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Italians have embraced ‘fake English’

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I remember the first time I stumbled on the mesmerising 1970s-era black-and-white video of Italian rock-and-roll icon Adriano Celentano belting out a song with the tell-tale nasal vowels and distinctive rhythm of American English, accompanied by trumpets and a drumbeat. “I, I, spy,” he sang, then I strained to understand the verbal torrent that followed. The words eluded me — except the crystal clear “all right” at the end of each chorus.

Of course, the words of Celantano’s hit song — “Prisencolinensinainciusol” — had no meaning at all. It was gibberish, intended to mimic how Americans sound to non-English speakers, like him.

I think of Celentano often these days, observing Italians’ widespread use of vocabulary reminiscent of Prisencolinensinainciusol — English words employed in exuberant ways that often make little, or no, immediate sense to me.

Take the ubiquitous train station self-bars — vending machines selling beverages and snacks. Haven’t seen them? Maybe that is because you took the Pullman — an intercity bus — or went by autostop — hitchhiking. Maybe you weren’t travelling at all, but were busy with a lifting — not a workout but a facelift. 

“There is a fun element to seeing English misused and abused,” said linguist Licia Corbolante, who blogs about “inglese farlocco,” or “fake English,” as she calls English words cobbled together by Italians in ways that baffle native speakers.

Italians’ infatuation with English started in the second world war, as US troops liberated the country from the fascists. But because schools stressed classical languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek, few in those generations developed proficiency in English. Still, the language had an important signalling effect. 

“If you use English, it conveys modernity, coolness, technological progress, and — in a way — status,” says Corbolante. While many English words, such as “computer”, are absorbed into Italian with their meaning intact, others take on a new life. “They are like empty containers that can be filled with whatever meanings you want to attribute to them,” Corbolante tells me.

Keeping up with the news definitely requires “inglese farlocco” fluency. The current focus is on hotspots — reception centres for irregular migrants. The LGBT community is up in arms at stepchild adoption, Italy’s cumbersome process for gay couples to establish shared parental rights. Italian employers wait each year for Click Day to obtain permits to hire foreign workers.

Not everyone appreciates the extent of English infiltration. At a recent dinner, an elegantly dressed woman grumbled at how former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s 2014 labour market reform was known as the “Jobs Act.” Some members of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s rightwing Brothers of Italy want to ban English in any public communications — with fines up to €100,000 for violations. They argue for tough measures to combat the “Anglomania” they warn threatens the collapse of the Italian language. 

Yet their proposal has gained little traction and new words join Italy’s popular lexicon. After her election victory last year, Meloni called herself an “underdog”, prompting a flurry of media explanations of the term. Her government has appointed a ministry of enterprise and “Made in Italy”. 

Lorenzo Pregliasco, founder of Turin-based polling agency YouTrend, said fake English is also widely used in northern Italian business circles, where Italian verb endings are tacked on to English to create hybrids such as “schedulare” — to schedule a meeting — or ti brieffo — I’ll brief you. 

During Covid, Italians adopted “smart working” — working from home, sometimes Italianised into “lavoro (work) in smart.” Jobs that can be done remotely are “smartabile.”  

Youth generate plenty of hybrids too, such as boomerata — things a baby boomer would do. Also in vogue is cringe, typically Italianized into cringata — something creepy or awkward; cringissimo — the ultimate in cringe, and cringeometro — how you gauge cringiness.

Purists may be appalled, but to Corbolante it’s linguistic dynamism. “Italian is a vital language,” she tells me. “We take foreign material and adapt it to our needs.” All right!

amy.kazmin@ft.com

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