Cultured vulgarity

We often smile when we hear certain expressions from the old peasant dialect, usually colorful and brutal in some way. We think of ourselves as proud practitioners of a more sophisticated register, one that has nothing in common with the blunt phrasemaking of country folk. What most people don’t know is that our wonderful Italian language, which was originally known as the “vulgate” on account of its usage among the more “common”, less affluent classes, slowly diverged and developed from various forms of peasant Latin. Without going into the long, boring details, Italian is a neo-Latin language that was born naturally from the fragmentation of the famously complex classical Latin, providing a more direct, efficient and colloquial mode of communication.

In contrast with the other main classical language of Greek, Latin never really offered a network of words based on philosophical thought – unlike Greek, it didn’t have words that defined concepts. It came into its own with the confluence of various dialects, which is why it established itself as the language of agriculture: Ancient Rome’s main economic resource. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the Italian language was born in the fields, from the labor, achievements and accidents that working the earth involves. Just like the “fiori” (flowers) in Fabrizio De Andrè’s song, the language that we speak every day blooms from the mud, to the rhythm of the sun, rain and church bells. It mirrors the geometry of the flight of birds, the life cycles of the plants and trees.

The first known piece of Italian “writing” predates the great Florentine masterpieces by centuries. We’re talking about the famous Veronese Riddle: Se pareba boves, alba pratalia araba, (et) albo versorio teneba, (et) negro semen seminaba. “He led oxen, he plowed white fields, he held a white plough, and he sowed black seeds.” The answer to the riddle is the writer himself, who leads his oxen (his fingers) over white fields (the parchment). He uses a white plough (the quill) and his black seed is his ink. There we have it: life in the fields right at the center of the earliest specimen of Italian script.

By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Italian vernacular had evolved to the point of being able to produce masterpieces of world literature. This language was called “new”, but in actual fact it had been spoken in Tuscany for centuries. Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, the fathers of the Italian language, use a vocabulary that draws from the peasant world, full of agricultural metaphors. Their words are expressive, sonorous, sometimes burbling like a child, sometimes scalding the brain. Just like the speech of the Tuscan farmers.

The rest is history. This new Italian language became normalized and codified through the work of the Venetian Pietro Bembo, in the fifteenth century. More than three hundred years later, Alessandro Manzoni consciously chose this register for his novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). It is no mere myth that the Milanese writer tried out a variety of idioms before coming to Florence and “washing his clothes in the Arno”, as he put it. He rewrote the entire novel in the Florentine tongue, thus confirming it as the national language.

Then into the twentieth century, which brought us mass literacy, radio and television. These phenomena helped the Italian language (formerly Florentine) to spread across all Italy and into all social spheres, whereas previously it had only been heard in high society. On the downside, they also hastened a decline of local dialects and their unique flavors. Today’s Italian, sad to relate, is a language that is used to only a fraction of its expressive potential.

In this historic, social and cultural system, the language was further molded into different words and exclamations, often rooted in the curse words that have always been an integral part of country life. These expressions, originally from Latin but with roots firmly in the soil – where everything starts – went on to become an accepted part of standard Italian vocabulary, shedding skin and changing color over the centuries.

Some examples? Take the Italian lieto”, which denotes a happy, serene state of mind. “Laetus”, in Latin, is an adjective that means “fat”, “well-fed” or even “manured”. The dictionary tells us that etymologically it’s related to the word “letame”, from the Latin “laetamen”, which indeed means manure. So, we can see how a word for “happy” has its roots in the land. We could give hundreds of examples. Right now, I am “scrivendo” (writing) and you are “leggendo” (reading). In Latin, “scribère” and lègere” respectively mean “furrow” and “harvest”. Condurre/conducent/condottiero” go back to the Latin dùcere”, which originally meant “leading lifestock”. Egregio” (egregious) literally means “someone outside the “gregge” – outside the herd; while delira” (delirious) is the person outside the ploughed furrow. A “lacrima” (tear), a word and image that expresses our deepest feelings, refers to the little drops of water that drip from plant leaves; in grape vines, it refers to the sap that heralds the buds in spring.

Ours is a heritage, both coarse and cultured, that has developed over millennia of tending the land. Even today, that heritage remains alive and well, and it means that modern Tuscans make for good orators and strong communicators. The Tuscan dialect, lest we forget, was the gateway to modern Italian. Is there any other mode of expression with such visual, musical, social, cultural and beautiful power?