The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.

The Italian Sensibility

This post is a natural complement to a post I wrote several months ago on the French sensibility.

When one thinks of Italian, probably the first thing that comes to mind is sound and the aural. Italian culture is a very auditory culture: it thrives on sound. The Italian language is very mellifluous; its pure vowels make it a singer’s delight, and the intonations up and down indicate the rise and fall of a person’s emotions. This is not an easy task for those who learn Italian as a foreign language, especially those who come from languages that are not intonation-heavy. The doubled consonants add pauses, creating a wonderful rhythm to the language that makes for interesting emphasis. And of course, naturally, with the Italian language goes the use of the hands: Italians are born with eurhythmy in their blood. The hands themselves speak an entire language of their own, frankly, though they served to highlight or underscore what’s being said.

Along with the Italians’ love of language goes the love of music, which is another aspect of sound. The Italians are naturally musical people. Their love of music is not something only formally cultivated; no, the average Italian can burst into song, or hum a well known melody with natural spontaneity from the soul that no amount of musical training could produce. This is, after all, the country that created opera! Think of opera but also of popular Neapolitan songs that have endured over centuries and have traveled all around the world. Mozart himself was probably the greatest “Italian” composer: his musical sensibility maintains all of the joy and grace of Italian culture, and his text setting of Da Ponte’s spectacular texts reveal his unbelievably nuanced understanding of the language. Don Giovanni is the ultimate Italian masterpiece. And the violin culture of Cremona, home to Stradivari and co., is yet another example of the Italians’ love for and understanding of music, through the making of complex string instruments.

As above, the Italians’ use of the hands gesticulating wildly speak leads to another facet of the culture—-the love of the physical, the kinesthetic, the body. The body is immortalized in countless Italian statues and sculptures over the millennia, admired openly by men on the street, and celebrated in fashion. Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the body is Michelangelo’s David, the colossal sculpture of the epitome of male beauty. The Catholic faith as we know it (also anchored in Italy) addresses both the sins of the flesh as well as the holiness of the body: think the Eucharist ritual enacted at every mass. Think, also, of the trope of the whore in Italian film or literature—-her significance is larger than the mere fulfillment of male pleasure. One need only cite the brilliant Camille Paglia here, for her extensive writings on images of women in Italian art, literature, and history.

Needless to say, drama is a key element of Italian culture, be it on a personal level or an artistic one. Witness a shouting match at a Milanese supermarket when the cashier decides to go on break just when it is a customer’s turn to pay. Imagine “Ridi, pagliaccio” being sung as a child throws himself on the floor after being refused a cookie by his mamma. Marvel in the art form of opera, which includes such elements as blood and guts, lust, murder, death, passion, forbidden love, scandal, seduction, and intrigue, to name a few. The southern Italians have a reputation for being more passionate and dramatic than the reserved Northerners, but still, the latter are still more expressive than the average American or Northern European.

This passion and love for language is also reflected in the Italians’ love of debate, philosophy, and intellectualism. Since the Roman times, there runs a critical, analytic, even cerebral streak in many Italians. This is evident in those who feel tired of the cultural and political shenanigans of their country, who have a lot of commentary. Think of all the great Italian writers and philosophers: Eco, Gramsci, Dante, Lampedusa, et cetera. Perhaps this concrete, practical side of Italians was the inheritance from the Romans, for it was they in their practicality who drained the swamps, built the infrastructure, and created an empire. Chances are, the Italian intellectual is not so much of an abstract, spiritual thinker, but one who relates to his or her society and social circles.

This relating to people is also at the root of Italian society, for familial and personal ties take precedence over all else. The Anglo-Saxon sense of individualism and the quality we find here in the US or Britain or other Anglophone countries is not held to the highest ideal. Rather, one’s priorities lie with those in one’s circles; this probably makes Italy one of the most psychologically healthy countries in the developed world. One’s personal life matters: it is at the core of one’s being, it is one’s sustenance in a country where the government is unreliable and the political situation eternally unstable. In America, the personal is political; in Italy, the personal trumps the political—-no self-respecting Italian would completely forgo his or her personal life for the sake of a successful career, as is all too common here. This is not to say that there are not successful Italians or that there is not a professional work ethic in Italy. Bear in mind Italy’s financial prowess and economy, which can only have resulted from hard work. But an abstract sense of what is “professional” is replaced by a sense of meaningful relationships with others. And if one dares to succumb to clichés, the love for the familial ties is ever-present in the Italian man’s love for his mother.

Finally, one cannot discuss Italy without discussing the love of beauty. Something unpleasant or disagreeable is described as “brutto” or ugly. The purpose of everything is to serve as a work of art, be it one’s wardrobe, appearance, or living space. “Fare la bella figure”—-to cut a fine figure—-is a worthy goal the high and low aspire to. Art is what redeems the challenges of living in Italy, with its crumbling buildings, corruption, unstable government, and dubious infrastructure. Rome itself is a living museum, full of beautiful things to see and explore. Art historians for centuries have spent time in Italy, and in the olden days of the Grand Tour, Italy was a must for the wealthy and art-loving people. Textiles, silks, painted pottery, blown glass, luthiers—-these are but a few examples of craftsmanship present in usable objects, where form takes precedence over function.

This essay could continue endlessly to extol the virtues of Italian culture (and, perhaps also criticize its faults). But as a final note, perhaps Italy’s best contribution to the world is its FOOD!