We The Italians | Italian language: Luca Serianni

Italian language: Luca Serianni

Italian language: Luca Serianni

  • WTI Magazine #154 Aug 25, 2022
  • 380

This month, I would like to remember a great linguist, philologist and historian of the Italian language that has suddenly passed away last month, Luca Serianni.

He was an honorary member of the Casa di Dante in Rome, an academic of the Accademia della Crusca (an association that gathers linguists and philologists of the Italian language) and the Accademia dell’Arcadia (a literary academy), member of the Accademia dei Lincei (a scientific institution), and many other organizations and associations.

He wrote what is considered the most institutional grammar book of the Italian language, collaborated with the Treccani encyclopedia, worked on the Devoto-Oli vocabulary, and coordinated the National Museum of the Italian Language (MUNDI) project. And these are just few of his accomplishments. In other words, he was one of the most important figures in the Italian language field today.

He was also particularly involved in promoting the Italian language abroad though the Società Dante Alighieri and directed the Osservatorio degli Italianismi nel Mondo (OIM – The Observatory of Italianisms around the World). And it is of the latter project I would like to talk to you about today. The OIM project aims to gather all the Italian words and words of Italian origin that have been used in other languages around the world. The OIM is designed to bring together many other resources that have been already published, like the DIFIT (the Dictionary of the Italianisms in French, English, and German), and new studies in one big and institutional platform where you can find everything you need and are curious about. It provides a database where you can look up an Italian word and see how it is used in different languages. It tells you how and whether the meaning changed, how it is used, and even if the word has acquired an innovative meaning.

Let’s take the word fresco for example. If we look up the word on the online platform, we see that its meaning in Italian (both in the past and its current meaning) that is: 1. Temperature in between cold and hot; 2. Painting technique on fresh plaster; 3. Type of wool fabric for summer clothing. Then we see its use in different languages, for example in English: 1. fresco atmosphere (obsolete 1620); 2. refreshing drink (1880); 3. fresco technique (also “Frisco” and “in Fresco” 1500s-1600s); 4. “Frescoes”/“frescos” – type of painting created by using the fresco technique. And: “to fresco”: to paint using the fresco technique. As you can see, the word fresco in Italian and English somewhat overlap, but at the same time the Italian fresco has other meanings, while the English “fresco” added multiple forms of its own. In particular, the English “fresco” remained closer to the “starting point” when you consider that a fresco is less used in current Italian than affresco, the form that developed from it. Of course, this is an enormous work in progress because it is not yet complete: if we look at our example, the database does not include “fresco” and in “eating al fresco,” eating outside.

Even though it’s still a work in progress, you can already start and have fun by looking up your favorite Italian words used in English. And maybe, who knows? You’ll find a solution to that crossword puzzle you’re doing, or maybe you’ll avoid saying something a bit misleading while you’re on vacation here in Italy. What I hope for, though, is that you remember that behind every encyclopedia, every grammar book, every dictionary and any other linguistic project that there are a lot of people working for us. And that one of those people was Luca Serianni, who, if you studied or are interested in Italian, you probably crossed paths with more than you think.