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 https://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.