Can Europe Make It?

The obsessive use of English in Italian politics and media

The words some of these media folks pick are not even remotely funny.

Alessio Colonnelli
26 July 2018

Angela - prime minister of Britain? Matthias Balk/Press Association. All rights reserved.

“Question time”, “spending review”, “moral suasion” are among the countless English locutions used by Italian politicians and journalists alike. It makes them sound important; and Italian sound inadequate.

Tassa piatta,” the editor-in-chief of Lettera43 Paolo Madron said on national radio this month, “sounds a bit ugly.” He prefers saying “flat tax”. A useful translation was dismissed by someone who could help make it relevant – because it's not nice.

Madron is not the only one with such views. The constant and wholly arbitrary undermining – by professionals – of viable new Italian words has spawned a national fear of sounding provincial. It seems as if the media casually drop English terms into their Italian to look cool – to make their analyses appear at the forefront – which is really the most provincial thing you can do.

What's the point in using so much English when speaking to an Italian audience about Italian matters? If only pronunciations were more precise, at least you could learn how to say 'th' properly; or make 'uncle' and 'ankle' sound different. (Mind you, even the New Statesman made an epochal mistake not long ago with “Who sunk Brexit?” on the 15 June cover.) 

If you are desperate to use your English when reporting in Italian, then show me the relevant stuff, not the egocentric fluffy bits. There's hope, in fact. Consider: Italian cultural critics and curators made repeated efforts in the past to introduce their audiences to “serendipity”, highlighting artistic and literary qualities beyond the usual scientific meaning. Serendipità can finally be about art, poetry and prose as well, just as in English. This is pushing the potential within a language; unlocking instead of curtailing; adopting without aping. This is pushing the potential within a language; unlocking instead of curtailing; adopting without aping.

But what about the last government's calamitous expression “step-child adoption” which referred to children adopted by gay couples? Alarmingly, this also sounded like ministers wanted to sanitise an issue many would describe as 'dirty' in that bastion of patriarchy and conservatism Italy still is.

Yet, there was a stigma around the sycophantic and hypocritical approach to English. People used to call this mess Italiese, a mockery of Italian by business executives wanting to make their products sound more cutting-edge. The sobering term – Italiano plus Inglese – was coined in the 1960s and is still a dictionary entry. (Interesting variant: Itangliano.) 

I haven't heard of Italiese in a long time. 

But then I think: of course I don't hear it any more. When a majority of Italian journalists and politicians does Italiese, they're not going to collectively take the mickey out of themselves: Italiese and self-irony don't go together. What's more, they don't write about this issue at all; they've killed off any possible debate around it. Also, it wouldn't be in their interest: advertisers could complain. 

The words some of these media folks pick are not even remotely funny. Germans suffer from a similar problem (Denglisch), but they also use playful words like “small talk” and “shit storm”. And anyway, it's always those which are morphologically similar – like 'sentiment' – that find an easy way into Italian. 

This issue is ingrained. How many millions of times has Merkel been called Angela with the wrong 'g' we'll never know; as if she were the prime minister of Britain, of all countries.

The whole exercise cannot but sound pointless, ridiculous, unimaginative and... let's face it – very lazy too.

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