Enough Italian for your trip


The Briton in Italy, published in 1906 (1906.7.1935).

Whether you are an art lover, a food lover or both, a historian or a designer, or just sitting in your office thinking about your next holidays, there are many good reasons to learn Italian. Cambridge University Library holds numerous textbooks and conversation books to help you… in different ways.

The earliest is the 1612 The passenger: of Beneuenuto Italian, professour of his natiue tongue (classmark: Syn.7.61.265) which was aimed at educated Englishmen of Elizabethan and Jacobean times wanting to learn the language through familiar dialogues in parallel Italian and English text. As an example of the types of subjects covered, in the introduction to Dialogue II we see that “they use the phrases appertaining to meales, and sitting at table, and of discoursing of the nature of any meate, of remedies, of hurts, of hearbes, rootes, flesh, birds, fish and fruites: with excellent medicinall secrets, which teach the Traveller to keep himselfe in health, and to prolong life: and also speech of servants”.

The English travellers’ assistant in Italy (1830.6.14) published in 1824 by an unknown woman author, is of a small handy size “to make it of use when a grammar or a dictionary are not at hand to be referred to”. It has the structure of a phrase book, with the words and dialogues in English in one column and their translations into Italian in the next, but it contains some useful short comments on Italian manners and customs too. The author also reassures the reader-traveller: “The Italians are always particularly obliging and patient with foreigners, for if they perceive that they are not understood, they will change their words, or vary their terms, until they are fully comprehended”. No mention of body language or gestures in the 19th century!

Travellers’ colloquial Italian (1892.6.166) is aimed to help those who can read and write in Italian but cannot pronounce it or understand it, as it offers “[…] the exact pronunciation represented on a new system based upon a scientific analysis of Italian sounds”. It consistently uses a combination of letters known to the English reader, rather traditional phonetic signs, to help them reproduce the exact Italian sound (see picture below). The author, H. Swan, follows the studies of the 19th century pioneers of modern phonetics: Melville Bell (see his English visible speech for the million, classmark 1868.10.5), Alexander J. Ellis, Paul Passy and Henry Sweet. Other textbooks using the same phonetics system are (see image gallery below) The Britton in Italy published in 1906 (1903.7.1935), particularly useful for cyclists and a pocket size phrase book published during World War I (1919.4.29) specially compiled for British soldiers in Italy and “containing hundreds of useful sentences and words, enabling [them] to converse with the Italian Allies, with the correct pronunciation of each word”. Amongst other useful topics of conversation, contents include phrases pertinent to landing, marching, aviation, trenches and wounds.

A further step in the field of correct pronunciation of foreign languages was given with the help of the new technologies of the time. The Language phone method published in New York in 1905 (1908.10.118) promotes what was also known as the “Rosenthal method” which involves the use of the phonograph to reproduce the sounds of the language intended to be learned. The package would include a phonograph, an earphone, a cylinder or “pronouncing record” and a grammar book. Unfortunately, the Library only holds the grammar book.

Today’s methods of course also rely on multimedia for aiding language learners and are very much focused on the need to be efficient, easy and quick: Italian in a week, Italian in no time, Instant Italian. However, although the end was the same, we can see a completely different approach from our “140 characters” culture in older publications, most strikingly in the following example of the title of a book published in 1689: The Italian reviv’d, or, the introduction to the Italian language, containing such grounds as are most immediately useful and necessary for the speedy and easie attaining of the same; as also a new store-house of proper and choice dialogues, most useful for such as desire the speaking part, and intend to travel into Italy, or the Levant, together with the modern way of addressing letters and styling of persons, as well in actual discourse as in writing; with alterations and additions (Bb*.4.57(F)).

Clara Panozzo

1 thought on “Enough Italian for your trip

  1. Thanks very much to John Gallagher for drawing my attention to other early volumes (William Thomas -1550- and John Florio -1578 and 1591-). I was trying to restrict my coverage to conversation and phrasebooks, rather than grammars, textbooks and dictionaries, since I thought the subject was otherwise too big for a short blog post. And of course, I should have warned readers about this. However, it is always a useful reminder that there are many subdivisions under the “Italian language” subject heading that can give further relevant examples on the topic!

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