Update from Italy: Language Layer Cake

Mmmm language cake. Delizioso.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A clear confession: I miss my past lives in Spanish and in French. I have talked about this before in this space, in You say pieno, I say completo, The Sprachcaffè, and in The periphery of fluency. I spent significant time in both languages and their various cultures from 1983 to 2008, and was happy to reach the proficiency that I did. It all started by doing well at the statewide academic bowl in Oklahoma in the eighties and taking home top place for Spanish and English as a student. I remember recounting silly gossip in French in 1996 to a friend who was much more fluent than I was mere months before being astonished on the London Tube by my improvement. I remember confusing Argentines in 2001 with my allegedly accentless Spanish. I remember being so tired and half-bored in Spain in 2005 that my Spanish flowed forth effortlessly.

I accept now that I was born with a knack, as are others with gifts for art, music, and math. This knack makes my life here in Italy and in Italian possible. I accept that these past lives of mine have been rolled into Italian, creating a life in Italy that is more natural and more fluent for me. But it is like taking flour and making a cake. I have baked a language cake.

Do you still have the flour?

Kind of, but it is now inside the cake. You cannot get the flour back out. The flour is transformed forever.

The flour has been transformed and made integral within the context of the cake. I have Spanish harina and French farine. I balance tippingly between the Germanic and Romance branches of the Indo-European language tree.

My vowels are pure, a e i o u. I roll my R where many anglophones struggle with the tongue’s fillip. I have moments of natural communication, relaxed and calm, in Italian. I also have many moments where I feel neither relaxed nor calm, but I kind of crave that feeling. I like to think of it as a festival in increments of thirty seconds to five minutes. I credit the dominant expression wanderlust gene for the natural thrill-seeking of what the hell is this person talking about? or what’s my word to use here for possibly versus eventually?

Yet the faux amis trip me. Why is the first-person dative personal pronoun mi in Italian and me in Spanish? Mi piace. Me gusta. What happened with the possessive pronouns? La mia mamma. Mi madre. La mia amica. But also, in Spanish, amiga mia. Mi amiga! My brain has turned into a cold pronoun salad. La loro casa – their house – in Italian. Or is it casa loro? I have heard both. (Have I?) Their in Italian doesn’t even change any ending to match the gender of the noun, and by the way, it is the same word for parrot in Spanish. One can only assume it was their parrot. Some third-party parrot on a pirate ship comes to mind. Thank goodness we don’t have to say il loro loro. Spanish, su casa, his/her/their house. Makes sense in French – leur maison – but I don’t know why it drives me noci in Italian.

Or another favorite, salire. In Spanish, salir, an indispensable verb meaning to go out, but in Italian, salire means to go up! As in, to ascend a stair. Yo salgo. I’m going out! (Spanish) Io salgo. I’m going upstairs! (Italian). One wonders what would happen if one went upstairs for a bit of entertainment. Brothels come to mind…

The rules I once took as sterling for Spanish reveal themselves to be mere language habits, calcified and codified. They are no more rules than a collective grammar contract, recycling the same words wherever the words may flow. This is my struggle in Italy: all the words are very familiar, but how do the Italians use them? I am like a woodworker presented with a tray of jeweler’s implements or a pannier of surgical tools. I see the analogs, but need to hear and see it employed properly so I know. Italian makes perfect sense to me (except for all the parts that make no sense) once I hear them, but I have to hear them in order for it to click. How surprised was I to learn I could just say escoba for broom (escopa in Italian) and that all the tener/venir verbs are near perfect equivalents (tengo/vengo, tiene/viene) until I trip on tengono/vengono, and valiò / valgò la pena.

It was worth it. Vale la pena is something that Spaniards say constantly, but almost never in the preterite (the past tense, or what Italians call the passato remoto in Spanish). It’s all worth it in the present. Everything. But in Italian, the past efforts merit equal recognition. No hay remedio. It can’t be helped. I am still seeking the Italian equivalent for this Spanish expression of resignation, palms upturned. Perhaps everything is worth it or without remedy in Spanish for some deeply subsumed psychological reason.

Latin intrudes from time to time through Italian. Quanto prima. As soon as possible, but apparently this is used only in Tuscany. I can still decipher a funerary lapidary with decent skill. The cases and declensions jostle around my upstairs. Io salgo. Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Snips of Catullus. Oh Procras! Latin likes the preterite just fine, and willed it to Spanish, but Italian insists on the passato remoto. Just like their friends in France – the Roman Gallia. I’m always amused that to be in the preterite is fu in Italian and fut French. Eff you. What’s the matter with fui/fuiste/fue? Oh, a Hispanic tic? But I miss it so. I really do. I might miss yo fui the very most. Lo que fue era …

Haeccity. I recently learned this one hundred dollar English word. From the Latin haec, this, as in hic/haec/hoc. You can use it to mean suchness, or quiddity. (Kokomama or sonomama in Japanese, which I picked up from an Osho book about Zen philosophy that I read in the bath earlier this year.) I wonder why it is not hiccity or hoccity? Pooh Bear might know – it sounds like a song of his. Maybe it is the same reason that this in is Italian is almost always the feminine la, as in la cosa. We lose the noun but the article remains. When the vestigial article la is substituted out for a demonstrative pronoun haec, the gender sticks.

And this is just the Romance percorso. I run these circuits all the time. Some days less than others. The hamster wheel exhausts me. I yearn for binary quid pro quo equivalency learning. How it was in Spanish from 1983 to 1993. The hilarity of Galicia and the soaked granite streets of Santiago. The narratives I lived in France that continue to pique and amuse. Working in the immigration assistance program of Catholic Charities as non-native speaker of Spanish. But those days are behind me. Perhaps my hamster wheel exhaustion is the universe’s smirking payback for my greedy language learning as a youth. Or is it some form of arcane understanding, never mind the exhaustion?

For example, Jason and I were two steps behind a couple of ragazzi from the liceo across the street from our kids’ school. Who knows what they were talking about, but the one very tall boy in large white trainers exclaimed, Follia! Crazy!

Except the way he said it, it had about thirty L’s in it. Follllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllia. I appreciated its Latin provenance, a word I knew well from French the folie, so something I could quickly grip. I told Jason, laughing, that is going to be my new exclamation. What? Follia? He’d heard it too. We were both laughing now, each of us pulling one of our children along the sidewalk. You can say that, if you want to sound like a seventeen-year-old Italian boy, he added. But it brings me comfort to claim a recycled familiar word in a useful and amusing way.

In some future century, I believe that medicine and science will learn how closely language and emotion are connected, mapped in the grey matter of the human brain. This is why boring classes or audio files will never ever stick. Please don’t ask anyone in our home what we think of Rosetta Stone. This is why younger years are perfect for language mapping: all the feelings are right there and immediately accessible, for better or for blushingly worse. The more you feel, or laugh, or are shocked or in love, or offended or angry, when you learn a new word or phrase in a foreign language, the easier it is to remember it later when you might find the right occasion to use it. Without feelings there can be no heartfelt language. Without language our emotions are limited to the confines of nonverbal expression. I knew when we moved to Italy five years ago that I would have to start creating, at my advanced age, a new reference library of feelings, memories, and emotions in Italian. Again, tough to do when we are in English at home, but the daylight hours offer plenty of time to explore and observe, sense and participate.

Do you still have the flour?

Kind of, but it is now inside the cake. You cannot get the flour back out. The flour is transformed forever.

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