“Italians say that someone who acquires a new language ‘possesses’ it. In my case, Italian possesses me. With Italian racing like blood through my veins, I do indeed see with different eyes, hear with different ears, and drink in the world with all my senses…”
A celebration of the language and culture of Italy, La Bella Lingua is the story of how a language shaped a nation, told against the backdrop of one woman’s personal quest to speak fluent Italian.
For anyone who has been to Italy, the fantasy of living the Italian life is powerfully seductive. But to truly become Italian, one must learn the language. This is how Dianne Hales began her journey. In La Bella Lingua, she brings the story of her decades-long experience with the “the world’s most loved and lovable language” together with explorations of Italy’s history, literature, art, music, movies, lifestyle, and food in a true opera amorosa—a labor of her love of Italy.
Throughout her first excursion in Italy—with “non parlo Italiano” as her only Italian phrase—Dianne delighted in the beauty of what she saw but craved comprehension of what she heard. And so she chose to inhabit the language. Over more than twenty-five years she has studied Italian in every way possible: through Berlitz, books, CDs, podcasts, private tutorials and conversation groups, and, most importantly, large blocks of time in Italy. In the process she found that Italian became not just a passion and a pleasure, but a passport into Italy’s storia and its very soul. She offers charming insights into what makes Italian the most emotionally expressive of languages, from how the “pronto” (“Ready!”) Italians say when they answer the telephone conveys a sense of something coming alive, to how even ordinary things such as a towel (asciugamano) or handkerchief (fazzoletto) sound better in Italian.
She invites readers to join her as she traces the evolution of Italian in the zesty graffiti on the walls of Pompeii, in Dante’s incandescent cantos, and in Boccaccio’s bawdy Decameron. She portrays how social graces remain woven into the fabric of Italian: even the chipper “ciao,” which does double duty as “hi” and “bye,” reflects centuries of bella figura. And she exalts the glories of Italy’s food and its rich and often uproarious gastronomic language: Italians deftly describe someone uptight as a baccala (dried cod), a busybody who noses into everything as a prezzemolo (parsley), a worthless or banal movie as a polpettone (large meatball).
Like Dianne, readers of La Bella Lingua will find themselves innamorata, enchanted, by Italian, fascinated by its saga, tantalized by its adventures, addicted to its sound, and ever eager to spend more time in its company.
About Dianne Hales
Dianne Hales is one of the country's most widely published and honored writers on health subjects, the author of twelve texts and lay books, and most recently the co-author, with Robert E. Hales, M.D., of the award-winning compendium of mental health and mental disorders, Caring for the Mind. She lives in Marin County, California, with her husband and daughter.
“A praiseworthy feature of La Bella Lingua is the way Hales peppers her narrative with hundreds of Italian words, idioms, and figures of speech—all chosen with gusto and brio and clearly translated into English—to introduce readers to the sonic and semantic seraglio that is the Italian language. A separate chapter on ‘Irreverent Italian’ highlights la parolaccia, the earthy lexicon of invective and jocular sensuality that contemporary Italians imbibe with their mother’s milk but foreign students of Italian rarely get to savor.” —Peter D’Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish, authors of Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World
“Dianne Hales is just about pitch perfect as she weaves the engaging story of her innamoramento with Italian, hitting the high notes of Italian culture...
a lovely, touching tribute to the many fine civilizing gifts that Italy has shared with the world. Any smart traveler to Italy would want to read La Bella Lingua.
It’s not only readable and engaging but informative about things not easily found in guidebooks and common tourist materials.” —Julia Conaway Bondanella & Peter Bondanella, authors and editors of The Italian Renaissance Reader, Italian Cinema, and the Cassell Dictionary of Italian Literature
“An impassioned student, Dianne Hales takes us along on her delightful pilgrimage to the speaking heart of Italy. The rhythmic beat she comes to feel and love teaches her how to live, in beautiful and idiomatic Italian, ‘a language as rich in flavors and varieties as Italian cooking.’ The reading pilgrim’s reward is this delicious feast of a book, a strong mix of cultural and spoken treasure.” —Susan Cahill, author of Desiring Italy and The Smiles of Rome
From the Hardcover edition.
NOTE TO TEACHERS
LA BELLA LINGUA
Discussion Guide For Teachers and Students
Italian is more than a language: it opens a window into Italy’s rich culture, history, traditions, art, music, cuisine, and character. Whatever your reason for teaching or studying Italian¯as part of an academic program, to rediscover family roots, for travel, business, or pleasure¯La Bella Lingua offers a new perspective that goes beyond vocabulary and grammar. The following questions are meant to stimulate discussions that will deepen your appreciation for all aspects of the Italian language and life.
Hales traces Italian’s history back thousands of years to the volgare, the street Latin of ancient Rome, which gave rise to all the Romance languages. In other countries the dialect of the most powerful city evolved into the national language. Why didn’t that happen in Italy? What were the consequences?
From pages 20 to 27, Hales gives examples of the wit, vitality, and versatility of Italian words. Do you have any favorites? What does the playfulness of Italian terms tell you about the language?
Hales says she resisted reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Can you understand why? Did her comparison of it this epic poem to Harry Potter or a Hollywood movie change the way you think of it? Why does Dante mean so much to Italians?
L’Accademia della Crusca (the Academy of the Bran), described on pages 113-121, was certainly not a conventional linguistic society. What does its creation say about Italians’ views of food and of language? Can you understand why Hales was so moved to visit La Crusca and see a first edition of Il Vocabolario?
“Bella figura” is one of the most complex aspects of Italian life. Hales came to appreciate it fully when she visited a dying professor. Did her chapter on “How Italian Civilized the West” provide any new insights as to why appearance and social grace matter so much to Italians?
Most people associate great Renaissance masters such as Leonardo and Michelangelo only with works of art. Did learning about their writing and their love of words add to your appreciation of these artists?
Hales contends that opera could not have emerged in any country. What do you think are the Italian qualities that contributed to this genre? Were you aware of the role Verdi’s operas played in the campaign to unify the Italian nation? Why do you think his music had such an impact?
Italian food and language, Hales says, “meld together as smoothly as cacio sui maccheroni (cheese on macaroni).” Discuss the colorful ways that Italians use gastronomic terms in everyday conversation. What did learning the history of such universal favorites as pasta and pizza add to your appreciation of these dishes?
In “So Many Ways to Say I Love You,” Hales searches for the reasons for Italians’ love of amore in Italian love stories. Were you surprised to find that many end tragically—including the true story of Casanova’s life? Why do you think this is so? Hales comes to share the Italian appreciation for romantic gestures. Do you think this explains her behavior with the older gentleman in Venice?
“Movies,” Hales says, “taught Italians how to be Italian.” Why does she make this assertion? Do you agree? Were you aware of the use of dubbing in movies shown in Italy? Why do you think dubbing is much less popular in the United States?
Some of the oldest and most colorful Italian terms are le parolacce (bad or naught words). How do they differ from obscenities in other languages? Do you agree with the author of the book Parolacce that civilization couldn’t exist without vulgarities and curses? Have Italians elevated swearing to an unconventional art form?
The Romans and their descendants, a linguist observed, thrice conquered the world: once in government, once in religion, and once in art. To this trio of triumphs, he added a fourth: language. By the end of the book, Hales comes to agree. Do you understand why she “wholeheartedly agrees that Italian is indeed the language of humanity—and therefore everyone’s mother tongue”?
Despite her many years of studying Italian, Hales still finds herself struggling to understand everyday Italian. Her tutor tells her that’s the difference between “learning Italian and living Italian.” What do you think she means? Is it possible to “live” a second language? What would it require?
Although it ranks 19th as a spoken language, Italian has become the fourth most studied language in the world. After reading La Bella Lingua, can you understand its appeal?