Monday, May 2, 2016

La lingua fatta dalla television or the language created by the television (?)

by Amanda Oster

Amanda Oster is a senior in Mathematics and Italian. After graduation she is continuing her education in graduate school to study cryptography. She is planning on using her language and mathematical skills in code-breaking for international organizations. She wrote this text as a student in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ in the spring of 2015.

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Italy is a country full of dialects, languages, outsiders. A common Italian language was virtually non-existent until a specific dialect was chosen to be taught in schools and used throughout the public spheres of Italian life. Italian illiteracy was uncommonly high in the first half of the 20th century, but sits today at only 1% (Homolaicus). The whole process was expedited immensely by the introduction of television.

In 1954, 48% of the Italian population had access to television, and seven years later it increased to 97% (Homolaicus). Reaching this much of the population was enormous, and the Italian government saw it as a real opportunity to educate their citizens. They had chosen a “standard” Italian after Italy unified in 1871 [officially we consider the unification to have taken place in 1861, but it’s true that Rome became part of Italy only in 1870; still, I’d prefer to see 1861!], naming Tuscan Italians as their winner. The Tuscan, and specifically Florentine, dialect was the front contender simply because of its cultural and economic importance to the Italian people. Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, the fathers of Italian literature, used the Florentine dialect. Florence was the flourishing capital of the Italian Renaissance. The Florentine choice was an intentional one, to underline a part of Italian history that Italians were proud of.

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The Italian dialects are, to this day, extremely diverse. Most Italians [today, less and less people would identify a dialect as their native tongue, though] would say their native tongue is not the standard that they use in the public domains, but the small minority dialect they speak at home. There are hundreds of varieties of Italian dialects, some specific to small villages. Some dialects are so different that they are mutually unintelligible. Hardly any Italians actually spoke the Tuscan dialect even into the 1940’s. But when television became available in the 1950’s, it changed the linguistic landscape of Italy. Italians, mesmerized by the hum and purr of their new home technology, had to learn the standard to understand the programming. They had to comprehend spoken and written Standard Italian, since text was also part of television especially early on. The first mission of television to spread the use of the new standard was a huge success. Its second mission concurrently succeeded…

The illiteracy rate in Italy in the early 1900’s was very high, close to 13% (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). Television was introduced first and foremost as a form of education for the Italian public, as a way to spread the new standard, and also to fight illiteracy. Radio shows and movies had existed for years before television was implemented, but neither really effected the Italian literacy rate. Radio shows were simply audial, and did not effect the reading ability of Italians simply because they didn’t have to read to comprehend the radio. In movies, rarely was the plot uninterpretable because of not being able to read: one could use context clues from the actions of the actors to understand the words on the screen. And anyways, movies were only an occasional activity, often no more than once a month. The introduction of TV provided Italian families with a new familial tradition: they could watch it a little bit every day, often right before the children went to bed. This prompted a huge opportunity to comprise reading, speech, and divertimento (having fun) in the same slot of time. Another selling point was that watching television involved everyone in the family, therefore educating the youngest children to the oldest grandparents with the same technology.

As time went on, Italian programs became less overtly educational and more entertainment-based. However this did not destabilize the initial mission of television, since even trash television could at least help foreigners learn how to speak standard Italian, help spread the standard in general, and increase literacy nation-wide with very little effort. Many foreigners immigrate to Italy for work, and most of them are coming from Northern Africa, Albania, and the Middle East, where they don’t speak a language even remotely similar to Italian. Television, however, helped them learn Italian faster, giving them an outlet to practice Italian before they arrived and after they settled in.

In short, the piece of technology that most people use now for gossip, entertainment, and time wasting was an instrumental part of the education of the Italian public. The nation-wide introduction of television in Italy changed peoples’ lives: it taught them what was a new language for them, the standard, decreased illiteracy, and helped foreigners learn the language. A common language and new-found fascination for television helped unify Italy further, bringing a country of what seemed like disjoint nations together into one state, with a common language, and almost all of the population able to speak and read it.


Homolaicus. (2014).

UNESCO Institute for Statistics.


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