Wednesday 21 September 2011

Wrong tonicity (and much more) at Italian train stations

Sometimes I hear people claim that Italians are not particularly good at English. This (perhaps sweeping) statement is supported not only by the plethora of articles one often finds in prestigious Italian newspapers such as Il Corriere della Sera or Il Messaggero, lamenting Italians’ poor performance in English and in other languages as well, but also by the results you can obtain – I think – if you get the chance to carry out very simple ‘tests’ at Italian train stations. – No, I haven’t gone mad! Let me explain.

I regularly travel to and from Rome and often go by train. So I also get to hear a lot of recorded announcements at several train stations scattered between the town of Tarquinia, where I live, and Roma Termini, the main train and bus station in Rome. 

Here is one announcement in English I get to hear very frequently:

It is ˈstrictly for\/bidden | to ˈcross the ˈrailway \lines

This utterance is wrong on two counts. 

First, it just doesn’t sound idiomatically correct. English native speakers do not normally use the expression it is strictly forbidden to do something, but something is strictly forbidden, as in Entrance is strictly forbidden. Also, I would use tracks in place of railway lines here. So I would say something like Never cross the tracks or Do not cross the tracks

Second, the intonation pattern used by the Italian lady making the recording is also unnatural. Pretending the sentence above were natural in English, native speakers would probably utter it using the following accentuation:

It is ˈstrictly forˈbidden to ˈcross the \railway lines.

or, I think, 

It is ˈstrictly for\/bidden | to ˈcross the \railway lines.

So it’s ˈrailway lines, not railway ˈlines, unless, of course, you’re contrasting this phrase with something else, as in It’s the railway ˈtunnels I’m talking about, not the railway ˈlines

Another interesting thing I notice while travelling on Italian trains is that the names of stations are not usually anglicised in announcements in English. So, for instance, when American and English tourists disembark and leave their cruise ships in Civitavecchia, one of the biggest ports in Italy, situated near Rome, they never understand where they’ve ended up. ˌtʃivitaˈvɛkkja is what Italians call it, but tourists often refer to it as ˌʃɪvətəˈvetʃiə or indeed ˌkɪvətəˈvetʃiə. The station announcements spoken in English do not use either of these pronunciations, so some of the tourists coming from the Eternal City on the train sometimes get lost and miss their ship because they fail to understand the name of the station where they have to get off. (Why don't they pay attention to the signs, I wonder?)


Next post in two weeks’ time.


  1. As a British native speaker, I'm not entirely convinced that "It is strictly forbidden to..." is unidiomatic in the context. British railway announcements are often characterised by stiltedness and unidiomatic expressions ("We are now arriving to [CITY]" being an example I've heard on a few occasions).

    I also have no sympathy with people who miss their ship because they don't know to get off at ˌtʃivitaˈvɛkkja. If they're in Italy, they should learn how Italian is normally pronounced. I would have a little more sympathy with people who missed their stop at Florence (there's more they need to know in that case), but not much. Travellers should check in advance what their stop is called locally.

  2. "[the utterance] just doesn’t sound idiomatically correct." The Longman Dictionary of Contemp. Engl. has this sentence under FORBIDDEN: "Alcohol is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia." Collins Cobuild records this sentence: "It's forbidden to drive faster than 20mph."

  3. @ Kraut:

    I know the structure "something (not a pronoun!) + is strictly forbidden" is correct, and I also provide an example in my post.

    What I think is a bit unusual, at least in British English, is the expression "It is STRICTLY forbidden to + verb". The COCA has 35 examples of "It is forbidden to + verb" and only 2 of "It is strictly forbidden to + verb". The BNC, on the other hand, provides no examples for the latter expression and only 7 for "It is forbidden to + verb".

    I think the structure "It is (strictly) forbidden to + verb" in a way parallels the structure "It is not allowed to + verb", which in a book like "New English File Advanced" (OUP, 2010; p.148) is marked as incorrect.

  4. "I think the structure 'It is (strictly) forbidden to + verb' in a way parallels the structure 'It is not allowed to + verb'"

    Sure, it more or less parallels it formally, but it does not parallel it in acceptability. "It is not allowed to..." is straightforwardly ungrammatical to my ears. "It is strictly forbidden to..." sounds at worst stilted.

    As I say, otherwise unidiomatic or stilted English is entirely idiomatic in the context of railway announcements in any case.

  5. Jack Windsor Lewis has sent me this comment of his:


    It is ˈstrictly for`ˏbidden | to ˈcross the ˈrailway `lines.

    Altho the alternatives you suggest are praps better, I think your criticisms are too harsh. I see nothing wrong with this prosody and shdnt be at all surprised or dissatisfied if I he•rd it from a station announcer in England. If you look at Section 8.1.7 on my website ('Accentuation') you'll find a discussion of matters like this one. The reason why speakers might well adopt such a prosody is that 'railway' may be denied an accent because of its presence in their consciousness — it's given information, if you like, not to be in effect 're-accented'. I shdnt think it unlikely that 'lines' or 'line' wd be equally possibly used for the 'tracks'.
    I'm a bit pained that English-speakers shd be guilty of such gross mispronunciations as ˌʃɪvətəˈvetʃiə or ˌkɪvətəˈvetʃiə, but in my opinion station announcers anywhere are best advised not to deliberately mispronounce the names of places as important as Civitavecchia."

  6. "Is is strictly forbidden to Vb" sounds fine to me.

    I tried some Google Books searches, using the search term "London" to try to restrict the results to British English:

    "it is forbidden to" London 4360
    "it is strictly forbidden to" London 255

    "is forbidden" London 45300
    "is strictly forbidden" London 3580

    The ratio of each pair is approximately the same, which suggests that there is no special prohibition against "it is strictly forbidden to Vb" in British English. This agrees with my, and other commenters', instincts.

  7. I think the phrase sounds like this one would sound in Italian:
    "Londra Euston e' una stazione in cui non si fuma. Per favore evitate di fumare mentre siete in stazione".

    That would be the traslation of the original announcement:
    "London Euston is a non smoking station. Please refrain from smoking whilst at this station".

    With regards to the intonation pattern however, I think it would be:

    "It is 'strictly for/bidden | to 'cross the \railway lines"

    Basically on "forbidden" it would be a "low rise" of a leading dependant.