What is it about the Italian language that is so beautiful to the ear? Many of you probably know what I mean— You’re walking down the street in Italy or in a US city’s Little Italy, and you catch a fragment of a conversation. You may have no idea what they are saying, but the sound is hypnotic, kind of like a song. Often there is a lot of passion in the voice, accompanied by a wide-eyed expression and descriptive hand gestures. And you’re just dying to know what they’re talking about, and be part of that lovely moment.
I’ve studied Italian off and on for much of my adult life. It started with a beginning Italian language class in college, which a friend and I took just for fun. And fun it was! Unpacking this gorgeous language was a thrill. But it was only a semester and I didn’t get too far. I certainly could not have moved to Italy and carried on a conversation on day 1, beyond “hello my name is” and “where is the bathroom?”
Before moving to Florence for a summer sabbatical in 2009, I studied Italian again on my own by listening to instructive CDs in my car. Because I was diligent about it, this did help me when I got to Italy, and I was able to use my language skills a little. But often I’d begin a conversation in Italian, and the other person would very politely switch to English. By the end of that trip, after much practice, I had better luck keeping the conversation in Italian. The sounds I was making were sort of right, but not nearly as poetic sounding as those of native speakers.
A few years later, when Brandy and I decided to start Tuscan Travel Group, we signed up for an intensive Italian language course. Her conversational Italian came back to her quite well. I struggled more, but we both made a lot of progress. On subsequent business trips to Tuscany, we held our own with villa owners that did not speak English. But, alas, if the villa owner spoke English (which most did), the conversation was in English. In 2014, I relocated back to Florence for a 3-month stay, and again exercised the Italian-language muscle in my brain. It’s amazing how fast it atrophies. Fluency remains elusive to me. But the beauty of the language will always intrigue me and keep me diving in again and again.
Back to the initial question— what makes this language so beautiful? I think it is a combination of multiple factors. One is the structure of the language itself. I’m hard pressed to find an Italian word that ends in a consonant. With nearly every word ending in a vowel and flowing right into the next word, the language moves effortlessly and smoothly. Also, it is spoken in a song-like way, with ups and downs, the opposite of monotone.
Some scholars believe that Italian is in our linguistic DNA. It’s roots date back almost three millennia and is closest to the language that was spoken in Roman times. So, who knows, maybe Italian strikes a primal chord.
A key factor in my case may be context. Most of the Italians I speak with are talking about beautiful things, like Tuscan villas with gardens and pools located outside of charming villages with medieval towers, or harvest time and vineyards, or pasta and wine. And consider the location of these conversations as well. Perhaps the language would not be so beautiful to me if I were not speaking it while sitting in an old family-run restaurant, in a cafe sipping a cappuccino, or walking through an olive grove or down a cobblestone street.
Whatever the reason, I do love this language and plan to fumble my way through it for the rest of my life. Si! Parlo Italiano.