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Irresistible Signs

Irresistible Signs: The Genius of Language and Italian National Identity

  • Book Info
    Irresistible Signs
    Book Description:

    InIrresistible Signs, Paola Gambarota investigates the connection between Italian language and national identity over four hundred years, from late-Renaissance linguistic theories to nineteenth-century nationalist myths.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-9526-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-21)

    What makes a German German, an Italian Italian? When I moved from Berlin (where I had lived for two years) to the United States in the 1990s, carrying my Italian mother tongue across a new border, I experienced once again the constraints of my Italian habits of communication. I wondered how much of my everyday unease depended on the very simple fact that I did not even have the words in my mother tongue to reflect some fairly typical situations (such as a waiter having the time to ‘kid’ when he seemed awfully busy to me). Had the vocabulary and...

  5. 1 Scripts of Vernaculars and Collective Characters in Early Modern Europe
    (pp. 22-58)

    For a long time, political interests, intercultural encounters of various sorts, and rhetorical strategies together contributed to the creation of narratives that linked language and national character and eventually transformed elements of poetics into national essences.

    In the present chapter I argue that the myth of the genius of language, which linked the idiosyncrasies of vernaculars to national characters, was the effect of the systematization of different areas of knowledge concerning human diversity.¹ This systematic effort, which began in the second half of the sixteenth century, was driven by the rise of absolutist polities and was marked by the revival...

  6. 2 Ut Lingua, Natio: Dominique Bouhours’s Genius of the Nation and Ludovico Antonio Muratori’s Italian Republic of Letters
    (pp. 59-98)

    After a first tentative appearance in Amable de Bourzeys’ speech at the Académie Française (12 February 1635),¹ the notion of the genius of language as a function of national character burst onto the European scene like thunder when the dialoguesEntretiens d’Ariste et d’Eugéne(1671) andLa manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages d’esprit(1687) began to circulate in numerous editions and translations. Written by the Jesuit Dominique Bouhours, a member of the Académie Française and a lexicographer of great erudition with a talent for witty and aggressive polemic, the dialogues declared the superiority of the French language and...

  7. 3 Giambattista Vico, the Vernacular, and the Foundations of Modern Italy
    (pp. 99-144)

    Giambattista Vico did not intervene directly in the heated exchanges between Italian and French writers over the genius of language, and he probably knew the actual texts of the controversy only through the summaries that appeared in theGiornale de’ letterati d’Italia– a journal in which he repeatedly defended his ownDe antiquissima italorum sapientiaagainst the sharp attacks of his reviewer (1711–12, probably Bernardino Trevisano).² Even so, Vico did not fail to mention the all-too-current debate on language and national character that was stirring the Italian and French intellectual communities, in his inaugural oration entitledDe nostri temporis...

  8. 4 Translating Genius: Cesarotti, Ossian, and the Question of National Character
    (pp. 145-189)

    Long before Simonde de Sismondi discredited the fatalistic connection between the miserable conditions of Italians and their southern climate (1807–13),¹ Melchiorre Cesarotti rejected the ‘natural’ causes of the genius of language, that is, climate and the people’s innate psychological disposition, challenging many entrenched ideas, in hisSaggio sulla filosofia delle lingue(1785). In this chapter I explore the relations between Cesarotti’s original reflections on the genius of language and his experience as the translator of James Macpherson’sPoems of Ossian(1760–3). I analyse the ways in which the accepted link between the genius of language and national character...

  9. 5 Towards Sameness: Leopardi’s Critique of Character, and the End of the Nation
    (pp. 190-226)

    By the time Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) had started to analyse the connection between language and national character, the identification of nationhood with language had become an accepted truth. Nineteenth-century patriots rarely questioned the construct of ‘national language’ and instead presented it either as a natural fact linked to the birth on Italy’s soil, as Banti demonstrates in his survey of the Risorgimento canon (ca 1800–50), or as a necessary task to be fulfilled, as recommended in more realistic post-unification writings such as Manzoni’s famous report on language to the Ministry of Public Education (1868).¹

    Thus Leopardi was among...

  10. Irresistible Signs? A Postscript and the Question of Media
    (pp. 227-234)

    The effort on the part of infants to acquire a verbal language (in order to reach out to the mother?) consists in recognizing and translating signs into other signs; it is, in other words, an act of heterolingual communication. For infants, ‘the mother tongue is amorphous,’ indeterminate,² not a fixed system of rules or a grammar to be learned, and yet adults feel their first verbal interaction – the mother tongue (or tongues) – not only as an intimate possession but also as a unified homogeneous object. Promoters of linguistic nationalism build precisely on this feeling of intimacy and objectification when they...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 235-306)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-338)
  13. Index
    (pp. 339-349)