The Garden of Forking Languages: Italian Roots

It’s the beginning of January and, like every year, I’m spending the Christmas holidays at home with my family in Tuscany. My old room looks exactly the same as it did in high school, which makes the experience of sleeping in it again feel like a special sort of time travel. My favourite part of it is the bookcase, on which books in the various languages I’ve studied are mixed with books in my own language: Italian.

As someone who has always been strongly drawn to everything that was unfamiliar and foreign, I feel very differently about my own language than I do about any other language I have made the rational decision of learning in my life. There have been moments in which I have perceived my own language as a mere starting point which I needed to outgrow in order to be able to explore new exciting, unknown realities. However, exactly because it is the first language I’ve ever learned, the one I did not choose, my very first instrument to approach thought and verbal expression, the Italian language naturally has a special value for me.

There are innumerable extremely talented Italian authors, but as I look at the books on my shelf, two writers seem to stand out to me as pillars of my personal literary journey: Dante Alighieri and Italo Calvino.

The former, universally regarded as the father of the Italian language, constitutes a relevant fragment of the education of every student in Italy: the words of the most iconic passages of “The Divine Comedy” could be recited by heart by most of us at school. Personally, I used to love this work so much that I ended up learning a whole chapter by heart. Perhaps it’s underrated nowadays – the activity of learning poems you love by heart – but I’ve always found it extremely valuable. There might be no purer way of appreciating something written. You can fail to access a copy of your favourite poem, you can lose your glasses and become unable to distinguish the words in a book, but once you know a poem by heart, it is always accessible to you: at any time you can just close your eyes and recite the poem, savouring it completely. If said poem has a complex structure, you can recite it multiple times, always focusing on different aspects of it. “The Divine Comedy” is exceptionally structured, so I could recite it an endless number of times, each time exploring a different one of its levels. Sometimes I would only focus on the choice of the vocabulary, some other times on the meter of the poem, the musicality of its words, the images they produced in my head. In particular, the language adopted is highly fascinating, as this very poem strongly contributed to the development of a unified Italian language, in a time in which the peninsula was divided, both politically and linguistically. It is an instance of the Italian language before the Italian language, which makes it a unique piece of literature.

Much later in time, another author managed to give an extraordinary contribution to Italian literature and to my own personal wanderings in the realm of the written word: Italo Calvino. Although his work is always characterised by a strong wit and a pleasantly sophisticated choice of the lexicon, this writer is quite versatile, therefore every one of his books has its own peculiar style. I found the last book I’ve read by Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, especially inventive and gripping. It’s the story of a Reader who starts reading a novel, only to find out that his copy is interrupted just when he gets more engrossed in the story. As a result of this, he goes on a challenging quest for the ending of the novel which will lead him to exploring books of all genres and languages, all incomplete. Continuously alternating and intertwining imagination and reality, this novel is both an exercise of literary virtuosity and a reflection upon the role of books and languages in the Reader’s personal development. By slowly falling in love with a character named Ludmilla, the Reader seems to embrace the attitude that she symbolises, of pure, unadulterated love for the action of reading.

As I close the book and put it back on my shelf, I wonder again what my own language represents for me now. It is no longer something I feel the need to outgrow: it is strongly intertwined with my identity, my education, my mindset. It is the lens through which I’ve admired the first poem I’ve learned by heart and it is what helped me develop a deep appreciation of language and literature, which I then applied to the study of all the foreign languages I’m so fond of.

[Viola Ragonese – she/her]

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