Some Italians are demanding their English-speaking leaders 'say it in Italian'

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Marco Werman: Some Italians are saying “Basta!” to their nation’s prime minister. The government of Matteo Renzi is not falling; Renzi came to power last year as Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, age just 39, and even though he has plenty of critics, he’s still confident he can push through a series of what he says are urgently needed political and economic reforms. But he’s come in for some extra criticism for the way he and his ministers use English phrases to describe what they’re doing, and that has sparked a campaign urging Italian politicians to “say it in Italian.” Beppe Severgnini is a columnist for the daily Italian paper Corriere della Sera. Give us some examples, if you would, about what’s causing all the fuss.


Beppe Severgnini: Well, Matteo Renzi can speak English, and I think it’s a good thing, and if you speak English you can talk to all your colleagues--you can talk to President Obama, to Chancellor Merkel, it’s good. Sometimes he wants to speak to English in official circumstances and his English is not superb. He gets by, let’s say. That’s not the problem. The problem is sometimes Italian politicians, and Matteo Renzi is definitely not the first one, is using English to define big pieces of legislation. For instance, we have a big and good labor reform. In Italian, it’s “riforma del lavoro.” Why on earth they have to say “jobs act”--many young Italians don’t quite understand why you have to name it in English. “Oh, we spent too much, as many countries’ public spending is too high.” “Okay, we want to proceed with a proper spending review.” By why don’t you say in Italian, for Italian voters, “la revisione della spesa”? It’s simple and clear. No, they’ve named it “spending review,” which by the way many Italians don’t know how to pronounce.


Werman: So why is this happening? Why deliver these phrases in English to the Italian public?


Severgnini: A famous Italian writer of the 19th century, Alessandro Manzoni, used to say in the middle ages they used Latin to that effect--if you don’t want the simple voter, the man in the street, to understand what’s going on, they used to use Latin. Now they use English. English is like saccharine--not sugar--saccharine that you put in the political Italian public coffee, something that sweetens things so people don’t quite understand what’s going on. Take another one: if you’re really desperate, you have no money, no income, no nothing, the Italian states give you a little money every month. How do they do that? They give you a social card. It’s named in English “social card.” Can you imagine living under a bridge in Italy and they give you a little plastic card and it’s named “social card”? It’s like “Are you making fun of me or what?”


Werman: Is this use of English working to sway friends and influence enemies or not working at all?


Severgnini: I don’t think it’s working. If you talk to them, and I know quite a few politicians, and sometimes I say in privately “Why on earth do you do that?” and sometimes they come up with things  “like at least in Europe they know we’re doing something and I don’t have to explain to my colleagues here and there what I’m doing because “jobs act”--everybody understands that’s about jobs and it’s an act, a piece of legislation.” I just don’t buy that. I love Italian. I’m so proud I can speak two languages. Could you give an interview in Italian?


Werman: I couldn’t, but I could give one in French.


Severgnini: That’s good enough. So you’re as happy as I am--you speak your own language and an extra one, so what’s the problem? What I don’t like is mixing in a way that shows an inferiority complex, sloppiness, and laziness. I don’t like those three things in language. You speak Italian, I speak Italian. I don’t use English unless I have to say Fillmore Computer. or mouse. I don’t say topolino, I say mouse when I use my computer. But everything--we have a great language, use Italian and be sensible.


Werman: Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for the daily Italian paper Corriere della Sera. Thanks very much.


Severgnini: You’re welcome. Bye-bye.