by Moreno Giovannoni
Only an Italian can say that properly and there’s only one person left who calls me that. The rest are dead.
The first words I ever heard were Italian ones. The first word I ever spoke was an Italian word – papà. This was according to my poor mum who stopped speaking Italian when her vocal cords froze, together with the rest of her, in a nursing home bed, a few weeks before she died. We sat with her and exchanged the occasional Italian word. We spoke Italian words to her even though we didn’t know if she could understand.
For the first three years of my life my only language was Italian. In the village where I was born Italian was in the air and the language went in through your soft baby skin and one day it came out your mouth, so you had no choice but to speak Italian.
Then they took me to Australia where I spoke English with the Australians and Italian with my mother and father. This was the same Italian that the Australians used to call Eye-talian and the people who spoke it Eye-talians (and Eye-ties for short).
I became very good at English. I was the best speller in my class, probably in the world, and the best writer in the class. I was better at English than the Australian kids were. But in prep I struggled.
One day, at the age of four and a half, I came home from school distraught because I didn’t know how to spell cheese. I had written c-h-e-s-s. Cheese.
Another difficult word was banana. I didn’t know when to stop. I wrote bana-nana-nana-…
I asked my mother, who said it was the same as in Italian – banana – and she wrote it down for me. I thought it was a trick. How could you turn one language into another and the spelling be the same? Then I realised that what my mother had done was not just a simple trick, it was a magic trick. Italian was powerful. She had translated a word. I realised that if I could harness the power of the Italian language it could solve all my Australian word problems. On that day I became a translator. For the rest of my life I knew I would be able to say things in two languages. I knew there was more than one way of saying the same thing. The world was suddenly much bigger, richer and more complex than the Australian monolinguals realised. It gave me such confidence that cheese and banana were the only words I ever misspelled.
When my brother was born I waited for him to start speaking. Would he speak English or Italian? At first he didn’t speak at all. He just cried and cried so I shoved chunks of parmesan inside his little toothless mouth, because he was obviously hungry, but this upset my mother a lot. Sadly, my brother, when he did finally start, spoke English. English was in the Australian air and it went in through your skin when you were a baby and the English came out your mouth.
Later my brother learned to speak Italian but it wasn’t the same. Between us Italian wasn’t our natural language, the way it was with our parents. A natural language is the one you have to speak because you have no choice. My mother and father only spoke Italian so it was natural for me to speak Italian with them. I learnt that languages are either natural or unnatural.
I also spoke Italian with family friends, people who visited on Sundays and ate hard little biscuits and drank small glasses of liqueur and strong cups of coffee. They were amazed at how well I spoke Italian and how at the age of five I could already read the Italian newspaper to my uncle Succhio who had only completed three years of primary school. When he wanted to know what was happening in the world he would hand me Il Globo and say: leggi.
At school in Australia I studied Italian and at university in Italy I studied English. The two languages were seeking some kind of equilibrium. Back in Australia at university I studied English and Italian literature.
When my children were born I waited to see what language they would speak and sadly they only spoke English. It was my fault and it wasn’t my fault. The law of natural and unnatural language applied. I didn’t know enough baby talk to communicate with them in Italian. I even asked my mother to teach me baby talk, but it was too hard and I gave up. The English language in the Australian air smothered them. It entered their little baby pores and grew there until one day they started speaking English. It was unnatural for them to speak anything else.
A language is like a mother. My biological mother was Italian but the language that raised me from the age of three was English. I would always love my biological mother and wished we could be reunited. I even wished we had never been separated.
All my life Italian has been my big dirty secret. Even now the Australians don’t know I carry it around inside. I used to feel that if people knew I spoke Italian they would charge me with something: breaking some kind of law, possession of a foreign language. Because I sound very Australian it’s like being undercover.
The natural thing for me to do was to turn my Italian into a job, so many years ago I became a translator. This meant I could read, write and speak and be paid for it.
One day I’m called to a hospital. At the patient’s bedside the Australian doctor says to me in English:
Tell this man he is dying and will be dead in a few days. He has very powerful bacteria in his blood and our strongest antibiotics have been unable to kill them. In fact the bacteria have been feeding off the antibiotics. The bacteria love the antibiotics and they have been growing. He now has very healthy, large and strong bacteria in his blood and soon the blood will no longer carry oxygen but just bacteria to his brain and heart and lungs. We have told him this in English but he apparently wants to hear it from someone like you in his own language which is Italian, is that right?
I nod. I am overwhelmed at the responsibility that is being thrust on the Italian language about to come out of my mouth. I am overcome with grief but as I open my mouth and start to speak I feel that old familiarity and warmth enter the relationship that the language is gently constructing between me and the dying man. He looks at me and watches the words flow out of my mouth. He relaxes visibly when I start speaking Italian. He has no family or friends who speak Italian.
The dying man taught me something that day. When he was born, the first language he heard was Italian. Now that he was dying he wanted to be told in the same language. Dying was like a new birth. He would come out of the womb again to the sound of his death. Your own language is your mother holding your hand, caressing your forehead. You do not want to die in a foreign language. As I left I remember thinking how I hoped the last language he would hear would be Italian, but this was not likely as he would be surrounded by Australian, English-speaking palliative care nurses.
One afternoon I went to the Royal Dental Hospital. The Italian patient there was being seen by a mouth, tongue and jaw specialist.
The doctor greeted me and gestured to the patient. What the patient said almost made me laugh. I stopped myself just in time.
He tried again and failed.
The Australian specialist said:
Tell the man this: his tongue, his mouth, his lips, have forgotten how to speak. He has lived alone for so many years and has not spoken to anyone for such a long time that he has forgotten how to form words.
The man looked at me and I repeated in Italian what the doctor had said. Then he smiled and nodded and thanked me, speaking directly to me in Italian, without a problem in the world. The Australian looked at us suspiciously. What’s going on here? He decided to check whether there had been some kind of miracle cure, and asked him in English to say his name. The Italian man said:
That day I realised not only that human beings yearn to die in their own language but also that they need to speak to each other in their natural language.
But a tragedy was looming.
When we arrived in Australia, at first it seemed that we were surrounded by Italians speaking Italian.
As decades passed family friends got older and died or moved and disappeared off the face of the earth. After all they were my parents’ friends not mine. I lost my Italian contacts. One thing is certain: all over Australia the Italians who speak Italian naturally are now dying.
Like stars in a black night sky the lights have been going out. You don’t notice at first because each star is just a tiny pin prick. But by the time most of them have gone you see a large black space, until finally all you see are the few stars that are left. My Short History Of The Italian Language is coming to an end.
My mother stopped speaking and died, my in-laws and old family friends died. And now there is just one star left – my father.
Oh Morè, queste chiacchierate con te mi fanno bene, sai come mi fanno bene? Sono una cosa favolosa.
That’s my father telling me how much he enjoys our chats on the phone. With my brother, we’re the only Giovannonis from San Ginese in Australia left who speak Italian.
But back to the beginning.
In the natural order of things my father will die soon. He’s ninety years old.
He’s the only person in the world now who calls me Morè.
I never thought it would matter to me to be called Morè but when I stop hearing it, it will hurt.
My father lives in the country and used to call me to talk in Italian about everything. One night we had people around for dinner and he rang to ask me about the life span of his goose. He had kept a pet goose for twenty years and wanted to know how much time it had left. I googled it and told him a goose can live for twenty years. Well then, he said, time’s almost up (I just translated that into English for your benefit).
Another time he was in his car and he stopped by the side of the road to call me to tell me how beautiful the sunset was. My father comes from a long line of peasants. He was a tobacco grower all his life, doing hard physical work, working long hours in mud or on dry cracked earth, but part of him has always been a romantic poet. He loved reading Italian books and magazines. He loved talking.
In the natural order of things my father will die soon. He’s ninety years old. He’s the only person left in the world who calls me Morè.
My Short History Of The Italian Language ends this way.
It was inevitable that it would end this way. It ends with the realisation that the worst thing for a natural speaker of Italian is the inevitable silence at the other end of the phone line.