The Tuscan Tongue

THE Tuscan tongue is not easy of acquirement: rather is it very difficult. Only the man who does not know Italian, said the late Cardinal Manning, will call it an easy language. But the man entirely innocent of the language is not so cocksure as the man with a smattering. It is he, rather, who vaunts the easiness of Italian. He can get along “all right,” he will tell you, and the people understand him. So they do, but it is thanks to their quick wit, their ready sympathy, their skill in reading the clumsiest panto-mime, and by no means to his own linguistic attainments.

The Tuscan tongue is often, very falsely, called the Italian language. There is no Italian language, save in so far as Tuscan is an official and literary vehicle. Throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom an innumerable number of dialects are spoken, some attaining almost to the dignity of a language. It suffices to mention the Sardinian dialect, the Sicilian, the Neapolitan, the Bolognese, the Genoese, the Milanese, the Piedmontese, the Venetian—even a Mezzofanti would quail before the countless divisions and subtly-shaded subdivisions — while outside the Kingdom of Italy, as now constituted, there are other Italic peoples speaking yet other Italic dialects—the patois of Nice and Corsica, the dialects of Ticino and Trent and Trieste. To illustrate more eloquently than any grammar could—Edmondo de Amicis, in the autobiography which he has commenced in the Nuova Antologia,’ records that being transplanted at the age of two from a Genoese to a Piedmontese town, he began to acquire the dialect of his new residence more speedily than his elders, and at one time found himself unable to communicate with his mother except through an interpreter.

But Tuscan is the greatest of all the dialects, for it has taken rank in the Peninsula and the world as one of the classical languages. That which is commonly called the Italian language is in reality nothing but the Tuscan dialect, just as that which we call the Spanish language is only the dialect of the old kingdom of Castile. Dante six centuries ago wrote the Divine Comedy in the Tuscan dialect. Stupor and amazement at the great performance fell upon the whole Peninsula, and in the general admiration the master-mind gave a common literary speech to the divided Italian nationalities. It is not because Tuscan is Tuscan, melodious, sonorous, stately, that it is now the Italian language, but because Dante wrote in the Tuscan dialect, and Petrarch followed hard after, singing sweet songs in the same provincial tongue. Had Dante been born not at Florence but in Venice and written in Venetian, had Petrarch been born not at Arezzo but in Naples and written in Neapolitan, there would have been two classical languages in Italy to-day, just as there are two classical languages, Spanish and Portuguese, in the Iberian Peninsula; or if the imaginary Dante’s greater influence had prevailed, the modern Italian language would have been the Venetian dialect, not the Tuscan.

And yet the great master’s influence was limited. He gave a common speech to Italians, but it was only very partially accepted. It is the language of press and Parliament, of poets and writers, of universities and the schools; it is, of course, the spoken language of Tuscany; all the educated classes of other parts of Italy can speak it, though, always excepting Rome, they never do among themselves. The untravelled Englishman is apt to imagine that Italian, that is to say, Tuscan, is the everyday spoken language of all Italians among themselves right throughout the Peninsula. Such is very far from being the case. Go on to the Exchange at Milan, and listen to a group of phlegmatic Lombard ‘changers: not a word of their discourse penetrates your intelligence, however good a Tuscan scholar you may be. Go to a barber’s in Bologna: five or six customers are waiting to be shaved, and are loudly discoursing; fair Tuscany lies close, just beyond the hills; and yet you seem to have discovered a country not marked upon the map, to have unearthed a language not tabulated by philologists, so barbarous, so outlandish is the jargon you hear. You land at Genoa, but when the boatman opens his mouth a fear comes upon you that this can be no Italian port, so unintelligible are the sounds which he is uttering. Or you stroll into the theatre at Venice to hear Zago in the classic Goldoni’s ” Sior Todero Brontolon,” and although you understand some of it, the Italian appears to have gone all wrong, for the play is writ in the Venetian dialect.

As for the country dialects outside Tuscany, a mountain, a hedge, a running brook, as Sant’ Albino says, is sufficient to mark off a new language. This is no exaggeration. The late Signor Giovanni Papanti, in honour of the fifth centenary of Boccaccio, published a volume containing one of the stories of the ” Decameron,” translated into about seven hundred different dialects and vernacoli, or shades of dialect. The differences are bewilderingly astounding. Let us take the first word only of the story (dico—I say—a very common word), and see how it compares in some of the principal dialects

Italian or Tuscan Dico Venetian Dico Milanese Disi Piedmontese Dio Sardinian (Sassari) Diggu Sicilian Dieu Bolognese A degh Genoese Diggo

But this is not all. Each dialect is subdivided into an infinity of vernacolz. Take the Piedmontese dialect, and again keeping to the simple first word of Boccaccio’s story, let us, with the help of Signor Papanti’s book, compare the dialect with a few only of its many vernacoli.

Nay, even in Tuscany itself but little pure Tuscan is spoken by the people. Even in Tuscany there is an infinity of vernacoli. A Florentine aristocrat can tell you in which ward of the city lives the popolano with whom he is talking; an Elban shipowner can state at once from which of the island villages his sailors come. In Leghorn it is most easy to distinguish the people who live in that part of the city known (on account of its canals) as Venezia. There the people, among many peculiarities, substitute “1” for “r,” and “r” for “I,” just as a London flunkey drops an ” h ” or puts on an “h ” when he shouldn’t. For instance, the Livornese Veneziani say ” Galibardi ” for “Garibaldi,” “dorce fal niente” for “dolce far niente,” “fa cardo” for “fa caldo,” ” Turco” for “Turco,” and so forth. Out of the whole of the seven hundred translations in Signor Papanti’s work, the one that most faithfully resembles the pure Tuscan of Boccaccio’s day is that representing the peasant language of the Pistoiese Apennines. It is here, round about San Marcello and Cutigliano, that the purest Tuscan is spoken, pure in its language, pure in its accent; and it is here that Manzoni and d’Azeglio came, comparative foreigners both of them, the one a Lombard the other a Piedmontese, to acquire the pure language for those romances which have delighted all Italy and all the world.

Italy is the land of surprises. Strange it is that unity should have come to her from Piedmont, the least Italian of all the Italic Provinces, and that her dynasty hails from still further afield, from transalpine Savoy, the land which has produced Joseph de Maistre, greatest of all French stylists, and St. Francis of Sales, whose sweet mellifluous tongue laid the foundation of French spiritual writing. So recently as 1821 De Maistre, writing from Turin to the Marquis d’Azeglio, asks if indeed the Torinese be Italians, and says that at Florence they are called an “amphibious nation,” while at Turin (afterwards to become the capital of the Kingdom of Italy) it was the habit to inquire whether the post from Italy had arrived yet.’ Down to 1859 the language spoken in the Turin Parliament was French; it was the language of the Court, of society, of diplomacy, of the Sardinian Foreign Office, of many newspapers, and Count Solaro della Margarita, Charles Albert’s foreign minister, used as often as not to sign himself ” Solar de la Marguerite.”

Then there is the question of accent, and here occurs just one of those surprises so peculiarly Italian. The best language is spoken in Tuscany, but the best pronunciation is heard in Rome, according to the old proverb which describes the ideal, lingua Toscana in bocca Romana. The Roman pronunciation is less harsh than the Tuscan, it is more melodious and sonorous, it has no savour of provincialisms. In the mouth of a noble Roman, Tuscan attains the most delectable sounds of which human speech is capable, and becomes a fitting language for the City which is the centre of the Universe. The noble Roman has, moreover, a great facility in languages, and speaks them all—even French—with little or no ungrateful accent, whereas the Tuscan in general is not over quick at acquiring a foreign tongue, while his accent, when he speaks French, might cause a Londoner to take heart of grace. But Italians on the whole speak English remarkably well, and it is quite wonderful to hear Florentines and Romans who have never been in England using our most idiomatic expressions and sonorously rolling forth our very latest slang.

All the other Italian nationalities, except the Romans and the Tuscans, speak Italian with a strongly marked foreign accent. In the Neapolitans and the Venetians this accent is agree-able; in the Milanese, the Genoese, the Bolognese, harsh and repellent. Of course, if they are educated people, they speak their Tuscan correctly as far as the language goes, and in that are to be distinguished from the foreigner, blundering usually notwithstanding his twenty years’ residence; but even correctness of speech cannot soften to a Tuscan ear the grating drawl of the Bolognese, and perhaps he prefers the blundering and floundering of the obvious foreigner.

But I had almost forgot that this chapter is on the Tuscan tongue, and not on the Italic dialects. Tuscan is an absolutely delightful language. It is so specially adapted for asking big favours, for humbly returning thanks for them, for excusing deficiencies, for evading the point, for a sustained and subtle badinage, and—above all—for making love. There is that in it which makes all compliments seem sincere, which magnifies all excellencies, and softens all defects. On every letter you get you are dubbed a Sir Most Illustrious, Most Highly Esteemed, Most Worthy or Most Distinguished. Frequently an exalted military rank is accorded you, or a title of nobility of which you have never seen the patent, while it is always assumed that you are at least a Knight Commander of some Illustrious Order of Chivalry. Nay, at times, even the grateful title of “Excellency” delights your eye upon a soiled and illiterate envelope which contains within it an astounding catalogue of all the virtues which you have not, and appeals, without fear of failing, to that ” buon cuore ” of yours, the subject of universal marvel, for a trifling alma to succour the widow whose husband is still living, or the orphan who has lost neither parent.

Then it is a language which wonderfully tends to sharpen the wits. It insists upon your de-fining the social station, and, to some extent, the character of every man you address. This is a great strain upon the luckless stranger, and it is well for him that the Tuscans are especially indulgent to foreigners. From baronet to plough-boy, in England, we are all “you.” Not so in Tuscany. There there are three modes of address. First there is Lei, and that, with the persistent contrariness of all things Tuscan, is a violation of the rules of grammar. Lei is genitive and dative, and yet it is used as the nominative in speaking, and the real nominative (Ella) is only used in writing.’ And Lei is not ” you” or “thou,” not even ” he “: it is plain ” she.” So in a sonorous, robust and bellicose language, one has to unsex the most virile and belligerent, and call every male ” her.” Lei (she), then, is one mode of address Vol (you) is another; Tu (thou) is the third; and thus all humanity is divided into Lei, Vol, and Tu.

But how to classify? There’s the rub. It is most difficult when you get near the borderland which separates Lei from Vol, and Voi from Tu.

Lei is given to such of one’s superiors as are not addressed by some more exalted title (Majesties, Eminences, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies); to one’s equals; to some of one’s inferiors, such as clerks and the swarming crowd of Government impiegati, petty officers, and the better class of shopkeepers. Vol, the usual mode of address at Naples, is but little employed in Tuscany. It is given to Almighty God, to the Blessed Virgin, and to the Saints and Angels. Children, in old-fashioned, remote country districts use it as a mark of respect to their parents. And it serves more potently than the whole repertory of Tuscan strong language to reduce a Tuscan servant, whose heart you delight with the familiar and confidential Tu, to a proper sense of her awful and reprehensible misdeeds. Tu, the sweet, delightful, logical, affectionate Tu, you will give to your servants if you like them, to all peasant people as a rule, to your cabman, your gardener, your boatman, to the tram-conductor who pilots you into town, to the waiter of the restaurant where you lunch if his eye is bright and genial, to your barber’s assistant if he seem no formalist, to the dispenser of your morning vermouth if you feel in sympathy with him, and to all and sundry the beggars whom you may honour with your acquaintance and conversation. But roughly speaking, all Tuscans are divided into Lei and Tu, and the great art consists in knowing precisely where Lei leaves off and Tu begins.

Very hard, too, upon the poor foreigner is the bewildering number of suffixes by which one may change the sense of both nouns and adjectives for better or for worse in all the nicest grades of good and bad. Just a few of these suffixes one otto, if you desire to magnify (donna, a woman, donnone, an imposingly big woman); ino, Gino, etto, ello, and how many more, if you want to be endearing (donnetta, a dear little woman); accio, and astro to express a sense of evil (donnaccia, a bad woman, a baggage; filosofastro, a false, shall I say an empiric, philosopher). The foreigner, if he is wise, will not attempt to learn his accrescitivi, diminutivi, vezzeggiativi, and peggiorativi from a grammar. He will rather trust to time, ear, and observation. With time the use of a few of these suffixes will become familiar to him; as to the rest, the plain Anglo-Saxon has no need of them, or will blunder if he attempt to apply them; in their full fitness and significance they can only be used by the natives whose subtle and complex characters have impressed them on the language. Just think of it: Beppino means primarily little Beppe, but it can also mean big Beppe. If big Beppe be too muscular and strong, if he be likely to prove dangerous and tyrannical in his village or slum, his claws are clipped for him in early boyhood by simply being dubbed Beppino, or dear, gentle, harmless, little Beppe. Samson himself could never have used his great strength, if from his earliest days he had been soothed with the honeyed sobriquet of Sansonino.

And what shall I say of uccio, which my grammar tells me expresses ” diminution coupled with baseness and disdain.” So it does; but it may go along with size too, and seek to cover baseness and hide disdain. I will take a Beppuccio of my acquaintance. He is a ship-chandler’s man, indefatigable, and a very reliable messenger, will do an errand without hope of reward, has most of the qualities of good-nature, but is uninviting in his appearance, ill-clad and not over clean, bibulous and pimply as to the face, reeks of raw garlic and the chandler’s store, shambles in his gait and splutters in his speech, and—unpardonable crime in Tuscany—frequently gets tipsy for days together on rum below proof that hails from the Baltic. Such is Beppuccio, and his uccio does apply to his stature, it does indicate his baseness, it does express the general disdain; it does all this, but it does more than this, for to him it has been given as a sign that the virtues he has do to some extent condone his most manifest shortcomings, that his fellow-citizens have agreed to overlook his worst features, that in fact he is Beppuccio, whereas justice untempered by mercy would have pointed him out to the universal scorn as Beppaccio, or the Bad Beppe. Thus a suffix which in another might express something like contempt (spreggiativo) becomes in him a sign of exculpation, almost a term of endearment. An alert observation of human sympathies and human passions, a keen eye to the rough but just judgments of popular opinion, will carry you far deeper into the mysteries and complexities of the Tuscan tongue, than a mastery of all the rules of syntax or the expenditure of much midnight oil over the tomes of the Accademici delta Crusca.

But a great impediment to acquiring Tuscan is the cleverness, and especially the courtesy of the Tuscans themselves. They read your wants without any need of speech, and if you make a mistake are even capable of adopting it for the sake of saving your feelings. One of the first happy thoughts of the beginner is to Italianise French words. It answers so often. He knows to begin with that if he changes the French eau into ello (agneau, agnello), or the French eur into ore (vapeur, vapore), he will probably be right. He is tempted to soar beyond these ascertained rules, garfon, garzone; jardin, giardino; hier, ieri; jamais, giammai; how smoothly the system works. He goes into a pizzicheria and asks the price of jambon, giambone, pointing to a small juicy ham of the Casentino cure. ” Questo giambone,” says the courteous shopman, ” costa novanta centesimi la libbra.” The ham is bought on the spot and sent home. The cook is asked what she thinks of the giambone ” The what!” she asks in bewildered astonishment. “The giambone which I myself sent home from the pizzicheria.” “Ah! ” she gasps apologetically, ” it is excellent giambone! Will the signore have some of it fried with eggs after the manner of the Americans?” And so, thanks to an infamous conspiracy of courtesy between a shopman, a cook, a parlour-maid, and a serving-man, it was six months before I found out that there was no such word in the Tuscan tongue as giambone, and that the Italian for ham was prosciutto!

Worse things befell a beginner of my acquaintance who had the bad habit of Italianising English words. It was the occasion of his first experiment at five o’clock tea, and he ordered cream, crema. ” Shall I put it in the large glass dish, signore?” inquired the parlour-maid. “No, woman,” he answered brusquely; “put it in the proper place; put it in the silver jug!” It is the Tuscan habit to obey without question. ” Come vuole Lei, signore,” replied the maid submissively. When his guests were assembled and tea was brought in, he discovered a thick yellow substance in the cream-jug. He smelt it, and set down the jug with an exclamation of despair. It was rather hard, too, that there should have been no milk in the house and no cow within a mile. He knows now that the Italian for cream is panna, and that the Italian for custard is crema!

Beautiful as is the Tuscan tongue, delightful as it is to hear, delightful as it is to speak, it is heavy and tough in the reading. Many of the Italian classics—excepting always in their letters (Bembo, Ganganelli, Leopardi)—are tough and heavy. Machiavelli is heavy, Tiraboschi is heavier, Guicciardini stupendously ponderous. Dante is a superlative genius, but his locofocoisms are difficult of digestion. Besides, Dante is overdone and overquoted until flesh and blood rebel. Tuscan is . a splendid language for all verse, but it turns to heaviness in a narrative form. Still all fourteenth-century Tuscan is beautiful and even light; it is the buon secolo,” the “aureo secolo”; and even its narratives are full of exquisite charm. The first reading of the Fioretti has been an epoch to many, not only because of the charm of the subject, but as a revelation in style. Tuscan is a fine theological language too, and knows how to carry home the reasonableness of revealed religion better even than French. It is at its best perhaps in purely spiritual works (Cavalca, Passavanti, St. Catherine, Lorenzo Scupoli), and I confess to a weakness for the homely and very unclassical language of St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Leonard of Port Maurice.

Italy is the land of sermons, but delightful as it is to hear a sermon, where is the Italian sermon you could read? Where is the Italian Bossuet, or Fenelon, or Bourdaloue, or even the Italian Ravignan or Lacordaire? It is most true, as the Count de Maistre has said, that Italy, religious as she is and mistress of a sonorous language, has never yet produced a sermon which Europe has cared to read. Here and there, perhaps, people of the old school still rank Paolo Segneri’s sermons among the classics, but they are nigh forgotten outside Italy. The great popularity of Padre Agostino da Montefeltro has engendered numerous and cheap editions of his sermons, but in the reading they lose all the charm of his splendid preaching, and have no claims whatever to immortality.

Still the toughest of the Italian classics, nay the most ponderous Italian historic narrative, is exciting reading beside the modern, fin-de-slide, realistic Italian novel with a purpose, and it is by a merciful dispensation of Providence that this beautiful and noble language will not lend itself to any effective prostitution of literary ability in fiction. The vogue for a novelist like D’Annunzio must soon pass; the reaction has set in already, and I hope that with the change he may put his fine abilities to a better use. Such fiction as is good in Italian is wholesome and historic (Manzoni, D’Azeglio, Cantu). Journalistic Italian in the form of a leader comes lowest of all in the scale for dulness and general unreadableness, but a Tuscan newspaper is redeemed by the naive anecdotal and incidental vein that runs through its ” Cronaca della Citta.”

One of the reasons why the Italian classics seem to walk upon stilts is the past tyranny of the great Accademia della Crusca. The terror with which the Academy inspired Italian writers seems to us ludicrous in these days. But even as I write thus bravely I confess that a certain dread of the old Olympian thunderbolts comes over me. If the Academy had but command of the common hangman as in days gone by, I fear they would cause this disquisition, entirely unphilological as it is, to be burned at his hands as they burned in 1717 the ” Vocabolario Cateriniano” of poor Girolamo Gigli, the adventurous Sienese who had dared to dispute their sacred canons. It was a handful of Cruscanti who helped to drive poor Tasso out of his wits, and caused him to re-write the ” °Gerusalemme Liberata” in the form of that melancholy MS. preserved at Vienna, the ” Gerusalemme Conquistata.” For fear of the Academy the historian Botta (a very heavy scribe, by the way) dare not call a gun a gun, but calls it an arquebus (archibugio). The Cruscanti fell foul of Manzoni too, and he re-wrote (and perhaps improved) the Promessi Sposi.” Tasso was a Neapolitan, Botta a Piedmontese, and Manzoni a Lombard. The Academicians hold Leopardi’s view that the Tuscan people is the “maestro unico e specchio di quel. divino parlare, di cui l’Accademia a conservatrice,” and they are always especially severe on non-Tuscans. In 1876 a hot-headed Romagnol, Alfonso Cerquetti, Professor of Italian Literature at Forli, had the hardihood to publish a pamphlet pointing out errors (sic) in the new Vocabolario of the Academy.’ Errors! And in the sacrosanct Vocabolario of our thrice sacrosanct Accademia! The philological teacup was shaken to the foundations, and came nigh splitting in the storm. Recriminations flew thick and fast. Cerquetti retorted bravely, but used strong language.’ Two of the Academicians, Cesare Guasti, the Secretary, and Giovanni Tortoli, a notable compiler, brought an action against him for defamation. The Civil and Correctional Tribunal of Milan awarded them two livres damages each, and so the moral victory rested with Cerquetti.

I would not for a moment have it supposed that the Crusca has not rendered incalculable services to literature and the language. It was the first Academy in the world to compile a dictionary of a modern language (1611). The fifth edition of the great dictionary, now in course of compilation, is a marvellous monument of minute learning and patient research. The Cruscanti work slowly. The first part of the new Vocabolario appeared in 1863; in 1900 they have completed the letter I. (Dr. Murray’s Dictionary, begun in 1884, has already reached Glass-Graded.) And note the fine and rather commendable arrogance of the title-page–the Vocabolario is not of the Italian language, or of the Tuscan tongue; its title-page gives no hint of the language dealt with; it is not even called the Dictionary of the Academy of the Crusca; it is simply the Dictionary of the Academicians of the Crusca! (Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca).

Something too much of this disjointed gossip. I must bid farewell for the present to the Tuscan tongue. English and German are more lyrical languages far; French is a far finer vehicle of prose; but Tuscan is certainly the most charming of all for conversation and everyday intercourse. It reflects more clearly than any other the character of the people who are speaking to you. Only think of it: one of their habitual expressions is “pazienza! ” and there is no other country in the world that uses it. When the beggar is denied an alms, when rough weather keeps the fisher-man at home, when hail destroys the contadino’s crops and the phylloxera his vines, when the cabman fails to get a fare or the boatman a pleasure party, when any request is brusquely refused, when, in fact, the Tuscan cannot get what he wants or do as he lists, his ordinary expression is ” pazienza! ” ” Pazienza! ” sweetest sound in the whole language; ” pazienza! ” you may hear it on all sides of you; ” pazienza! ” it fills the streets and permeates the slums and abides in the village hovels; pazienza! ” it rings out cheerily aboard ship and in the conscript barracks, and still more cheerily in prison and hospital and workhouse. ” Pazienza! ” this one little word, uttered as the matter-of-course view of life, does more to prove what others have sought to show in treatises, that the quiddity, quintessence, and, as I may say, first ground and principle of the Christian religion, has permeated more thoroughly the mere hinds of this people than even the elect of the Great Powers of the World!

Honour, then, to the Tuscan tongue, that in the course of a mere philological study teaches us to love, almost inspires us to practise, all the virtues that bid a welcome to adversity, and all the courage that mocks at dull Care.