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May 16th, 2007

Learning about English by learning Italian

by Barbara Wallraff

As previously stated, I’ve been learning new things about English by living in Italy and learning Italian. I believe we can find out a lot about individuals from the way they speak. Is the same true for entire cultures?

In some ways, English is more rigid than Italian. For instance, in English “I have to go now, I’m late” is incorrect, because it’s a run-on sentence. But its equivalent in Italian appears in my textbook, and my Italian teacher assures me that it’s perfectly correct. In English we tie ourselves in knots trying to distinguish between “bring” and “take.” Italians use one word for both ideas, “portare,” and that’s that.

English is, however, more welcoming to foreigners trying to learn it. For instance, you can talk about the past, present and future with most English verbs if you know just three or four “inflections,” or endings, plus a few auxiliaries like “have” and “will.” “I cook,” “He cooks,” “Neither one of us cooked,” “One of us will cook.” How hard is that? But to express your thoughts in Italian, you need to learn six different forms of each of at least eight tenses for every verb. There are three slightly different kinds of verbs, so that’s 48 times three different verb endings to memorize.

Then, too, English nouns are just plain nouns, whereas Italian nouns have genders. For example, a spoon is masculine (“cucchiaio”), while a fork is feminine (“forchetta”). Those “o” and “a” endings are a hint as to which has which gender -- but the ending is no help with a word like “latte” (“milk”). That one’s masculine, which I would not have guessed. Furthermore, the regular patterns have some truly weird exceptions. An egg (“uovo”) is masculine, but more than one (“uova”) is feminine. Whatever!

In one way, English, by having been so accepting of other languages in the past, is tough on foreigners in the present. I’m referring to our spelling “system.” It is cobbled together from the spellings of languages from which English has adopted words, to the point that it seems almost arbitrary: “Enough” rhymes with “puff,” “dough” with “sew,” and “bough” with “Mao.” None of that stuff for the Italians! Italian is tidily phonetic -- far more so than I realized until I studied it. For instance, “ch” is always pronounced like our “k” -- hence “chianti.”

What does all this add up to in terms of national character? I’m glad gender doesn’t color everything we English speakers talk about. I’m told Italians don’t actually think of spoons as male and forks as female. Still, I can’t help believing that when a male student is a “studente” and a female one a “studentessa,” and on and on with words that refer to people, Italian gives its speakers less help than English does in recognizing what the two sexes have in common.

More important, as an American, I’m proud to think of English as unusually welcoming to all. And I suspect the mind-set in which the Anglo-Saxon word “good” happily coexists with “legitimate,” from Latin, and “cromulant,” from “The Simpsons,” is the same mind-set that has made America great. Now, if we can just solve the spelling problem, we’ll have a lot to congratulate ourselves about. Anybody for respelling “key” “chi,” “keep” “chip” and “just kidding” “giast chidding”?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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