A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


La bella lingua Part 1

8 February 2013

Fantasia per piano


Chi ha fretta vada piano — make haste slowly.


The word “piano” in the Italian language — denoting “slowly” in the above adage — is really quite versatile.  It can indicate concepts such as flat, even, level, a surface, a geometric plane, a prairie, without hurdles (in athletics), a floor, (whether or not designed by Italian starchitect Renzo Piano; for example, piano terreno — ground floor; primo piano is what we in the US call the second floor), a plan (as in piano d’azione — plan of action), gradually (as in pian piano — a reduplicative that means “little by little”), prominent, high-ranking (as in uno scrittore di primo piano — a major author) as well as a range of ideas from clear, straightforward, simple, and intelligible, to smooth or softly, and from carefully, delicately, and gently to, and here’s a musical application, quietly.

In the last instance, this particular dynamic (loudness) level is indicated with the letter  in music scores, as opposed to the letter — for forte, which means loud or strong.  Hence the instrument with strings activated by hammers and invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1700, the pianoforte, which, unlike the earlier harpsichord, plays both softly and loudly according to touch, and which today we call by its abbreviated name, the piano.


A "Giraffe” piano from the 19th century (Museo degli strumenti musicali, Milan)


In fact, Italian and matters musical seem to reside quite comfortably together in the same sentence.  To begin with, many terms in music and art are Italian loanwords.  And then, the Italian language itself has a certain musical quality due to its rhythm, accentuation, and a melodic quality that results from most of its words ending in a vowel. Most singers love the Italian language for this reason.

But the word “piano” brings up a phonotactical question.  (Phonotactics, a branch of phonology, is concerned with the permissible combinations of phonemes in a given language — a phoneme being a speech sound comprising the smallest linguistic unit.)

What’s so hard about putting /l/ after /p/?  (In technical terms, this would be an alveolar lateral approximant following a voiceless bilabial stop.)  Italian’s mother language, Latin, did it (e.g., planus, the word from which piano derives); the Italian language’s siblings, the other romance languages, have no problem placing /l/ after /p/ (compare the Italian piazza with the Spanish plaza or French place); even Italian’s Indo-European relative, English, has a plethora of words which pair the two phonemes.

There would be legitimate grounds for complaint if it were the other way around — /lp/ at the beginning of a syllable.  Try saying that.  But no, in Italian, “plane” is wimped consonantally into piano. Plant? Pianta.  Plate? Piatto.  Planet?  Pianeta.  Plumb (as in level)? Piombo. Plume? Piume.

Please.  (Per piacere.)

/p/ and /l/ may as well be two temperamental Italian kids that don’t want to sit next to each other in the back seat of a 1960’s Fiat Cinquecento.  Then again, there’s not a lot of room back there, so maybe we’re onto a new linguistic theory here:  auto (ahem) -segmental phonology . . . come to think of it, perhaps someone has already come up with that idea.



And it’s not just /l/ after /p/ that hits the Italian language right in the plexus, it’s /l/ after /f/ (flame-fiamma, flower-fiore, Flanders-Le Fiandre, and even the great Renaissance city, Florence-Firenze), after /b/ (blank-bianco, blond-biondo), or after /c/ (clear-chiaro, cloister-chiostro).

What's more, the /pl/ consonant cluster was not the only casualty when words were historically assimilated into Italian.  Other consonants were frequently omitted due to yet more phonotactical constraints, these usually being replaced with a duplicate letter:  fatto (fact), ammirare (admire), ovvio (obvious), pittura (picture), pronto (prompt), aggiunta (adjunct), and atto (which can mean act or apt, according to the grammatical context).  Each of the corresponding English words manages to preserve the original consonant cluster from the Latin, while Italian seems to create a diversion with the quantitative accent on the double consonant and easily dodges the cluster altogether.

Also in Italian, there is a studied avoidance of placing an alveolar nasal phoneme before the /st/ cluster: istituzione (institution), istinto (instinct — in which two consonant clusters are avoided), istruttore (instructor — ditto), and strumento (instrument — in which not only the phoneme /n/ was sacrificed, but the perennial warning was not heeded: “Careful with that violin bow, or someone will lose an ‘i’).

Of course, there are exceptions to some of these patterns, mainly occurring in words more recently assimilated into the Italian language, such as plastico (plastic).

So, in general, don’t expect to find /l/ after /p/ in your average Italian vocabulary.  However, just give the language a chance to put /l/ after /s/ — or absolutely any other phoneme after /s/, for that matter — and it will slanciarsi (to rush on, to hurl oneself on, to dash forward) at the  opportunity.  With /sl/, Italians can do anything:  slabbrare — to cut off the lips; slombare — to break the back of (do we have words like this in English?!?); or slealtà — act disloyally.

And that’s just /sl/.  Try /sd/: sdentare — to break the teeth of; and sdegnoso — scornfulness.  Or /sf/: sformare — to deform; and sfiducia — distrust.


A laugh full of sdegnoso (Palazzo Te, Mantua)


My initial conjecture was that they thought no one would notice if they put all of their collective sbagli (mistakes) near the end of the alphabet, allowing them phonotactically to svaccarsi — to sprawl, slump, or slouch — when no one is looking.

But then I realized that it is perhaps no sventura (accident) that the Italian language, in its smania (craving) to sgombrare (remove) the phoneme /l/ from practically every other phoneme besides /s/, has become sregolato (excessive) as a defensive tactic against all non-native speakers, who find their tongues sdruccioloni  (slipping or sliding), causing all communication to sfangare — this word having the double meaning of sinking in mud, as well as needing to extricate oneself — when it comes to trying to enunciate all of those consonant pile-ups.

Alternatively, maybe these wacky combinations involving the phoneme /s/ are why Italians themselves have to resort to i gesti — talking with their hands.

This is as far as my hypotheses will go.  In any case, by way of consolation, I would suggest an antidote for any non-Italians out there whose tongue by now has been tied in a knot trying to pronounce the /sb/, /sv/, /sm/, /sg/, /sr/, /sd/, and /sf/ consonant clusters in the preceding paragraphs: a slice of pizza is a superbly effective way to flatten out the tongue again.  (However, if you find yourself at the Sbarro restaurant chain, just make sure that you don’t try to pronounce the restaurant name in the process, or you’ll have to start all over again.)


When it comes to pizza, an inspired remedy for Italian consonant clusters, the author of this blog practices a contemplative approach.

photo by Colleen Veeneman


The author's pragmatic son, Schuyler, however, is more the empiricist.


But perhaps we should not sgrandire (enlarge) any further on these remarkable consonant clusters without contemplating the societal significance of some of the words which have cropped up in our discussion — slabbrare (to cut off the lips), for example.  Not only are their sounds curious to the English speaker, but we have to wonder, how did such nefariously precise words even arise in the Italian language?

I realize that I am venturing into Three Stooges territory here, but does the  istruttore (instructor), mentioned above, often resort to a rigata (a blow with a ruler), warranting such meticulously menacing vocabulary?  Or, perhaps when he wishes to proceed pian piano, he will simply give a guancialata (a blow with a pillow)?

Worse — and here is an opportunity to marvel at a grimly concise terminology in Italian that is perhaps unrivalled in any other language — he may choose to give a ciabattata (a spank with a slipper), or a zoccolata (a blow with a clog), or a stangata (a blow with a bar), or a batacchiata (a blow with a pole), or a bastonata (a blow with a cudgel), or a piatonata (a strike with the flat of a sword), or a ditata (a flick with the finger), or a ginocchiata (a nudge with the knee), or a capata (a butt with the head), or a labbrata (a smack on the lips with the back of the hand), or a gotata (a blow on the cheek), or a schiaffo (a box on the ear), or an orecchiata (a pull of the ear), or a sgrugnata (a blow in the face), or a mostacciata (also a blow on the face, if you happen to have a mustache), or a scappelloto (a rap on the head), or, as a last resort, a sbatacchio (a continual beating).

One must gaze in wonderment at this singular culture that fosters such a wealth of verbal weaponry.  I am afraid to ask: would these words be found in a dictionary if they did not serve some purpose?

But even while bearing in mind that such violent practices as gladiatorial fights, uncomfortable shoes by Italian fashion designers, and opera plots are all native to Italian soil, truthfully, I find this sentence easiest to pronounce:  Non capisco un tubo [I don’t understand at all; or literally, “I don’t understand a tube”].


Did these vestal virgins encounter a sgrugnata or a scappellotto? (Rome)


However, at this point, it may be best to allow the Italian language a little spiano (open space), which brings us back to the word that got us off on this tangent in the first place:  piano.  Go slowly, especially the next time you’re thinking about hitting somebody with a pillow.

Oh, by the way, the Italians have another piano saying: “Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano [He who goes slowly goes safely and goes far].”

Of course, the usual response to this aphorism is, “E non arriva ma! [and never gets there!]”



Next:  i falsi amici e gli spaghetti



The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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