Jul 232018

On this date in 1929 the Fascist government in Italy banned the use of foreign words in Italian. I am going to use this post to talk about the specific driving force behind the Italian ban, and then turn my attention – briefly – to similar movements in other countries. Before I start on particulars I want to make my position clear. Attempts at “purifying” languages (generally for political purposes), are misguided, pointless, and ultimately doomed to failure. Orwell had it right when he invented Newspeak for the citizens of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?

Here is the essence of the issue. Some people in power attempt to control the words that people use, because they think that by controlling words they can control thinking. Fortunately, anthropologists have shown otherwise, (although for some time theories have knocked around suggesting that language does control thinking, such as the hypotheses promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf http://www.bookofdaystales.com/benjamin-lee-whorf/ ). Read the post to get the skinny on why Whorf’s hypotheses do not hold water. You cannot control thinking by controlling language, and, furthermore, attempts to control language are futile. Languages change – end of story.

I am a low-level officer in the language police, it is true. I am not interested in controlling people’s thoughts via language, but I am a stickler for accurate use of language.  Using language to obscure one’s meaning is a crime in my book – commonly indulged in by politicians. Sometimes language crimes are relatively unimportant. Thinking that “media” and “data” are singular is a mistake, but not one on which meaning suffers greatly. I cringe when a pundit says  “the media is to blame” or the like, but the world does not stop spinning. What if you say, “I have 1 books in my bag”? Now I am confused. How many do you have: one or more than one? Your statement is unclear because you have confused singular and plural. I could go on with this line, but I’ll spare you. Precision in language matters (to me).

Mussolini wanted to eliminate “foreign” words from Italian for a number of reasons. First, we must consider what he meant by “foreign words.” He did not simply mean English, German, French, or Chinese words, he meant words that came from dialects other than standard Italian. By Mussolini’s standards the seemingly ultra-Italian (informal) greeting “ciao” was a foreign word. It comes from Venetian dialect, from the expression s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su (literally, “your slave”), with the indirect connotation of “at your service,” but over time losing all sense of servility. Change over time, or not, Mussolini wanted it gone because it was a “foreign” word. Mussolini wanted only pure, standard Italian spoken in Italy. Herein lies a huge problem. A great many languages spoken in the Italian peninsula for hundreds of years were descendants of Vulgar Latin. They were not dialects of a standard; they were just different. One of these languages, a variety of Tuscan, was the most common literary language, and so became the basis for standard Italian when the nation unified in the late 19th century.

A major part of the process of building a nation out of disparate bits is forging a language that will be a standard for all citizens. Mussolini felt that the continued existence of a number of dialects that were spoken alongside standard Italian was a hindrance to national unity, and, so, wanted them expunged. Anthropologists could have told him that creating a standard language is not too difficult, but having it take hold universally within a nation takes time, and is never fully successful. Nowadays, young people in Italy learn correct standard Italian in school, but local dialects persist in older generations, and so do other languages. Sicilian is related to standard Italian, but is sufficiently different as to be classified as a distinct language. It is still widely spoken on Sicily and in southern parts of Calabria and Apulia. It was precisely this situation that Mussolini wanted to eliminate. His thinking was that if you speak a regional language or dialect you are more committed to your region than to a unified Italy. Whether that is true or not is debatable.

Numerous nations have expended considerable effort to expunge their national languages of foreign loan words with mixed results. Hitler wanted to use the word Fernsprecher for “telephone” but Telefon eventually prevailed. French authorities did manage to get « l’ordinateur » to stick over « le computer » but have had less success with « le weekend » and the like. In Chinese a computer is 电脑, literally “electric brain,” conforming to the dislike of loan words by the Chinese government. They have accepted qiǎokèlì (巧克力) for chocolate, however, as well as a host of others.

Trying to “purify” a language (most especially English) is a lost cause from the outset, because languages are under the constant influence of languages spoken by other people near and far. English is hopeless because it was a meld of (at least) Saxon, Norman French and Old Norse even before it evolved into modern English, and continues to evolve under the influence of other languages. The name for the sauce we now call “ketchup” has been through multiple spellings and meanings, but is thought to have entered English from Malay, but came to SE Asia through Chinese. Should we make “ketchup” an illegal word because it has roots in Chinese? What about “algebra” (Arabic),  “mosquito” (Spanish), or “drama” (Greek)? What we should not lose sight of is the fact that languages are mutable, evolving things that adapt to the world around them. So are cuisines.

If Mussolini had tried to purge Italian cooking of foreign influences, there would be nothing left. So many pasta and pizza sauces (not to mention Italian salads) contain tomatoes, but tomatoes originated in Mesoamerica. Try creating a “pure” Italian cuisine without tomatoes, eggplants, beans, or peppers. I’ll accept that Italy had pasta before Marco Polo’s trip to China, but the wheat it was made from in ancient times was originally developed in the Middle East. All national cuisines are mongrels (and nations are a modern invention). This is because nations are mongrels. Being a mongrel is not a bad thing, however. Ardent nationalists want to tell you otherwise, but they are wrong. In biology there is the phenomenon of hybrid vigor, the enhanced strength engendered in a strain when varieties are deliberately mixed. So too with cultures. If cultures are made up of multiple strains they are stronger than those that attempt to reduce themselves to a single idealized strain. There is a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” principle of evolution at work here as well.

There is another, deeper, principle at heart to add to the complexity. Cultures (and cuisines) are not based on things but on ideas. Cultures take stuff (tangible and intangible) from all manner of places and bend it to their key, underlying concepts. Democracy, for example, looks different in Britain, US, Russia, and Argentina. The same is true with cuisines. I can give ingredients to cooks in multiple cultures and, with no guidelines from me, ask them to make a dish. Let’s take two of my favorites: chicken and leeks. Off the bat I might make cock-a-leekie soup because that’s where my cultural history leads me. But I could make chicken and leek pie, chicken and leek pâté, stir fried chicken with leeks, roast chicken and roast leeks . . . etc. etc. A great deal of the decision making depends on what the cook thinks of as normative methods of cooking. What else the cook adds will also depend on cultural norms. A Chinese cook would probably use soy sauce with the chicken and leeks, a French cook might use thyme, an Italian, oregano. Cultures, languages, and cuisines are all fusions.

That said, I am not a big fan of deliberate fusion dishes. You won’t find me chowing down on a Hawaiian pizza with a topping of pineapple and ham any time soon. Nor am I crazy about Asian spring rolls with avocado. I will confess to having made mango and lychee crumble on more than one occasion, as I am not averse to chameleon cooking (see TAB). I can’t help it; I am more of a mongrel than most.

Your cooking task for today is to take a set of ingredients that I give you and make of them what you would. You can tell me your ideas in the comments section. You can add whatever you want, but you cannot eliminate anything: my blog, my rules. At minimum you can use whatever variety of the ingredient you want, in whatever quantities you want.

Ingredient list:






Your turn. I know what I would do, but I will not tell you unless I get comments.

Jan 222018

Today is the birthday (1891) of Antonio Francesco Gramsci, Sardinian-born, Italian social theorist best remembered for his concept of cultural hegemony. He is sometimes characterized as a Marxist, sometimes a neo-Marxist, because he accepted the historical reality of class struggle, and a need for a revolution for equality by the working class. But he did not accept Marx’s view of the inevitability of proletarian revolution, nor of Marx’s theory of economic determinism. He was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini as a dangerous intellectual, and during his imprisonment he wrote more than 30 notebooks (over 3,000 pages), of history and social analysis. His Prison Notebooks are considered a major contribution to 20th century economic, social, and political theory.

Gramsci was born in Ales, on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937). Francesco was a low-level government official of Albanian descent who was always in financial difficulty, and was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement. Gramsci had to abandon schooling and work at various casual jobs until his father’s release in 1904. As a boy, Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked. Gramsci was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.

Gramsci completed secondary school in Cagliari, where he lodged with his elder brother Gennaro, a former soldier whose time on the mainland had made him a militant socialist. However, Gramsci’s sympathies then did not lie with socialism, but rather with the grievances of impoverished Sardinian peasants and miners. They perceived their neglect as a result of privileges enjoyed by the rapidly industrializing North, and they tended to turn to a growing Sardinian nationalism which was brutally repressed by troops from the Italian mainland. In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. He studied literature and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci was in Turin as it was going through industrialization, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci frequented socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants on the Italian mainland. Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in late 1913, where he later occupied a key position.

Although showing talent for his studies, Gramsci had financial problems and poor health. Together with his growing political commitment, these led to his abandoning his education in early 1915. From 1914 onward, Gramsci’s writings for socialist newspapers such as Il Grido del Popolo earned him a reputation as a notable journalist. In 1916, he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the Socialist Party official organ. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin’s social and political life. Gramsci was, at this time, also involved in the education and organization of Turin workers; he spoke in public for the first time in 1916 and gave talks on topics such as Romain Rolland, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the emancipation of women. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of August 1917, Gramsci became one of Turin’s leading socialists when he was both elected to the party’s Provisional Committee and made editor of Il Grido del Popolo.

In April 1919, with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini, Gramsci set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo. In October the same year, despite being divided into various hostile factions, the Socialist Party moved by a large majority to join the Third International. The L’Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Vladimir Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received his backing against the anti-parliamentary programme of the communist Amadeo Bordiga.

Among tactical debates within the party, Gramsci’s group was mainly distinguished by its advocacy of workers’ councils, which had come into existence in Turin spontaneously during the large strikes of 1919 and 1920. For Gramsci, these councils were the proper means of enabling workers to take control of the task of organizing production. The failure of the workers’ councils to develop into a national movement convinced Gramsci that a Communist Party in the Leninist sense was needed. The group around L’Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the Italian Socialist Party’s centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga’s far larger “abstentionist” faction. On 21 January 1921, in the town of Livorno, the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d’Italia – PCI) was founded. Gramsci supported against Bordiga the Arditi del Popolo, a militant anti-fascist group which opposed Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Gramsci was a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party’s program until he lost the leadership in 1924

In 1922, Gramsci traveled to Russia as a representative of the new party. Here, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom he married in 1923 and by whom he had two sons, Delio (born 1924) and Giuliano (born 1926). Gramsci never saw his second son. The Russian mission coincided with the advent of fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster, against the wishes of the PCI leadership, a united front of leftist parties against fascism. Such a front would ideally have had the PCI at its center, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy, too, while the Communist Party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.

In late 1922 and early 1923, Benito Mussolini’s government embarked on a campaign of repression against the opposition parties, arresting most of the PCI leadership, including Bordiga. At the end of 1923, Gramsci travelled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife. In 1924 Gramsci, now recognized as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organizing the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L’Unità, living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyon Congress in January 1926, Gramsci’s theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party.

On 9th November 1926, the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to the Roman prison Regina Coeli. At his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” He received an immediate sentence of five years in confinement on the island of Ustica and the following year he received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment in Turi, near Bari. Over 11 years in prison, his health deteriorated. His teeth fell out, his digestive system collapsed so that he could not eat solid food. He had convulsions when he vomited blood, and suffered headaches so violent that he beat his head against the walls of his cell.

In 1933 he was moved from the prison at Turi to a clinic at Formia, but was still being denied adequate medical attention. Two years later he was moved to the Quisisana clinic in Rome. He was due for release on 21 April 1937 and planned to retire to Sardinia for convalescence, but a combination of arteriosclerosis, pulmonary tuberculosis, high blood pressure, angina, gout and acute gastric disorders meant that he was too ill to move. Gramsci died on 27 April 1937, at the age of 46. His ashes are buried in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome.

Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology over and above violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.

Gramsci’s key point, as far as I am concerned, is that Marx’s conviction that the revolution of the working class against capitalism was an inevitable result of the forces of economic determinism, was in error. He believed that an intellectual revolution was an important precursor of social/economic revolution. To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership.

In my oh-so-humble opinion, Gramsci hit the nail squarely on the head, especially in light of affairs in the West these days. Without too much provocation I could launch into a long rant. I’ll try to keep it short. Right now, moneyed interests control the media which means that they control the discourse. Media do not just include news outlets, but also entertainment. All these outlets reinforce the “normal” values of society, which at present include a distrust of intellectuals, and a distrust of education. Consequently, information that benefits moneyed interests – including misinformation and disinformation – can be disseminated with little or no critical reception by the general public.

Gramsci’s native Sardinia has a cuisine that overlaps that of mainland Italy, but with a few idiosyncrasies. One of these is a distinctive pasta called fregola or fregula. Fregola are semolina dough that has been rolled into balls 2–3 mm in diameter and toasted in an oven. Fregola with clams is a common dish in Sardinia. It is usually served with pane carasau, a thin and crisp flatbread.

Fregola con Vongole


4 dozen littleneck clams, rinsed and scrubbed
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups tomato, diced (either canned or fresh plum tomatoes)
hot red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 cup white wine
coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups fregola


Heat the olive oil in a large heavy pot.  Add the minced garlic and cook over moderately high heat for approximately 30 seconds.  Add the chopped tomatoes, plus hot pepper flakes and pepper to taste.  Cook for 3 or 4 minutes.  Add the wine and parsley and simmer for 5 for minutes.

Place the clams, in a single layer, on top of the mixture and cover tightly. Cook over moderately high heat until the clams open, probably about 5 mins.  Discard any clams that do not open.  As they open, scoop out the clams into a large bowl.  Repeat with a second batch, if required.

When all the clams are cooked, add 4 cups of chicken broth to the tomatoes and bring to a boil.  Add the fregola pasta.  Bring back to a boil, then cover and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until al dente (about 15 minutes).

Taste, and adjust seasonings. Usually extra salt is not necessary. Return the clams to reheat for a minute or two, then serve garnished with chopped parsley. If you can find it, serve with Sardinian flatbread.