‘Gli Italiani parlano con le mani’,

A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
June 23, 2005

Elena is twenty-five and has been for the past five years. She was born six years younger than her brother and I but stayed younger only until she learned to talk. We call those the good old days. Elena is what Italians call una pepperina. It means she has spunk and fills her words with red pepper. As of today, she is studying to be a tour guide. It’s the right job for my cousin because she always knows exactly where she is and how she got there. She is no more beautiful than anyone else, but you notice her in a crowd. She looks like someone who knows where all the commotion is coming from. Most of the time it’s coming from her.

 

For me, Elena is the epitome of Italian expression. Verdi’s melodrama is in her genes. For Elena, speaking is not an action, it’s a state of being. She enters into it. I watch her talk often. Arguably, most Italian speech is worth watching more than it is worth hearing because words in Italy  are a theatrical art.

 

Italians are known throughout the world for being talkers. They talk across alleys and through open windows. They talk over tables and tiny cups of steaming black pitch. Italians talk in piazzas every night ‘til eight o’clock when the inaudible dinner bell rings and brings everyone back home to their respective tables. Italians talk about food, politics, love, and neighbours. Then they talk about children and mothers, pain, piety, food again, and then bodily functions. They talk in church, on trains, while standing to cross streets and when waiting in butcher shops. To speak with smooth words and wide gestures is a favourite national pastime, and it should surprise no one to say that gli italiani parlano con le mani, Italians talk with their hands. You’ve seen it haven’t you? How they lift their words with high vibrant gestures meant for raising spirits or eyebrows? Or how easily Italian hands find humour and squeeze it from the air as if they were wringing out a dripping sponge? Italians have hands that scold or feign indifference, encourage laughter or diminish the distance between two minds. And for an Italian, there is nothing like a low, scoffing wave to chase problems away. In this country, speaking without gestures is like writing without punctuation. Hands are commas, exclamation points, and question marks. Words are stale without them.

 

We could attribute Italian gesticulation to the peninsula’s artistic past. Roam the streets of Italy’s dozens of città d’arte and it will all become clear to you. Italians are artists by nature, with hands destined to create by means of paint, wood, or marble. What other race throughout the ages has been so able to squeeze life from stone and gently coax the soul from the inanimate? In absence of  brush and chisel, the air itself becomes a means of expression.

 

“Are you capable of talking without your hands?” I teased. She put her floury palms on her hips, and answered me, peppery as usual. “Why would I want to? To be like English speakers and lack conviction? They speak from their mouths only. Italians don’t just talk with our hands, we talk with our whole bodies. We step into speech.”

 

“You make speech sound like a dance,” I said “Is it not?” she smiled, returning to her dumplings. Well, there you have it. Italiani - the same hands they use to salt their foods, they use to salt their conversations. 

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