well as realizing that introduzione might not translate culturally quite as expected). And yet there were dozens of us in that optional class, tackling the trapassato remoto. Italian remains the fifth most widely-taught language in the world. So why are we all in love with la bella lingua? To find out, I asked some friends who have all studied Italian at some point to tell me why they chose this language in particular.

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Indebted to…Italy

Terrace in Sardinia

Try this experiment: think of a word, any word, that we use regularly in English which has clear Italian origins before reading on.

Ready? It’s more than likely you’ve come up with a gastronomic term – a snap poll I took last week placed pizza, spaghetti, and cappuccino as front runners (along with ciao, which incidentally was originally a way of politely declaring ‘I am your slave’. You might want to think about that before saying it in the future.). There’s no doubt that Italian cuisine is one of the country’s most successful exports. For example, while you probably didn’t know that today is reportedly National Lasagna Day in America, there’s a good chance that you know and love the Italian dish itself, since lasagna (or lasagne in its more authentic spelling) has also well and truly earned its place on the list of Britain’s favourite dishes. Before we tuck into today’s layered lunch, however, it might be worth paying tribute for a moment to the various ways in which the Italian language has influenced English over the centuries.

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This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

He and she signs

Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?

This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)

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A Word a Day keeps the cobwebs away: our weird and wonderful “Words of the Day”

Cobweb

Who knew?

Some of the words that have arrived in your inbox this year may look or sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. Who could have guessed that one sense of the French word baraque is hefty person, for instance, or that Bach in German actually means brook? And in Italian the word bottega (shop or workshop), so often seen in restaurant titles, has another rather unexpected sense demonstrated in the following phrase: hai la bottega aperta = your flies are undone.

On the same theme, it’s useful to know that if a French man is talking about his tablettes de chocolat (literally chocolate bars) he’s referring to his six-pack, or that another meaning of choucroute (literally sauerkraut) is a beehive hairdo. And London residents may not be surprised to find out that in Italian fumo di Londra (literally London smoke) means dark grey; while an Italian medusa, on the other hand, is actually a jellyfish.

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