Academic, Language, Politics

Languagehat has a post about Berlusconi’s bad grammar in Italian. He quotes from a recent New Yorker article:

His grammar is dreadful. He gets the subjunctive wrong. Give him three seconds on television and he makes four mistakes. But you discover that everybody loves his mistakes. That’s his power.

Now, since Berlusconi has passed laws making all of the financial and political improprieties he is accused of legal, you’d think he could change the grammar books to re-write the standard around his own speech patterns! What I find interesting is that Berlusconi was born in 1936, and so is most likely a product of the fascist educational system which abolished the formal teaching of grammar in schools. Here is what Antonio Gramsci had to say about grammar education under Fascism:

Normative grammar, which by abstraction only can be considered as divorced from the living language, tends to make one learn the entire organism of the language inquestion and to create a spiritual attitude that enables one always to find one’s way around the linguistic environment…If grammar is excluded from education and is not written’, it cannot thereby be excluded from real life’, as I have already pointed out elsewhere. The only thing excluded is the unitarily organized intervention in the process of learning the language. In practice the national-popular mass is excluded from learning the educated language, since the highest level of the ruling class, which traditionall speaks standard Italian, passes it on from generation to generation, through a slow process that begins with the first stutterings fo the child under the guidance of its parents, and continues through conversation (with its this is how one syas it’, it must be said like this’, etc.) for the rest of one’s life. In reality, one is always’ studying grammar (by imitating the model one admires, etc.). In Gentile’s attitude there is much more politics than one thinks and a great deal of unconscious reactionary thought, as has in any case already been noted at other times and on other occasions. There is all the reactionary thought of the old liberal view, a laissez faire, laissez passer’ which is not justified, as it was in Rousseau (and Gentile is more like Rouseseau than he thinks) by opposition to the paralysis of Jesuit education, but whcih has become an abstract, ahistorical’ ideology.

Gramsci was attacking the Fascist educational reforms of Giovani Gentile, which abolished the formal teaching of grammar in the schools. Gramsci felt that this would unfairly benefit the elite who learned to speak standard” Italian at home.

Personally, having suffered through a modern” educational program that eliminated formal instruction in grammar, I am very sympathetic go Gramsci’s argument here.

The quote is from the collection Selections from Cultural Writings, pp 186-187. For more on the links between Gramsci’s linguistic theory and his political writings, check out this new book (due next year).