A SIMPLE OBSERVATION
To me, the core beauty of the Italian language is not its sing-song cadence, the way it waltzes around leaving ears feeling caressed and fulfilled, the way it takes a sentence in English and makes it sound more romantic or emphatic somehow. This isn’t to say I’m not drawn to those traits. After all, they can’t help but lay bare the guttural, staccato thuds of the English language. But what I appreciate most about Italian is its simplicity. Italian isn’t fussy: it doesn’t need seven ways to say “glad.” It isn’t complicated: you can expect to hear “piacere” when you introduce yourself, and you should offer the same in return.
Too many choices befuddle me: multi-page dinner menus, twelve cable service packages, 57 different paint colors in the white family that all look the same. I’m tired before I start thinking about it. Language can be this way too.
As a teen, I loved written words, and I also fancied myself far better at turning a phrase than I actually was. Poetry was my first victim. In high school, I wrote a huge and cumbersome poem “anonymously” and asked my beloved English teacher what he thought. He thought the author relied too much on the thesaurus. I had chosen “delectation” when “delight” would have sufficed and “ameliorate” where “improve” made more sense. And why had I picked “verisimilitude” when I could have simply described the truth, truly? The moment he said it, it felt so obvious.
In my search for new and better words, I had obscured my own thoughts. Or had I obfuscated them? Whatever I had done, it was embarrassing. But I started to learn a lesson I’m still learning today: that the simple word is often the best one.
My first opportunity to study Italian came in college. I gobbled up the introductory courses and then scrambled to get my hands on more. Italian Linguistics was my favorite. When I arrived on day one and saw the class had only eight enrolled out of a student body north of 20,000, I was shocked. How could so few want to study the syntax, phonetics, and meaning of the most beautiful language in the world?
It took some time to shed the Spanish I had studied in high school, and I struggled with the constant co-mingling in my head of the two Latin-based tongues. Natives with a lot of time on their hands could understand me if they really worked at it, but it wasn’t until I lived in Italy for six months and studied at a university in Tuscany that my Italian became comprehensible.
In Siena where I lived, mornings were for reading the newspaper, devouring new words as much as the news, and flipping through my paperback dictionary when I got stuck. That exercise kept me humble no matter how much progress I thought I’d made the day before. Over the weekend, I’d hit local hang outs with patient, Italian friends who got as much entertainment from me as friendship. One night, a conversation stalled for a full hour over the word “succedere” (to happen). Try explaining “to happen” in English to someone who doesn’t speak English. Now try doing it without using the words “to occur” or “to transpire” or “to materialize” or “to come about.” My friends immersed me in Italian slang and chortled every time I parroted it all back, like loving, older siblings taunting a baby.
I loved not only the way Italian felt on my tongue, but also the way it made me feel in control. The word choices were fewer. Once I learned to conjugate “volere”, to want, I could throw it around romantically, platonically, or in reference to my pasta, and there wasn’t much consternation about it. With the same verb, I could communicate what something needed or talk how long it took.
Nouns and adjectives followed the same motto: less is more. In English, the thesaurus had been both my friend and my enemy. Should I say I was terrified? Would mortified be too much? How would it be different if I just said I was scared?
It’s a strange thing to wish for fewer words. There is a certain satisfaction in creating one simple, clear sentence that says exactly what I want it to say. So often that sentence is born of multiple revisions, re-wording, and finding the exact right word for the situation. But sometimes, the same choices that give me creative freedom also saddle me with overthought, overwrought prose and dialogue. I’m as embarrassed about the way I’ve said things in conversation as I am about that silly high school poem, and it’s usually after a big stretch of overthinking.
Maybe the striving for simplicity is cliché. We want simpler home design, simpler schedules, simpler recipes, simpler lives. But to me, in language anyway, it’s also refreshing. It’s equalizing. In a way, it allows us to focus on living life, more than on the words we choose to navigate it.
Nikki Campo is a writer whose heart and history belong to Italy , but whose current address is Charlotte, North Carolina. Her father’s family is from Agrigento, Sicily. During college, she studied in Siena and wanted to never, ever leave. The month before her wedding eight years ago, Nikki returned alone to relive her favorite Tuscan memories and write it all down in a blog. Most of her current writing is published on humor sites because most of her material comes from intellectual debate with three very small children. She can’t wait to get them all to Italy one day soon, where stories can’t help but be written.