July 7, 2012 11 Comments
By Rob Packer
I was recently confronted and affronted by a friend of a friend. She was from Italy and may have been a plant to ruin my birthday party. It was indeed my party and I could’ve cried if I wanted to, but decided it unseemly for a newly 30-year-old man to blub in a pub in once painfully hip Shoreditch—these days surely merely hip and at some point in the far-off future, just painful. Tears were spared, but teeth were gritted and the anger only subsided when a very good friend I hadn’t seen in six years walked in like a ray of sunshine after the apocalypse.
The party-pooper, who I’ll only refer to as La Ragazza, represented what might be called an interesting thesis, or maybe an “interesting” one. It went something like this: the language of Shakespeare has a narrow vocabulary and not nearly as many as Italian. Seething inside, flabbergasted on the out and secretly wondering if this said more about La Ragazza’s vocabulary than Shakespeare’s, I decided to see where on earth she was coming from. Italy, it turned out: the main crux of her argument was that Italian is derived from Latin and English isn’t. This being, in her view, an open-and-shut case, she then proceeded to shut up expecting me to bow down to her superior language’s vocabulary. Had elaborated to say that Shakespeare derived several of his plots from Ovid, so quid pro quo, I might have been impressed if unconvinced, but she didn’t. As “linguistic altercation” came just above “bar fight” in my list of priorities for the evening, I didn’t bring up the fact that Italian has no word for devolution—it’s normally devolution, when surely its cognate, divoluzione, would do.Nor did I remember my university German teacher who recalled arriving in England from the Rhineland only to discover that English had a word for baby eel, elver. My hands may have been twitching, but I restrained the urge to brain her with—or at least force her to read—an etymological dictionary.
But I digress, quantifying a language’s expressiveness by its vocabulary size is a pseudo-intellectual activity akin to boneheads measuring the size of their bones—and from limited googling, I’ve found out that this is exactly how you measure vocabulary: you check who has the biggest dic-tionary. As far as I’m concerned, the point is moot. While I’m sure someone one day will compare word density between Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Cervantes, Voltaire and any other writer you’d care to mention with the newly invented wordometer, it does—I feel—miss the point. Just because it’s big, doesn’t mean you know how to use it properly. After all, some of the most beautiful poetry in any language is written with some of its simplest words, while language is frequently butchered by leveraging the highfalutin grandiloquence of the most recherché expressions the idiom has to offer. All languages are equally expressive, they’re just expressive in different ways. English famously distinguishes between freedom and liberty; German is infamous for its line-long wonders; Spanish has a beautiful and subtle way with words that also includes verborrea (that’s verbal diarrhoea for people with a word limit in a language that sometimes behaves as if there’s none); and Italian?
Well, Italian is one of the most mellifluous languages that I know (the other is Persian) and—because it’s more of a confederacy of languages than a just one—it has words that no sane person would put in a dictionary. Yes, indeed, it does have a formidable vocabulary, even if in restaurants, it does feel that half of the language is used to describe the gazillions of varieties of pasta (indistinguishable to foreigners but as different as chalk and cheese for Italians). When you read a book in Italian—something I don’t do nearly enough—you’re continually bombarded by words you’ve never heard of, and may never see again. As I write this on my way to Italy, I’m reading Una storia semplice, a novella by the Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, and on page five I was confronted by the beautiful-sounding word, fiumiciattolo: it wasn’t in the dictionary, but it was obvious that it’s a diminutive of fiume (river), so is some kind of stream, but probably one more nuanced than my Italian can even begin to explain—if you know better, please comment.
And I think this—apart from the grow-up argument—was what I should have said to La Ragazza the party-pooper: if you’ve never seen an Italian word, you might be in with a chance of working out what it actually means. In English, however, if you’ve never seen a word like elver, ait or eyot, God help you!