Pure Italian under seige

October 22, 1999

PISA. Italy's authoritative Accademia della Crusca has warned that flawed teaching of Italian by universities could lead to the gradual degeneration of the language.

Giovanni Nencioni, president of the Accademia, said: "The risk of degeneration arises because Italian is taught purely for the study of literature and not as a living language in its own right."

Professor Nencioni, 89, a retired professor of Italian linguistics at Pisa's Scuola Normale Superiore, is widely considered to be the foremost authority on the Italian language.

The Accademia, founded in 1583, produced the first Italian dictionary in 1612 and has counted some of the greatest literary artists including Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) among its past members.

Professor Nencioni said: "Students are ignorant of many of Italian's essential features, such as the criteria for pronunciation, the difference between written and spoken Italian, the areas in which linguistic change is taking place and those differences in register that can render the same expression correct in one context and incorrect in another."

He dismissed fears that linguistic degeneration may already have set in. "Anglicisms such as 'fast food' are no more than a passing fashion, while those with Latin roots such as sponsorizzare and computazionale are easily assimilated into Italian.

"Others such as 'trust', 'trend', 'spot' and 'spray' are considered by some to be more of a threat since they have non-Latin, Anglo-Saxon or Germanic roots and a phonetic structure that sharply differs from that of Italian."

The habit of students presenting graduation theses in English and the fact that English is commonly used as the international language of trade, banking, computing, science and technology have caused some colleagues at the Accademia to claim that in a hundred years English will have eliminated Italian altogether.

"Linguistically speaking, these are turbulent times," said Professor Nencioni. "Never before has there been such unrest over the present and future of our language. Writers, grammarians and lexicographers regularly make forecasts and prophecies. But their views differ and clash as their judgements are often emotive, intuitive and unfounded."

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