Lingua franca – can we be frank?

7. Juli 2011 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Pellestrina, what a great place to approach Venice from. This lady was roasting her lunch which her husband had caught in the morning

You can imagine how disappointed I was today when the young lady behind the ticket window at the vaporetto station in Lido di Venezia said through the mike: “Talk to me in English.” My simple question about a half-day pass for the boats in my best (yet unpremeditated) Italian had not passed muster. I asked her after the transaction if she hadn’t understood me. She just smiled and shrugged. But this is Venice, and I should be really more surprised that I got this far with my meager sort of Italiano, which I never really learnt properly, that is, at school or in a course.

From Bolzano to Chioggia, I had only once been obstinately addressed in some kind of English, by a landlady in Bassano del Grappa. Not even when I said “Vorrei una camera italiana, no inglese” did she relent and stoop to talk to me in her language. The padrone then stepped in and I was back to explaining to him that it would be better to lock my bike away (dio mio, when do I ever get down to looking up that word for ‘lock’?). He showed me and my bike the way to the laundry room chatting to me about all sorts of things.

I do appreciate the readiness of Italians (bar the Venetians) to reply in their language even if I struggle. They help me thus to add a few more words and phrases to my vocabulary and self-correct the odd ending. They hardly ever correct you in a haughty sort of (French) way. Neither do they go to any length in praising my efforts or making a big thing out of my Latin-inspired word choices.

All of this might have to do with the weak foothold that the standard language has in some parts of this country. I talked to a young man today at a coffee bar in Pellestrina, who was holidaying at home. He has a job in ecological affairs in Venice (I gathered he was responsible for keeping streets clean, or was it canals?). Marco stressed the fact that they all spoke dialect around here. He married a Dominican woman two years ago, and she now speaks Italian quite well, but when he talks to his friends, she won’t understand them. He too has trouble with the dialetto on the neighbouring shore in Chioggia, especially the fishermen’s.

Indeed, as I was sitting on the embankment there last night having a dish of fried seafood, I didn’t pick up a word from the old guys at the other table. There goes ‘my’ Italian. I only noticed some nasals which put me in mind of Portugal and some strange ‘tch’ sounds making me think of speech impediments. But anyone who has learnt good school German will feel the same when my friends and I chew the cud.

So there it is, my theory of the day: Keep those dialects going, and English as a lingua franca will be kept in check. Let Venice offer it to the crowds. It’s useful, it makes the euros roll, and once in a while I’m glad to exploit it. The other night in Rovigo I had no luck in Italian when I tried to persuade the receptionist that I could leave my bike at the hotel while I would be in Ravenna for a night. Non é possibile, reasons of assicurazione or some such monster. The next morning I asked her colleague in the most charming English style, and I got my way easily. Well okay, she might not have known the house rules well enough, and it wasn’t the English after all which did the trick.

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