A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “This is the day for getting upset aka What Italy means to me”

Earlier this week, annafdd had an interesting post, “This is the day for getting upset aka What Italy means to me”, examining Wikipedia’s biased article on Venetian language/dialect. The article, overaccentuating Venetian’s distinctiveness and underplaying the numerous (and growing) links of the language and its speakers with standard Italian, gets dissected with style and in detail.

This makes it sound like Italian was created a bit like Esperanto – somebody (probably Petrarca, Dante and Boccaccio, and we’ll get to this order later) sat around a table and wrote a bunch of rules and compiled a lexicon. If only. It would be a much easier language to learn if it had gone that way.

Dante took the first step when he chose to write the Divine Comedy in his vernacular. The novelty was not that he wrote in vernacular – several other people had done so as far back as the thirteen century, and Dante himself had written poetry in vernacular. This wasn’t remarkable – plenty of people were doing the same around him. (Well, it was indeed remarkable, but not as new).

Dante’s act of defiance was to write a philosophical treatise in verse, that dealt with the highest matter concievable, the nature of the universe and his idea of theology, philosophy and government, and he did not chose Latin. Dante had already written very influential books in Latin, including a treatise on the necessity of a new language. But using the language of the riff-raff to talk about God? That was revolutionary.

His success was so overwhelming that nobody after him seriously questioned that whatever language this mostly theoretical nation, Italy, was going to speak, it was going to start from him. He was popular among learned people, and he was popular among the riff-raff. His poem was read aloud to adoring crowds, and memorized.

What Petrarca and Boccaccio did was born of another age, in which the democracy Dante had so hard fought for had eclipsed. Petrarca and Boccaccio were courtesans, who lived by producing art for the courts. Petrarca looked at Dante’s fierce, vulgar language, and with an affectionate tut-tut proceeded to cleanse if of all that was popular and unrefined. The language he produced was beautiful, elegant, and his vocabulary much reduced. Boccaccio, who for his great popularity was also influential, took a look and decided to follow Petrarca. They were all from Tuscany, but they didn’t write for Florence. They wrote for the courts of Italy, and the language they produced became the language of art and poetry. Not for the humble, of course.

There are many other steps along the way. One pivotal moment is the one in which Alessandro Manzoni, probably the real father of Italian language, decided that the great novel he had already written and published with some success could not become the springboard for a new language if it remained written in his Milanese Italian. He therefore rewrote it in a heavily Florentine accent, and created a monster, but a viable one: a language that could be taken seriously as a literary language because it had the authority of Dante and Petrarca and Boccaccio behind it.

Ultimately, she concludes (if I may summarize), a language community–like the national community it’s often associated with–is produced, as Ernest Renan wrote in his seminal Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, is the produce of the the day-to-day referendum of its speakers, the product of a shared history and the member’s common reactions to this history. The post’s worth reading in full; go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2009 at 7:20 pm

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