a matter of language

Extolling the virtue of language, refining tools of communication and encouraging creative expression are a great part of the mission of a teacher.   Sometimes I wonder as I watch transformations take place whether the methodology mandated by governments and special interest groups truly have the interest of the individual, the children at the core of the revised standards of practice.

It takes special patience, a desire to find the perfect word by scouring thesaurus entries, mentally listening to each choice in context, pen and re-pen the results until a particular ease and flow diffuses into reality like rays of sunshine streaming through storm-clouds.   This takes time, as mentioned, patience and a propensity towards art forms, crafting, creating, expressing that which lies hidden in untapped corners of ourselves.  It is most effective in one’s native language, but as we begin to embrace another language, this process takes on new dimensions.  Take Italian, for instance.

I have always marveled at explaining to an Anglo, the linguistic dynamics of certain Latin-based language structures, which is somewhat difficult to grasp.  Let’s look at Italian subject pronouns.  In English, the first person subject pronoun is always  capitalized…it is immaterial where in the sentence it is located, beginning, middle or wherever.  While in the Italian, the first person subject pronoun is capitalized only at the beginning of the sentence exclusively because it begins the sentence.   What does capitalization do?  It makes the word larger, more prominent, more important, it specifies proper name, title and in English it is a solitary, independent and self-absorbed letter, majuscule “I”.

In Italian, the first person subject pronoun is “io”…keeping its place among all other letters without capitalization, minuscular, regardless of position in the sentence, except again for the start of the sentence.   The size of the first person subject, then in English is exalted and solitary, while the first person subject of the Italian bears commonality and equality.

Another peculiarity to note is the construction, in Italian, of the linguistic interpretations of forms of address – “you”.  A friendly, informal, familiar form of address is -“you” or “tu” – to a friend, close relative, peer and it is not capitalized, further demonstrating a level of dealing on an even plane with “io”.   Yet, there is another version of “you” or a formalized, polite form which is used to address people of a certain stature, people who are unknown to you, even if they are taxi drivers, waiters, cashiers or street-sweepers.  This form has an equal value to a third person subject (he/she),  even though you are addressing someone, you are talking to him/her as if you were talking about him/her.  As confusing as it may seem to the Anglo-speaker, that which is taking place is a linguistic distancing of two parties addressing each other with the objective of showing respect through that distance.  “Lei” meaning “you formal or polite” is always capitalized anywhere in the sentence and always used with a third person verb.

Recap?  So linguistically,in English, “I” am always capitalized anywhere in sentences, while “you” are permitted capitalization only at the beginning of a sentence.  And in Italian, “io” am never capitalized, unless at the beginning of a sentence and “Lei” (you, used in the polite form to show respect to others) are always capitalized anywhere in the sentence.

Being able to model respect to others, may sometimes arrive with a bit more ease when it is automatically built into the language!    Just a thought before we begin another round of education reform in these United States.


letter I


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