450: La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales

by Gerard


450: Hales, Dianne. La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language. New York: Broadway Books, 2010. 336 pp. ISBN 978-0-7679-2770-3.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 450: Italian, Sardinian, Dalmatian, Romanian, and Rhaeto-Romanic languages

Italian really is one of the world’s most enchanting languages. Dianne Hales’s La Bella Lingua takes the reader on a sumptuous journey through the words of Michelangelo, Dante, and Verdi. Although Italian only has about a third of the words that English has, their meanings are more precise and more elegant. Each word becomes a story. Take “furbo” for example. It means a small deception, but a furbetto is a small child who gains through deception, a furbastro makes money through trickery, and a furbizia is a clever use of deception in language. Only Italian could pull off these hidden layers.

Hales writes about her immersion in Italian language and culture like someone who wishes they’d been born there. The Italian language tells the story of its speakers and its nation. Shaped through its folklore and metaphors, Italians can speak of someone who is “piu tondo dell’O di Giotto” (rounder than Giotto’s O, or slow on the uptake) or someone who doesn’t know his “Galateo” (a historical guide on etiquette written in 1558 and still used a model of behavior). Every syllable becomes a world with new and exciting characters.

Hales writes with wit, verve, and childlike glee. She shapes the history of the language around the stories if Italy’s cultural institutions—its food, its art, and its music. While some of her travels seem a bit showy (she gets tickets to Milan’s La Scala and chats with Roberto Benigni), her conversations with Italian friends illustrate the core of the language. It’s meant as a way for the Italian people to continue to share their pride in their nation and history as well as their absolute love for the Italian way of life. While reading this book, I found myself almost constantly saying the Italian words and phrases out loud to hear them come off the page. By the end, you want to learn the whole language, to wrap it around you, so “cominciamo”—let’s get started.