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Why does the Italian government want to ban foreign words?

Italy’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, proposed a language law last week in a bid to “protect and promote” the Italian language. 

“It is not just a matter of fashion, as fashions pass, but Anglomania has repercussions for society as a whole,” the draft bill states.

The law would impose a fine of up to €100,000 ($108,000) for the use of foreign words that have Italian translations, known as “foresterismi,” in official and public-facing communications, including names or acronyms used for professional roles such as CEO or manager. 

The proposal also suggests establishing a “committee for the safeguard, promotion, and appreciation of Italian language,” despite Italy already having such an institution, the Accademia della Crusca, which has been the ultimate authority in all matters of the Italian language since 1538.

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While the current Italian government believes that all foreign words pose a threat to the Italian language and culture, it is especially concerned about the use of English. 

According to the proposal, the use of English in Italian professional communication has increased by 773 percent since 2000.

In addition, among the roughly 800,000 words in the typical Italian dictionary, there are around 9,000 anglicisms, or 1.1 percent of the total. 

The government claims that this is too many and that it constitutes an Anglomania emergency.

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Echoes of the past

The proposed language law has been criticised, with some drawing comparisons to Italy’s fascist past.

In 1923, the fascist government led by Benito Mussolini passed a law that became central to its “linguistic reclamation” project, a plan to preserve and protect the Italian language and culture from foreign influence. 

The law imposed a hefty tax on anyone using foreign words on commercial signs, aimed at dissuading people from using foreign words and promoting the use of Italian words.

This law was part of a broader effort by the fascist regime to promote Italian nationalism and culture. The regime sought to create a new, modern version of Italy based on the ancient Roman Empire, and saw the Italian language as a key element in this project.

The regime also sought to eliminate foreign influences in Italian culture, including music, literature, and art.

Over time, the bans became more serious, and speaking in foreign languages, particularly English and French, was considered akin to treason.

In 1940, the punishment was up to six months in jail for the use of foreign words. 

Nouns were created to replace words including sandwich (tramezzino), cashmere (casimiro), croissant (cornetto), hip-hip hooray (eja eja alalà), and panorama (tuttochesivede). 

Existing Italian words were changed because they sounded foreign, so ananas (pineapple) became ananasso. 

Even foreign names were translated into Italian, for instance Buenos Aires (Buonaria), Louis Armstrong (Luigi Braccioforte), and George Washington (Giorgio Vosingtone).

Of course the current proposals are no where near the kind of measures implemented almost a century ago.

Defence of mother tongue

The Italian government denies the criticisms of the proposed language law and argue that promoting the Italian language by imposing fines for the use of foreign words in official and public-facing communications, is not autarchic. 

The government argues that it is instead aimed at promoting linguistic pluralism and diversity, while also ensuring that the Italian language remains a fundamental element of national identity. 

“Almost all European states have the defence of the mother tongue in the Constitution”, says Fabio Rampelli, Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies and member of the Brothers of Italy.

He suggests that the government sees the proposed law as a way of fostering a more cohesive and inclusive society by promoting the use of the Italian language.

While the proposed language law is not as extreme as the measures taken by the fascist regime almost a century ago, and whether the proposed law will be implemented or not remains to be seen, the comparisons to Italy’s past show the sensitivity of the issue. 

The debate highlights the tension between the desire to protect and promote the Italian language and culture and the need to embrace linguistic diversity and globalisation.

READ MORE: Mass extinction event: 1,500 languages could be lost by 2100

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