Me Talk Ugly This Day

Been reading David Sedaris’s ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ (thanks Marta!), an astute, highly entertaining collection of essays/autobiographical short stories. Several of them are concerned Sedaris’ move to France and his efforts to learn French.

I particularly love the way he renders bad student French in English – “That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty.” (Hence the title of the book.) I’m aware that much of my Italian probably sounds like this. My teachers are used to such mangling and don’t even bat an eyelid, but staff in bars and restaurants in touristy areas, who inevitably have better English than my Italian, do tend to flinch and wince, giving a good idea of my standard

Teachers and linguists perennially say that a key problem adults have when learning a new language is self-consciousness, a fear of the blunders. Children don’t have this problem, or confident people, who just push on through. But I most certainly do; I don’t relish hearing myself talking like I’m retarded a semi-illiterate nincompoop.

Pitfalls and pratfalls

There are just so many pitfalls to cause linguistic pratfalls. One of my teachers, Giammarco, suggests that Italian is a largely logical language and while it’s hard to learn at the start, it gets easier. This is the complete opposite of my experience. At the start, having learned the present tense and the passato prossimo (simple past tense, ie “I bought a cake”) and a smattering of everyday vocabulary I felt a fleeting giddiness – “Wahey, I can speak Italian!” At least in class or alone with my wife.

After that, however, other tenses have presented themselves, tenses like the conjiuntivo passato (present perfect subjunctive), which not only involve learning new conjugations, but can also be somewhat baffling to translate; modern English, for example, doesn’t use the subjunctive much.

Prepositions – to, from, in, at, on – also continue to bewilder me, especially in combination with eight variations of the definite article (“the”). People say English is complex, but at least we only have one the. And I’m still trying to ignore complex constructions with indirect object pronouns.

Hell, it doesn’t help that during my 1970s and 1980s education, a literal teaching of grammar was out of fashion. Or at least seemed to be in my school; thanks for nothing St Peters, Winchester. Hence I didn’t even learn much of the terminology, like, oooh, “transitive” and “intransitive” verb, even if I instinctively know how to apply such elements of my own language.

Mister Sandwich

Anyway, I could very much relate when Sedaris talked evocatively of the bewilderment he felt when faced with the concept of nouns having gender. Or as he elaborates in ‘Make That a Double’: “Because it is female and lays egg, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine…. I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it.”

Sedaris finally decided to avoid using gendered pronouns, and instead always talked in plurals. Which works fine linguistically in French, but did mean he’d end up buying food in bulk – so him and boyfriend Hugh are faced with the challenge of not just finding space in the fridge for four pounds of tomatoes, alongside two chickens, but also eating their “way through a pair of pork roasts the size of Duraflame logs.” (I had no idea what they were without the help of Google, but got the picture.)

This system wouldn’t work in Italy, and not just for the issue of acquiring too many groceries. In Italian, unlike the French plural the (les), plural definite articles are different between genders. So il (the, masculine) becomes i, or even sometimes the pronunciation challenge gli, while la (the, feminine) becomes le. There’s also l’ sometimes, which doesn’t even have the decency to appear with the predictability it has in French.

Now, Italian is broadly logical with its nouns – masculine nouns mostly end with o, feminine a in singular, with this changing to i and e respectively in plural. So a book, libro, becomes libri, while an apple, mela, becomes mele. I say broadly logical, because I’m increasing meeting nouns that don’t conform to this. The first that really threw me was egg, which is uovo – looking deceptively like a regular masculine singular. But then it becomes uova, which looks like a feminine singular but is actually a feminine plural of a masculine noun.

Italian seems to be tricksily littered with these transgendered nouns. A knee – ginocchio (m) – decides to become feminine in the plural, but looks like a feminine singular, ginocchia. Discussing running, for a long time I thought I was being smart (well, smart-ish) saying “I miei ginocchi sono rotti” – my knees are broken. Anyway, what I should have been saying (well, should-ish; I’d no idea how to be any more refined with expressions for to be damaged or injured) is “Le mie ginocchia sono rotte”. Maybe. I’m still not quite sure.

Another confusing customer is tower, which in the singular is torre – resembling a feminine plural. But in the plural it becomes torri, resembling a masculine plural.

How on earth did this gender reassignment evolve over history?

Gender confusion

Talking of which, one of the most confusing things I’ve encountered in Italian involves the various ways of saying “you”. Your choice of “you” depends not just on whether you’re addressing a individual or a group, but also on the formality of the situation. Ok, thought I, I learned a bit of the similarly Latinate French as a kid, I can handle that. So French uses tu for the singular “you”, then vous for the plural “you” – and the formal “you”. I assumed Italian would use the equivalent tu and voi but oh no. Ooooh no.

In Italian, the formal you is – get this – “her”. Lei. Yes, even if you’re addressing a person of a chap persuasion, you refer to them as her. So you’ll ask a male shop assistant or waiter “Lei ha…” – literally “She has…” – to mean “Do you have….?”

I can’t say I’ve exactly got my head around this, but I’m at least aware that I should use it. Or most of the time. I mean, I realise I’ve probably been a bit rude using the tu conjugation of the expression “how are you?” (come stai?) with an older neighbour but what really throws me is when, for example, I’m in a bar – frankly, a pretty informal situation – and the waiter or waitress is a lot younger than me. Do I still have to use Lei not tu? Really?

Another of my teachers, Clelia, says it’s a “cultural thing” and Italians will generally be fairly forgiving of foreigners being rude through basic ineptitude or ignorance. But still. Do I really have to use Lei for an amiable, young bartender? Sometimes they even go straight into tu conjugations with me – so if they can do it, can’t I? Or should I be offended? What’s Italian for faux pas?

Oh, and out of interest, apparently the Lei form of address evolved in the Florentine courts of the Middle Ages, when the nouns used for sycophantic greetings or whatever were feminine. Mussolini wanted to try and purge it, considering it too feminine and Spanish, and replace it comprehensively with voi, used like the French vous. Voi is used more for the formal address in southern Italy I believe. Though I’ve never experience that in Rome, which according to northern Italians is the south.

See, that’s a key factor too. Parts of Italy approach language very differently. Giammarco also likes to tell us that “Italian” doesn’t even really exist as a spoken language; most Italians will use one of innumerable dialects. Some people say that Florentine Italian (of refined, Dantean origins) is like the Queen’s English, but this is a misconception and a Florentine dialect is as alive and well as many other dialects in his long, diverse nation. So basically I’m trying to learn a language that no one even really uses. It’s not exactly heartening.

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Filed under Learning Italian, Main thread, Rome

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