An Hour with Diego Marani

by Guy Somerset / 19 May, 2013
'You are more free when you speak a foreign language.'
Linguistics lie at the heart of Italian writer Diego Marani’s two early 2000s novels now translated into English – New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs – and linguistics lie at the heart of his hour-long session in conversation with, er, me.

Just as in his novels, the subject becomes readily accessible, thanks to Marani’s humour and well-honed communications skills. Can this man really be employed by that bureaucratic behemoth, the European Union? He is currently in “the business of provoking language learning”.

And more than a few audience members are indeed provoked (in the best possible way) when he says things such as that “too often languages are taken hostage by political belonging, they are identified with nations, states, governments, academies. Languages, on the contrary, should belong to those who speak them. And everybody should feel free to learn a language and become someone else. You are more free when you speak a foreign language.

“I just said ‘foreign language’ and these are words that tell us a lot about our perception of a language. We call ‘foreign’ what is not ours, and this is wrong. Because mixing you learn, you understand other points of view and other ways of seeing things. Not necessarily because they are better than yours, but just simply because they are different.”

Marani’s answers are long, but fascinating, never more so than when he talks about the need or not to protect languages from extinction – which leads inevitably to the question of Te Reo Maori in this country.

He doesn’t believe languages do die, really. “If you think about it actually, when does a language die? Can you say today that Latin is dead? No one speaks Latin, so you can say Latin is dead. But you can equally say that Latin is so well that it has multiplied into five or six different varieties, which are French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Portuguese. So you see that language death is not a clear notion.”

Instead of dying, languages transform into something else, develop, evolve, he says. “Let me make you an example: in Egypt they speak Arabic, but the Egyptian Arabic is different from the Algerian and Libyan and other Arabics. It is different because it contains a language that doesn’t exist anymore, which is Coptic. So Coptic is a dead language, but dying it has contaminated, it has influenced the Arabic of Egypt. So languages simply are absorbed by another one, but they never really die.”

Asked in that case about Te Reo Maori and the work of the Maori Language Commission, he says: “On this thing of protecting languages, I’m not sure it is always the good solution … How do you protect a language? I don’t think you can protect a language with interdictions, with rules, like ‘You speak that language here, you don’t speak it there’ and so on. As is often happens all over the world and in Europe very often. I think that to protect a language you must invest in its culture, because a language is an expression of a culture and when a culture is rich that language is strong.”

On which score, he thinks New Zealand is on the right track. “You discovered you had here a culture that was worth studying, worth keeping alive, you got interested in this culture that is your tradition and this interest made this culture lively again and so the language [too]. I think this is the process. If you protect the language in an artificial way with the interdictions, with rules and barriers, well it is like putting it in a cage in the zoo and this is not the way because when the beast is dead the cage is empty. The way to protect a language is to make it able to survive outside among other languages, to compete with other languages, and well it is the language that has something to say that will survive, and I think this is fair.”

How this Italian came to be writing two novels set in Finland was a result of learning the language and visiting the country when it became a member of the European Union in the mid-1990s.

“I already had a couple of languages at that time and had a taste of a few others and I was used to the fact you don’t know German but you know Dutch so you can grasp the meaning of words you can read, at least you can understand what it is about. So when I went to Finland I expected that in one way or another I could find a way to a path to understand a little. No. It was not like that.

“I knew Finnish was from another family of languages but I couldn’t imagine it was that far away from our languages. There was no hint, nothing could help me to recognise a word. And it was nightmare to memorise words. It was a torture. A really impossible mission.”

Finnish has 15 cases. “Well, I have Latin – six was more than enough. Fifteen I found, well, exaggerated. I think you never need 15 cases in a language. It’s a waste.”

With a language, comes a sense of reality for the people who speak it – and so reality can differ from language to language, people to people.

“The Finnish language does not say ‘Peter eats the apple.’ Too simple. It says, ‘There is Peter. There is an apple. The apple is eaten.’ Well, you are laughing and this is very amusing, but in this you see a completely different approach to reality as compared to ours. You in English to say ‘I’ you use a big ‘I’ to underline that you are an actor in your life, you are the subject, the one who is acting, who is doing this action. In the Finnish language, this disappears. The verb is in a passive reflexive way and so this is their approach to reality – and how could it be different in a place where you have minus 50 degrees in winter and it’s never dark in summer? So you see that languages teach you a lot about a people, about a country, a way of life, a way of seeing reality. So you see why I was so attracted to the Finnish language.”

The other thing that fascinated Marani is Finland only became an independent state in 1917 and you could see there “a freshly brewed nationalism”.

“They invented a mythology. They invented an epic. They put language into a territory and … this was interesting because you could see the process there still visible that brought each single European state into the same condition, that built all our patriotisms – the ones we are now trying to get rid of. And this was exactly what I needed for my purpose to write about identity and language, about this feeling we have to perceive ourselves through language and fatherland.”



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