A Year of Italian Language and Culture: La Bella Lingua

Oct 14, 2013

Crusca pale

La lingua italiana

The Italian Language

La Settimana della lingua italiana nel mondo (the week of the Italian language in the world) was celebrated per la prima volta (for the first time) in October, 2001. Di anno in anno (year after year) the initiative has enjoyed successo crescente (growing success), attracting  un numero sempre maggiore di partecipanti (an ever growing number of participants) and testifying to la vitalità dell'interesse per la lingua e la cultura italiana in tutto il mondo (the vitality of the interest in Italian language and culture worldwide). The organization sponsoring this event is the Accademia della Crusca, known as  “La Crusca,” the oldest scholarly academy in Europe.

Its origins date back to the 1500s, when an unheralded but invaluable invention transformed Italian agriculture: il frullone, a sieve-like device that separated wheat from chaff to produce flour. A group of irreverent Florentine intellectuals, passionately devoted to preserving their language’s più bei fiori (loveliest blooms), decided to become human frulloni and separate the linguistic fior di farina (the flower of the wheat) from the coarse crusca (chaff or bran).The  self-declared Crusconi took on a lofty mission:  creating the first dictionary of officially recognized words in any language.

This was no dry academic venture by uptight language police. The Crusconi playfully gave themselves names related to farming, cooking, and baking, such as Lievito (yeast or leaven), Macinato (milled into flour), Sollo (soft or spongy), and Grattugiato (grated). Each Cruscone also selected a related symbol, such as a sieve or sheaf of wheat, which was embossed in vibrant colors upon a wooden pala (above), a shovel-like paddle bakers used to slide loaves of bread from an oven.

Despite their jocularity, La Crusca’s founding brothers took their mission seriously. Over decades of research, discussion, and debate, they created the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, published on January 20, 1612. The 960 oversized pages of this unique compendium contained only words that qualified as “belle, signifcative, e dell’uso nostro” (“beautiful, noteworthy, and of our use,” that is, from Italian authors such as Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio).

When I had the privilege of turning the stiff, dry pages of a first edition of the Vocabolario, I was so moved that I became senza parole (speechless). This volume, constructed of words chosen to please the ear, the eye, and the soul, contains Italian’s genome. No less than the artists laboring in a Renaissance bottega, the language “bakers” of La Crusca had painstakingly created a living work of art: la più bella lingua del mondo (the most beautiful language in the world).

Words and Expressions

parolina, paroletta — nice word

parolone — big or long word, pompous-sounding word  

in parole povere — in poor or plain words

È una parola! — it’s a word (easier said than done)

in poche parole — in short, in brief

Dianne Hales is the author of  LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.

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La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua