Lost In Perception

Category: Language

4420361129_6f178e6e6e_zOne of my favorite Italian columnists, Michele Serra, writing about the qualities of a certain South American poet, remarked “It has to be said, to be fair to all other poets, that he starts with an advantage: Spanish is to poetry what cello is to music: everything sounds better.”

I’m an Italian, just like Michele Serra and to me, Spanish is indeed a refined, erudite language with just a touch of exoticism. It sounds elegant but slightly harsher than Italian, more serious and structured, but with some strange sounds (the unpronounceable “j” for example) and a better defined rhythm. Yes it indeed sounds great, like the cello — beautiful, soothing and warm while at the same time, deep and slightly threatening.

When you’re a linguist and when you live abroad, you hear a lot about the qualities of languages: beautiful, hard, musical, poetic, harmonious, harsh. And while recognizing that there might be some science behind what makes a language pleasant to the ear, I cannot help but thinking that none of these qualitative remarks have any truth behind them.

You see, Italian, people tell me, is a very “musical language”. They describe it as elegant, sophisticated, and many other adjectives that I have never attributed to my own language. It must have to do with a good combination of vowels and consonants. However, I doubt that early 20th century Italian emigrants, unloading from overcrowded ships and trains, were ever considered speakers of elegant and sophisticated words in their new homelands.

Yes, those were other times: “Eat, Pray, Love” hadn’t been written yet, nobody really cared about the wonders of olive oil, and growing your own tomatoes was not an activity that people associated with words like “sustainable” or “earth friendly”.

It seems like the perception of a language is really the perception people have of its speakers and that it follows more closely the highs and lows of a country over time, than the nature of its sounds.

And so now that we, the Italians, have become an economic leader and a cultural pioneer, our language sounds “musical” to the wealthy, “industrialized” world. The stronger the country, it seems, the more admired and dominant the language becomes on the world stage.

Now the tables have turned and I wonder what Italians think of the hundreds of Nigerians, Romanians and Albanians who come to Italy every day in search of a decent life. Are the languages spoken by these new immigrants considered harmonious or harsh, cheerful or dull? And will the perceptions change once time has elapsed, and once cultural perceptions and economic circumstances have shifted? Let’s hope that if not now, then later, these newly arrived languages are perceived as music to our Italian ears.

photo attribution: fenanov