A Special Language Lesson
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, February 2009)
For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing about the effects that Italy has had upon me, my language, and my understanding of the world and the human condition in general. As of late however, I have become aware of the enormous influence that I personally have had on Italy, its language, and its understanding of the world and the human condition in general. Well, putting my delusions of grandeur aside for the moment, perhaps the problem isn’t as serious as all that. But I do have to say, that I am now aware of one particular effect I’ve had on many of my friends, and those around me on a daily basis.
And for that, I would like to publicly prostrate myself before the world and humbly beg the forgiveness of my beloved Italy and all her people.
As with most stories of things gone awry, it started off innocently enough. I had been invited to party at a friend’s house, about a half hour’s drive from where I lived. The hostess of the party was sweet enough to offer me a ride, as I didn’t own any form of transportation. I wanted to go, but felt just a tad bit guilty for the hour in total that she would have to spend on the road just so I could attend. I told her that it was very kind of her to offer, but that I didn’t want to be a “pain in the…backside.” When converting that into Italian however, I did not use the word for “backside,” but rather a direct translation for the word that is most commonly used in American jargon. I told her I didn’t want to be a “dolore nel culo,” which, as I immediately found out, has absolutely no meaning whatsoever in Italian. What the phrase lacked in cultural significance was notably made up for in comedic relief. My friend laughed hard and long at my gaff, and before I knew it, she began using the expression herself here and there, as a new and very humorous way of communicating the idea of something or someone being a bother.
And so it began.
From there, I started noticing that many of my friends began peppering their speech patterns with dashes of American slang. Affirmative responses, for centuries known as “sì,” were now, to my horror, turning into “Yeah.” At times I heard my friends saying, “Datzkuhl,” a seemingly German word, but I was to find out that is how I apparently pronounced the phrase, “That’s cool.” But when I began to see my comrades shrug, roll their eyes and apathetically utter, “Wud-evah,” it became clear to me that I had really better start watching my language.
Unfortunately the damage had been done and there was no going back. On the contrary, things only got worse. I arrived at work one afternoon, only moments after my colleague had accidentally knocked over a jewelry display. With little sparkly things scattered everywhere around her, my co-worker was waving her hands, bouncing on her toes and chanting a monotone mantra that consisted solely of one famous four letter word that begins with “F,” repeated over and over. I stood shocked into immobility, and putting on my best prudent grandmother voice, ordered her to immediately stop saying that word. She halted her dance, and looked at me innocently quizzical, and declared, “But you say it all the time!”
My initial reaction was to get indignant and deny such a charge, but then almost instantaneously I realized she had to be right. It wasn’t the first time in my life that my usage of that particular word was pointed out as basically constant. Whenever I’m made aware of the fact that I even use it at all, it astounds me. I am a refined young lady, not some vulgar gutter punk. Aren’t I? But then, I think back to my formative years, that tumultuous time of late adolescence, when I was replacing my Donny Osmond-esque record collection, with anything loud, angry and/or naughty from the London music scene, and it begins to make sense. When Sid Vicious replaces Shaun Cassidy, when safety pins become your favorite earrings, and when flipping somebody off takes two fingers on one hand, the constant, unmitigated usage of the magic “F” word isn’t far behind. And I’ve never been able to free myself from it since.
And now I’ve brought “it” to Italy. Though I’m certainly not terribly proud of the fact, I’ve obviously been using the word more often than I would care to admit, as I have heard it used time and time again by otherwise fine, upstanding, polite Italian friends of mine. When there was a sudden drop in temperature one evening, a young man I know emphatically noted that it was “f-ing freddo!” When crying over the loss of her most recent love, another friend wept that her ex-boyfriend was a “f-ing idiota!” And if those examples weren’t dreadful enough, I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing yet another acquaintance of mine yell into his cell phone, “Oh mamma! F – you!”
For my Italian friends here, using the F-word is hilarious. They don’t use it subconsciously as I am all too often prone to doing, but instead it is a choice they make to lightheartedly punctuate their speech. The gentleman that used it when speaking with his mother, laughed like mad when I attempted to reprimand him for using it in that context. In fact, he told me that his mother thought it was so funny, that now even she is heard to be saying it on occasion. The thought of a genteel little “nonna” somewhere in Puglia telling her grocer to F-off because his celery is a little limp, disturbs me to no end.
To alleviate my culpability though, some have brought it to my attention that they did not necessarily learn the word from me, but rather from American films and music. I must admit that when giving English lessons, that word is the one thing that I get more questions about than any other. One student in fact, considered it the most important word in the English language, as he said he has noticed that Americans use it to express virtually every type of emotion. He says that whether they are angry, happy, frightened or in pain, Americans will eloquently wield that word as a noun, a verb, an adjective or adverb.
Though I find it comforting to know that I am not personally responsible for bringing the F-word to the Italian linguistic table, I do feel I must be held accountable for my part in its proliferation at least amongst the people I know here. When I hear one of my friends use that word, I feel a lot like I do when I see a McDonald’s sign in the heart of Rome or Florence. It’s not so much the word that bothers me, but I see it as perhaps another form of Americanization encroaching on the beautiful Italian cultural landscape. So maybe I had better just watch my mouth. Having kicked the Big Mac habit, I’ve watched what goes in, and now I just need to be a little more careful about what comes out as well.