The use and abuse of loanwords in the Italian language

This blog post is about loanwords, calques, excessive use of foreign words in Italian language, communication issues arising from overuse of foreign words in Italian, the immense beauty of the Italian language and popularity of Italian across the globe.

What’s going on with the Italian language? Why is there so much and seemingly uncontrolled contamination of Italian with foreign words especially English?  Why do we use so many foreign words even when Italian vocabulary would suffice to convey the message more than adequately? Could it be because it makes us feel more international?  Could it be that Italian is less “cool” as a language?

Roughly a couple of years ago, Annamaria Testa (an Italian communication expert), launched a petition (#dilloinitaliano, basically “say it in Italian”) on with the aim of creating awareness around the ever-growing trend of using foreign words in the Italian language even when there is neither semantic nor lexical need. Her initiative was echoed across Italy. Many famous journalists including Massimo Gramellini (La Stampa), Michele Serra (Repubblica) and other printed media including “Nazione”, “Il Resto del Carlino”, “Il Giorno”, “Famiglia Cristiana” took up the matter. Even the Italian versions of international press such as “Wired”, “Vanity Fair” and “Huffington Post” threw their weight behind the initiative.

Luca Bottura, a famous Italian radio host, also picked up the matter. Actually, once a week on his morning show on Radio Capital (Lateral), he has a section called “fastidio”, literally irritation or annoyance, in which he jokes about annoying annoying or irritating habit of incomprehensible use of English words or expressions whereas there are perfect equivalents in Italian too.

Back to Annamaria Testa’s idea, below is a footage of her speech at the TEDx event in Milan, where she addressed the issue of superfluous use of English expression in the Italian language today.

Far from being a linguistic obscurantist, especially in a language that is not my native tongue (actually my fourth after Kimeru, Kiswahili and English), I also fully support anyone speaking out against this trend that is not only alarming but also totally uncalled for. Though I do not miss the days of linguistic Italianisation, i.e. the voluntary or forced cultural assimilation into the Italian culture and language during the days of fascism, I believe that there needs to be a sensible use foreign words in the Italian language.

A loanword is a word adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification with the aim of filling lexical or semantic gaps in the target language. A language borrows from another either out of necessity or luxury.

Borrowing out of necessity applies to cases where a language assimilates terms and expressions from another language to bridge a lexical or semantic “gap”. In most cases, this happens upon the introduction of a new object or concept from another country, culture or language. Think about Italian words like “patata (potato)” from Haitian, “caffé (coffee)” from Turkish, most of IT words currently used in Italian or terminology and expressions imported from sports originating from other countries such as “pick and roll” in basketball or “inning” in baseball etc.

On the other hand, luxury borrowing, concerns words and expressions borrowed from another language or culture though there is no actual need to do so as the borrowing language already has perfectly equivalent terms to express the same concept. Think about the use of words such as “babysitter, weekend, display and manager whereas we have Italian equivalents like “bambinaia, fine settimana, schermo, dirigente” respectively.

The general idea of luxury borrowing lies in facilitating communication even in cases where there is no actual lexical or semantic gap. However, of late in Italy there has been an ever-growing trend of unjustified if not excessive use of borrowed expressions.

Today, you will often hear Italian government officials, ministers and experts at various levels unceremoniously use words like spending review, jobs act, austerity, devolution or stepchild adoption. In the Italian language, all these expressions can be perfectly replaced by revisione di spesa, legge sul lavoro, austerità, devoluzione and adozione del figlio del coniuge respectively.

Besides occurring at institutional level, which per se would call for a soberer choice of words, this new trend is even more marked in the fields of communication and finance.  Sometimes you happen to come across newspaper headlines reading “Alitalia smentisce i rumors, nessun cambio di vertice” (where the word “rumors” can be perfetcly replaced by “voci”), “Il Manager milanese si è recato in procura” (which can be impeccably replaced by “dirigente). In advertisement, we find expressions like “La nostra fall-winter collection” instead of “collezione autunno/inverno”.

At this point, one wonders how much this massive borrowing actually facilitates communication or whether it has a greater appeal on the readers as it proposes to do? In my opinion, an unjustified and indiscriminate use of English or any other language in the Italian language not only complicates communication but also becomes a source of uncalled for challenges for those expected to use these expressions.

Have a look at this hilarious video of Italian MPs struggling to come to terms with the pronunciation of the expression “stepchild adoption” in a recent heated debate over the civil partnership rights bill in parliament.

This is an example of poor communication as a result of language borrowing. What is a standard news bulletin viewer expected to understand from all this? Maybe the politicians’ message would have come across clearer had the people involved used Italian instead. I guess the hilarious effect becomes a source of distraction for the viewer who must have been bent over in laughter instead of paying attention to an issue of such great importance.

Besides the comic effect, we should also consider that the average number of Italians with good grip of English language is pretty low (just 16%). So why use an English expression while the non-speakers of English are an overwhelming majority?

Lastly, there is the feeling that Italians generally tend to underestimate the great things they have and their beautiful language is no exception. A report released last October revealed that Italian ranked fourth among the most studied languages worldwide after English, Spanish and Chinese.

Bearing in mind that Italian can neither count on the demographic figures of the other higher-ranked countries (English has the United states, England and its former colonies, besides being spoken in Spain, Spanish basically dominates South America, while there are almost 1.4 billion Chinese) nor is it an economic superpower, at least not in the same breadth as the US and China, one can conclude that the non-Italians studying Italian do it for the love of the language and not the opportunities it has to offer. Maybe this has more to do more with their creativeness and culture (art, fashion, design, cuisine, music etc.) that people love so much across the globe.

In conclusion, it seems as though the use of language borrowing, especially from English, is more about coming across as “cool”, “open minded” and international rather than actually bridging a linguistic gap. Overuse, if not abuse, of English words in the Italian language seems unjustified in most cases. Replacing words that already exist in the Italian language with foreign words leaves an overwhelming majority of Italians (84% as concerns English) in the dark.

Furthermore, even when trying “impress” our audience with “charming” foreign words, we should always bear in mind that the Italian language still ranks among the top-three most romantic languages worldwide (alongside French and Spanish).

As a matter of fact, didn’t Thomas Mann actually offer some sort pledge of love for the Italian language in Confessions of Felix Krull? “I am truly in love with this beautiful language, the most beautiful in the world….”

Hillary Ngaine Kobia

NLS Coordinator

We, at Neno Language Services (NLS), provide translation (intellectual/industrial property translations, patent translations, technical translations, instruction leaflets translations, legal translations, medical translations, scientific translations, financial translations, sports translations) and interpreting (simultaneous, consecutive, chuchotage) services in more than 50 language combinations.