anguage is a values system whose public usage shapes a society’s view of the day-to-day world. American English is declarative, brassy and bossy, all the more so since online chatter mauled the vernacular, putting a premium on “real time” one-upmanship. British English is similarly direct, but often more nuanced, with irony and wit preferred to American hyperbole.
English-language computer software wags a finger at the passive: “Joe kissed Sally” is preferred to “Sally was kissed by Joe.” It’s vigor by example.
But elegant Italian is a child of Machiavellian mitigation. Sentences are long, flowery, and ambiguously filtered through the conditional tense. The passive voice predominates. Too much clarity is considered too revealing. Too little rhetoric is seen as dull. The insidious third person singular of the present conditional — sarebbe, or “might be” — massages language in ways that bewilder and annoy more assertive English-speakers.
Consider Prime Minister Mario Monti’s recent response to earthquakes in Italy’s northlands, which, while not comparable to the 2009 tremors in L’Aquila, generated death and panic. The quakes, he said in Italian, “non coglie le istituzioni impreparate…” which roughly translates to “[the earthquakes] don’t catch institutions unprepared,” with institutions meaning the country’s emergency response. It was a typically reverse-gear statement lacking in verve and “can-do” details, both of which matter in the Anglo-Saxon world. President George W. Bush found that out the hard way when he trifled with Hurricane Katrina in 2006.
But Italy makes different linguistic demands. Emergencies are more about running up the unity flag. Vasco Errani, the president of the stricken Emilia Romagna region, flew it immediately. “La nostra regione non sarà lasciata sola,” he said, or “Our region will not have to fend for itself,” a nod to reconstruction cash from Rome. Then came the buzzwords, “solidarity” and “sympathy,” with the country’s Democratic Party insisting that relief efforts be carried out with “maximum tranquility” (“la massima tranquillità“), or, more literally, “with the greatest peace of mind,” a lovely piece of obliquity.
Double-talk has long weighed heavily on Italian politics. In the mid-1970s, Aldo Moro spoke of better ties between Communists and Christian Democrats as “converging parallels,” still among the most wonderful paradoxes ever transformed into political philosophy. The 70-year-old bromide, “Ognuno deve prendersi le proprie responsabilità,” or “everyone must be accountable [for his or her actions],” usually means the opposite of what it implies, and even the verb “deve,” or “must,” is often thinned out by the conditional “dovrebbe,” or “should,” providing additional escape hatches. The concept of collective responsibility is used relentlessly precisely because it is catchy but devoid of meaning.
In fairness Italy is no guiltier of political (and cultural) dissembling than any other democratic state whose leaders swear by promises they can’t keep, or are out of keeping’s reach. The difference is in the choice of prose. When Americans lie, they generally lie big, in a jaw-jutting tradition that that pundits like Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and H.L. Mencken loved mocking. “A man’s character,” Twain once wrote derisively, “may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.”
But Italy is fundamentally an adjectival animal, one whose claws constantly dig for shallow holes in which to bury active verbs, hide directness, and scratch away expiration dates.
Despite his European pedigree, Monti still speaks Italian to Italians. Talking to them about a “well-prepared” state would presuppose a nonexistent system of national civics. Caring and compassion exist in abundance, but they’re not the same as civics (to wit, Monti immediately postponed tax burdens on residents of the quake-hit areas, a generous move that ironically reinforced the prevailing view that taxes and their deadlines are capricious and circumstantial).
All this makes Monti’s “not unprepared” phrase — a double negative kin to America’s growing “I don’t disagree” — culturally predictable, if not necessary. No one, he added prettily, will be cut loose (or abandoned) by anyone else (“Nessuno … lascerà solo nessuno…“), another lovely abstraction.
But in conditional, passive Italy even the sincerest of pledges are peppered with variables. In Italy’s version of the Sally and Joe story, Sally may in fact have been kissed by Joe, assuming that Joe showed up, which he may have, since he could have, and certainly should have, but then again he might not have, which isn’t unimaginable. Go figure. Maybe.