Why the Italians like Inglish any way they spik it

ROME DAYS

It is just as well I have a reasonable command of the English language, or else I don't think I would be able to understand the cutting edge of Italian culture these days. Or, to be more precise, despite having what I consider to be a reasonable command of the English language, I am not sure it is possible to penetrate the linguistic mystifications of present-day Italian culture.

No question, English is the hip language of the moment. It is popping up in the media, in advertisements, in film titles, even in the rough and tumble of political debate. One popular newspaper supplement at the moment is called Perfect English - unfortunately something of an idealistic concept in the present climate, but one that has the whole country mesmerised.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going." That is the pet slogan of Lamberto Dini, the Foreign Minister. Not devastatingly original, but at least he gets the English right. "Hello, honeychop" is what all the teenage sweethearts are whispering to each other, inspired by a television advert for an aftershave called Green Generation, in which a macho hunk listens to endless answer-machine messages from his girlfriends but never calls them back.

"Stip stap" is what the Italian distributor of a nappy-making company thinks the English say as they secure their babies' bottoms with fully absorbent plastic. "Any way he dose, you like". That was one newspaper reporter's version of Mikhail Gorbachev's Sinatra doctrine - letting the countries of the former Eastern bloc do it their way.

Clearly, quite a few of these deformations are due to the quirks of a country with no solid tradition of foreign language-learning. One of last year's film comedy offerings was called Lo No Spik Englisch. But many are the result of a very Italian inventiveness, a cheerful "more-or-less" attitude to life, and a complete lack of fear of experimenting even with another language. The contrast with France, with its paranoia of foreign contamination, is strikingly refreshing. The results range from the comic to the bewildering.

Take newspaper headlines, where it seems the lessons of British tabloid journalism - picking on a handful of key words and repeating them ad nauseam - have been taken enthusiastically to heart, with endless variations on "baby", "story", "lady", "vip" (for VIP), and so on.

The meanings of these terms are ever so slightly out of kilter with what you would expect. "Baby" does not refer to an infant so much as someone unusually young, such as "baby pensionato" for a 45-year-old who has stopped working. "Lady" is used for any politician's wife - not just First Lady but also Lady Prodi, Lady Berlusconi, even Lady Blair.

The word "story" is lobbed at random into any headline which announces a good tale to come. Thus "Baby lady story" might refer to the saga of a seasoned politician who seduced and married a teenager.

The king of headline buzzwords, though, is "killer". Not only are there the inevitable "mafia killer" (spelled without an s even in the plural), "serial killer" and even "baby killer" (meaning an implausibly young person accused of murder). There are animal, vegetable and mineral "killer" too - "mascarpone killer" was a rogue tub of cream cheese that landed two kids from Naples in hospital with botulism poisoning.

What has grown up is not Italian, nor even English, but something that linguists and lexicographers refer to as "near-English" - a new category of language that follows its own rules when non-native speakers attempt to communicate with each other. It is an epidemic sweeping not only across Italy, but through eastern Europe and Asia, too. The sticklers can wave their dog-eared Fowler's Modern English Usage around all they like, but it seems unstoppable.

And who would want to stop it anyway? It's all too much fun. To borrow a funky neologism coined by a headline writer recently (playing on the Italian use of the letter "s" to negate the word that follows), interfering in other people's linguistic games must surely be deemed "politically scorrect".

Andrew Gumbel

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Belong: Volunteer Mentor for Offenders

This is a volunteer role with paid expenses : Belong: Seeking volunteers who c...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Apprentice Telesales & Marketing Opportunities

£10400 - £14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

Day In a Page

Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests