Tuesday 28 June 2011

Internet and j’s

I’ve acquired a copy of a recently published Italian book entitled Viva la Grammatica (pictured right), by Valeria Della Valle and Giuseppe Patota (Sperling & Kupfer, 2011). According to the authors, the book is for anyone interested in discovering “il lato sconosciuto, insospettabile, sorprendentemente divertente della grammatica” (‘the unknown and unusual, but also surprisingly entertaining aspects of grammar’) (blurb).

Valeria Della Valle is Professor of Italian Linguistics at the Università la Sapienza, Rome, whereas Giuseppe Patota teaches History of the Italian Language at the Università degli Studi di Siena, Arezzo. Both our academics stress in the introduction to their book (p.XVI) that they prefer to be called descriptive linguists:

“Noi, come abbiamo dimostrato nei libri precedenti, e come potranno constatare i nuovi lettori, preferiamo le regole [...] non quelle che prescrivono, ma quelle che descrivono come è fatta e come funziona la nostra lingua”.

(‘As we have many times stated in our books, and as our readers will notice in this one, we prefer descriptive to prescriptive rules, because they can tell us exactly how our language works.’)

On page XVII of the introduction they conclude by making the following remark:

“a molte delle domande e a molti dei dubbi sull’uso corretto o sbagliato di una forma spesso siamo obbligati a rispondere: si può dire in tutti e due i modi. La regola è che non c’è una sola regola...”.

(‘when we get questions concerning the correct usage of one form or another, we often answer that there is no single way of expressing a particular concept. The rule is that there isn’t only one single rule...’)

I’m sorry to say, though, that none of what you’ve just read is what you’ll find in the book. The entire 267-page volume is dismayingly riddled with expressions like “la pronuncia corretta è” (‘the correct pronunciation is’), “bisogna usare” (‘one has to use’), “bisogna dire” (‘one has to say’), etc. The authors are far from being descriptive!

In the first chapter, dedicated to the alphabet, Ms Della Valle and Mr Patota discuss the names of some of the letters which are quite unusual in Italian spelling (j, k, w, x, y). As far as the letter j is concerned, they make it absolutely clear that “in italiano questa lettera va chiamata i lunga, non jay” (‘in Italian this letter is to be called i lunga [=’long i’], not jay [=as in English j]’). Why? There’s no reason why j should be called in only one way. After all, the overwhelming majority of younger people today call it dʒɛi! Even Canepàri, who is usually very prescriptive, lists this as a possible pronunciation in his DiPI (2009, p.294): ilˈlunɡa,ˈdʒɛi, ˈdʒei, ˈjɔd, ↓ˈjɔta. (The symbol ↓ indicates that the last variant, according to the author, is to be regarded as ‘slovenly’ and thus to be avoided.)

On page 20, the authors provide the readers with a list of 30 words which in Italian have two (or more) possible pronunciations. But in their opinion only one of these is right. So, for instance, amaca (‘hammock’) is aˈmaka not ˈamaka; cosmopolita (‘cosmopolitan’) is ˌkozmopoˈlita, not ˌkozmoˈpɔlita; dissuadere (‘to dissuade’) is ˌdissuaˈdeɾe, not ˌdissuˈadeɾe or indeed ˌdisˈswadeɾe. Why such useless rigidity? In Italian all these variants are perfectly possible and indeed extremely common!

Among these words there’s also a relatively recent one: Internet. But how does one pronounce it? Is the main stress on the first syllable or on the last one? Well, the authors of Viva la Grammatica (pp.25-26) say that

“la pronuncia originaria è Internèt, con l’accento sulla e: non solo negli Stati Uniti e in Gran Bretagna, ma anche in Spagna, America Latina, Francia e Germania si segue questa pronuncia”.

(‘the original pronunciation is Internèt [=with stress on the last syllable]: this pronunciation is used not only in the USA and Great Britain, but also in Spain, Latin America, France and Germany.’)

Of course this is absolute nonsense! Internet in both British and American English is stressed on the FIRST syllable; in Spanish and French it is stressed on the last; and in German again on the FIRST, like in English. In Italian both ˈin- and -ˈnɛt occur, the former variant being more common than the latter.

The explanation furnished by the authors for the preference in current Italian for the stress on the first syllable is that “chi parla avverte Inter come parola a sé, separata da net, e la pronuncia con l’accento sulla i” (p.26) (‘native speakers regard the word as a compound made up of Inter and net, and thus put the stress on the i’). I think this is not the case, particularly since the term Internet came into Italian from the English. When Italians first started using it (about 1995, according to the Devoto-Oli 2011), they borrowed it directly with its original English stressing.

(If you’re brave enough to watch a video clip in Italian, here’s Ms Della Valle on the TV programme Le Storie, discussing grammatical and pronunciation matters.)

1 comment:

  1. 1) Regarding pres/descriptivism, I like it when John Wells says, in LPD2000,“… intrusive r, being optional (and disapproved of by some)…”, or “Thus AmE ‛winter’ can sound exactly the same as ‛winner’. Some Americans, though, consider this pronunciation incorrect”.

    2) I have watched the whole video clip: BELLISSIMA LINGUA ITALIANA!