ITALIAN VOICES

Illustration by Leo Cardini

La, la, la

A window on language and customs in Italy
by Linda Falcone   (issue no. 86/2008 / September 18, 2008)

Although Italy has taught me to nurture a neurotic need for aesthetic perfection, I am not much of a scenery girl. And, while I do prefer palaces to skyscrapers, I'm seldom subject to the wide-eyed ‘wow' that gives weak knees to those who marvel at Tuscan hillsides and fifteenth-century cityscape. The fact that I was born without a sense of direction probably contributes to my lack of landscape-based enthusiasm. I can pass the same building three times in 10 minutes without realizing that I'm retracing my steps. In fact, I can live in the same building for three years and not know how to get there from the freeway exit. 

 

For many, Italy's seductive powers lie in the physical beauty of her landscape, the curve of her geography and the color of her frescos. My own infatuation for this country is primarily auditory. The buzz of a crowded café, the sound of high heels on cobblestone and even the screech of skidding Vespas somehow profoundly speak to me. Italy's language fills the air with a lightness and humor I have not found elsewhere. Its supple flexibility, the versatility of its vocabulary and the sheer variability of its dialects enchant me. In a word, I'm a word-geek and Italy is the end-all and be-all.

 

This country has six definite articles. Il-lo-la-i-gli-le. Even those who do not normally swoon at the sound of syllables have to admit that people who invented six ways to say ‘the' make great conversation partners. To me, il-lo-la-i-gli-le works like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

 

It is mind-chocolate that stimulates the ‘be-happy' gene. First graders sing it on the bus and who can help by hum along?

 

But show tunes aside, definite articles are definitely worth their weight in gold. Earn yourself one and you've got it made. To use an article when referring to a friend or foe is a hard-won sign of belonging. It means you're considered part of the group-a state that is essential to survival in Italy. For men, the article il always proceeds a nickname, and it is a banner to familiarity; Matteo becomes il Teo, Leonardo is il Leo and Niccolò is known as il Nico. Women, on the other hand, can be awarded a la without need to shorten their names. In the country that gave rise to leaders like the Magnificent, the Elder and the Gouty, there is something slightly dizzying about hearing yourself referred to as ‘The Linda.' The principle is simple: once they love you, your name becomes a superlative adjective. The tallest, the fattest, the best, the worst, the most original. The most unforgettable, irreparable you. On Saturday, we went to have lunch at the Badiani house in the hills near Prato.

 

It was our company party, because countryside soirees are exempt from party taxes. The sun was setting and a few of us sat in a line on a stone wall overlooking the valley.

 

‘I don't think I've ever seen anything so beautiful', I sighed.

 

Marco nudged Giovanni, who was sitting on his other side. ‘She says that every time she comes. When it comes to scenery, she is like a goldfish. No long-term memory.'

 

‘He's right', I admitted.

 

‘Well, you sure remember every damn word I say. And you always make me look like the village idiot.'

 

I moved to respond, but Marco was faster. ‘Sorry for you, Giova, but La Linda writes non-fiction.'

 

We all laughed together at his joke, but I was happiest. I had somehow earned a definite article. Il-lo-la-i-gli-le. Le-gli-i-lo-la-il. Yes, Tuscany is beautiful-the hills at dusk, the dusty green of olive groves, high Sangiovese vines and all that landscape jazz. Still-it's the la that rings as real music to me.

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