Language: a wonderful collective heritage. Intense two days in Messina


By John

At a certain point a lady in the audience said: “My nephew told me: I'm going to go cycling.” We all smiled: it was a precise seal of the two-day meeting (“Words to welcome, words to communicate”) with two illustrious linguists, Professor Valeria Della Valle and Professor Giuseppe Patota, co-directors, among other things, of the 2018 and 2022 editions of the Treccani Vocabulary, on a mission to Messina on behalf of Italian, thanks to the initiative of Professor Patrizia Danzè, precious collaborator of these pages, of Professor Fabio Rossi, professor of Italian Linguistics, and of Monsignor Letterio Gulletta, parish priest of San Nicolò all'Arcivescovado. To show us in the most effective way how we, speakers and text writers, make language, but those who create vocabularies, and therefore must record uses, disuses, conventions, beliefs, monitor innovations, certify extinctions, have an enormous, wonderful responsibility. Because he must observe, record and decide. He must recognize the vitality of forms and also its opposite: fixity, the stereotype. One thing they said many times was, “The tongue goes where it wants.” That we could almost see it, that language like a long snake of syllables and lemmas and accents that went around on a thousand different feet, taking roads and turning, running forward and going back and then again. A collective and individual instrument, ancient and very modern, indomitable and full of rules.
Professor Della Valle and Professor Patota spoke with the same passion to two very different audiences – the large audience gathered in the church of San Nicolò all'Arcivescovado, the audience of teachers and students of the Department of Ancient and Modern Civilizations of the University – the themes and worries of the language, for those who have to carry out that operation, a bit of anatomopathology, a bit of embryology, a bit of inventory, a bit of construction, which is to create one of the most important and authoritative tools of our country. A tool that has just accomplished a real revolution (which is already leading the way): overcoming gender stereotypes, introducing alphabetical order instead of inserting, as usual, the feminine form for each noun and adjective only after the masculine one.
Introduced by the three organizers – Msgr. Gulletta cited, from the Scriptures, a choice of passages, from Babel to Pentecost, in which the power of the Word resonated, which is a sword, and yet can “create, make an alliance, make peace” – Della Valle and Patota, alternating continuous, with a happy fluidity that reflects a long habit of shared work and revealing great communication skills, in a relay of clarifications, anecdotes, brilliant examples, they illustrated to us some of the many issues at stake, which often cross much debated issues in our present: inclusiveness, neologisms, borrowings of foreign words, ghost words (those “passive residues” that continue to remain in the vocabularies due to inertia). After all, the choice considered the “strongest” and which has caused so much discussion, of the new Treccani Vocabulary regarding the treatment of gender, is certainly not “linguistic chivalry”, but a thoughtful and authoritative recording of a precise, and strong, change in sensitivity linguistic (and therefore social and cultural): the unbalance on the masculine side of vocabularies up to now had registered a not only linguistic reality of prevalence of the masculine (which is highlighted in the famous “overextended masculine” which is increasingly seen as insufficient to account for the reality of gender, and which we try to overcome in many ways: all legitimate, the two linguists explained to us). Through a series of examples we have taken note of the even misogynistic attitude of lexicographers of the past, and of a precise chauvinist orientation, and therefore choices not based on the linguistic structure of Italian, but on an underlying cultural structure of a chauvinist nature ( the examples of the lemmas «spinster» and «bachelor», or of the now anachronistic «miss» are very tasty). Confronting emerging and ongoing sensitivities, they told us, is arduous and demanding, because, at the same time, it is a question of “not erasing, but historicizing” (and here we encounter social and political issues on which there is heated conflict, of these times). And theirs was a substantial “work of rebalancing, without modifying the readability of the dictionary”, against gender stereotypes (very tasty, among other things, the list of misogynistic proverbs that tell of a very recent or not entirely recent past past: the famous «overextended patriarchy»…).
The language is alive and grammar is made by the community of speakers. With leaps forward, sometimes (there was talk of the “schwa” or asterisk issue, those correctives proposed to adapt the language to the rejection of binary definitions of gender), and Patota clarified that until now, proposals for reforms “from above” have never we were lucky: he will tell us the language (l* lingu*), where he wants to go…
As he has already clearly told us, regarding the female names of professions and qualifications, that the old objection “yeah, but it sounds bad…” is almost forgotten, and new speakers increasingly find a linguistic environment in which, for example, «mayor» and «minister» and «rector» are very normal words (also because there are more and more of them, mayors and ministers and rectores), and… they sound good.
The questions from the public were very interesting, allowing the two linguists to clarify that there is in principle no “right to coin” words, nor a death certificate for them, but it is also the task of lexicographers to account for disappearances from use ( the list of vanished words that they gave us is beautiful: from «fànfano» to «sbricco», requiescant), or meteor-words (that «petaloso» that had a fleeting season of fame), and implement the good practice of “keep words under observation” to test their hold and duration (they cited, for example, the family of words that came to us from the experience of the pandemic, from “Dad” to “lockdown”, and also terms such as “transphobia” and «flat earthism»). They illustrated to us how they intended to create “a friendly (but not banal) tool” that accompanies us into the language without closing its doors, with a language that does not reject and definitions that define but do not require… other definitions, outside of the “vocabulary” self-reported or by the hail of abbreviations. Or where the literary quotes are not purely decorative (after all, they specified that journalists, politicians, advertisers and even songwriters also use the language, not just writers…).
Much evoked in all the meetings was Luca Serianni, the linguist who passed away two years ago, an undisputed master of doctrine and humanity, as was Tullio De Mauro: the thick, luminous trace of the scholars who preceded and trained us.
At the end of the two days, Professor Della Valle presented her first work of fiction, the intense novel «La strada dreamata» (Einaudi), at the Feltrinelli bookshop. A beautiful metaphor: after and thanks to a lot of work and many studies and many observations, language serves us for the most human thing of all, ever. Tell us stories.