Past Is Prologue

Why Italians Use Dozens of Words for Simple Instructions

And other examples of why more is more in Italy

The Statue of David in Florence. Photo: iStock

In Italy, you’ll find signs about face masks with 40 words in bureaucratic language. No smoking signs consist of 109 words of legal text, and simple toilet signs can be made up of 122 words. What reasons can we find for this in Italian society?

Among the novelties the Covid-19 pandemic has given us—in addition to face masks and awkward elbow bumps—is a variety of new signs instructing us how to behave. In the summer of 2020, I flew from London to Italy, Denmark, and Sweden, when travel restrictions allowed it, and I noticed some interesting differences in instructions on using face masks.

London’s Heathrow airport had posters saying, “You must wear a face covering in the terminal.” Signs at Copenhagen’s airport advised “Please remember to wear a medical mask,” and the airport in Stockholm read, “Use a face mask in the terminal. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, however, I was greeted by a sign made up of 40 words:

“According to Covid-19 containment measures provided for by the Council of Ministers’ presidential decree of 26 April 2020, the use of respiratory protection is required in interior public places. Therefore, the use of masks is compulsory even inside the airport.”

The sign at Rome’s airport advising to wear a face mask. Photo courtesy of the author.

Despite Italy’s penchant for signs like this in bureaucratese, I’ve long had a passion for Italy and for the beautiful Italian language while growing up in Sweden and Finland. After Italian studies at Stockholm University led me to a student exchange in the northern Italian city of Padua, I lived in Italy for three years. I became fluent in Italian and did a master’s degree in communication studies at the University of Bologna.

Although I left Italy in 2014, the country and its language have never left me—especially since my fiancée is from Italy’s southern Apulia region. I currently live in the United Kingdom and I’m always on the lookout for cultural differences between Northern Europe and Italy, which has led to some thoughts on why Italians use so many words for simple signs.

Italian used to be an elite language

Italian, with its roots in Tuscan dialect, was for a long time only used in literature and opera and mastered by an educated elite. It only became a national language in 1861, when Italy unified into a nation.

People in the Italian peninsula spoke regional dialects, many of which are even considered to be separate languages in their own right, like Neapolitan, Venetian, and Sardinian. Italian slowly spread through the school system, military service, internal migration, and, much later on, by television.

Bureaucratic language was a characteristic of the new state imposing its laws, and the legacy of this approach is still visible today. You can spot this in “no smoking” signs in restaurants that include 109 words in legalese.

An Italian “no smoking” sign, with 109 words in legalese
An Italian “no smoking” sign, with 109 words in legalese
An Italian “no smoking” sign, with 109 words in legalese

During the pandemic, the government has frequently spoken in bureaucratese. Announcing new coronavirus restrictions, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has many times presented a “DPCM,” an abbreviation repeated in the news and eventually by citizens and companies. What it stands for, however, is rarely explained (“decreto del presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri,” meaning “decree of the president of Council of Ministers”).

The most discussed instance in 2020 occurred when the restrictions for Covid-19 were eased after the first wave of the virus. The prime minister announced that Italians could meet with a “congiunto,” an archaic term for “relative”.

People became even more confused when the government tried to clarify what they meant, stating that it included relationships with a “stable tie of affection” (“affetto stabile”). Italian media outlets and talk shows soon attempted to decipher the words, interviewing lawyers and featuring excerpts from the dictionary trying to determine whether this included friends. This bureaucratic form of communication was even called an “anti-language” by writer Italo Calvino.

Italians love linguistic complexity

Italians value eloquence in writing and speech, and just like with ornamented Baroque Catholic cathedrals, the more you add, the better. A language like Swedish, by contrast—like its Protestant churches—is direct, to-the-point, and stripped down of unnecessary excess.

This Italian “more is more” attitude shows up throughout Italy. While European corporate reports are becoming shorter and shorter, in Italy, they are becoming longer each year.

One reason is that the humanities and arts are paramount in Italy. It’s quite understandable, given that it’s the land of the Renaissance and boasts the world’s highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The most prestigious type of high school, the “liceo classico,” teaches Latin and Ancient Greek. The country has double the amount of university graduates in humanistic subjects compared to Germany, and even medical students in Italy study literature and philosophy.

The emphasis put on linguistic sophistication is showcased in Italian news. There’s an exaggerated use of synonyms, idioms, allusions, football metaphors, Latin expressions like “tertium non datur,” and English terms, like “smart working” and “election day.”

A perfectly normal news story could be: “The rebus puzzle of the Farnesina palace is solved, after white smoke from the Chigi palace” (“Rebus Farnesina risolto, dopo la fumata bianca da Palazzo Chigi”). It simply means that the question of the new foreign minister is resolved, after an agreement by the government.

The Tiber river and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo: Christopher Czermak/Unsplash

Italians love preserving traditions

Italians adore their traditions, and I’m not just talking about delicious food or celebrations of local patron saints. A national survey in 2015 revealed that 46% of Italians still speak regional languages and dialects at home, to some extent, instead of Italian.

Italians also cling to old forms of grammar that other Romance languages have left behind. While the French have relegated the past tense of “passé simple” to written language and stopped using the past tense “subjonctif plus-que-parfait,” Italians still preserve “passato remoto” and “congiuntivo trapassato.” The “passato remoto” form is doing so well in the South that it is used in daily conversation.

The public administration also continues to preserve its tradition of bureaucratese. I experienced this myself during an internship at the offices of a regional authority during my studies in Bologna. The perception within government is still that the more bureaucratic a text is, the more authority and respect it will induce among citizens.

There are, however, those who try to change things. During my degree in Bologna, key communication scholars, like Pina Lalli, Roberto Grandi, and Alessandro Rovinetti, preached the importance of simplified information to citizens. And during my studies in Padua, linguist Michele Cortelazzo advocated for clear communication by the public administration.

Starting in the 1990s, reforms and laws were passed to modernize and simplify government communication. These reforms have, nonetheless, not been followed up by structural change, and positive developments have mainly been limited to individual initiatives, as Cortelazzo concludes.

Italian society places high value on linguistic eloquence and complexity, and the authorities have historically addressed the elite. When you couple that with a culture that tends to conserve linguistic rules and conventions, then the presence of long-windedness in perfunctory signs starts to make more sense.

Linguist Carla Vergaro has even argued that Italian is a “reader-responsible” language—it’s the reader’s responsibility to interpret and draw meaning of complex texts. English, by contrast, is considered a “writer-responsible” language by linguist John Hinds, where the responsibility to convey efficient communication lies with the writer.

This difference was clearly visible when I landed back at London’s Heathrow airport and was again surrounded by short, clear messages of what to do during a pandemic. At first, it was refreshing to see these direct messages after seeing so many verbose signs of legal text in Italy. But eventually, I couldn’t help but feel that the English messages were instructing me as if I were an unruly child.

In the end, I found myself secretly longing for an Italian sign again, one with 40 words conveying a simple instruction.

Multilingual digital marketer that has lived in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium & the UK. Thoughts on languages & marketing. anderspettersson.co.uk/contact

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