How Fascism Changed The Italian Language

By removing borrowed words and imposing a so-called “Italianization,” the Fascist regime manipulated the use of the Italian language.
Italianization represented by a horse statue found in Italy, an example of Fascist architecture

Fascist Italy was extremely proud, patriotic, authoritarian and, above all, nationalist. The regime was in part founded on the goal of unifying and centralizing the Italian language to strengthen the national identity, the state’s centrality, the power of propaganda and popular approval, thereby eliminating regionalism and individualism. Since the regime aimed to create strong national pride that could lead everyone to hate everything that wasn’t “Italian,” this linguistic policy became fundamental to inciting anti-Semitic hatred that led to the eventual deportation of thousands of people. In 1923, the regime enacted a compulsory Italianization policy within the Slovenian communities of Gorizia, Trieste, Pola and Zara. The policy quickly took hold throughout the entire country.

In order to eliminate foreign phrases and words and replace them with words that fell into disuse with the fall of the regime and the liberation by the Allied forces, the policy was violently and sometimes grotesquely imposed. One of the most notably absurd and cumbersome examples of this Italianization was the use of bevanda arlecchina (literally meaning “Harlequin beverage”) for cocktails. In other cases, the regime led to changes that still exist today in the modern Italian language, for example the term tramezzino (a type of sandwich). The regime made drastic changes by enacting various measures and laws that were designed to enforce the obligatory Italianization of proper nouns, names of places, sports, celebrities, drinks and any name that sounded even vaguely foreign.

Enough with the use and customs of Umbertino Italy with their ridiculous imitations of foreign habits.” We have to return to our tradition. We have to refuse and ward off the styles trends from Paris, London, or America. If anything, the others should look to us like they watch Rome or Renaissance Italy…Enough with the people’s clothing, the puffy sleeves, the trains, the baggy pants, the stiff colors, and the Ostrogoth words.
(The Costume from Il Popolo d’Italia on July 10, 1938)

The History of Italianization in the Fascist Era

Censorship

First and foremost, censorship played a vital role in the Fascist regime just like it did during the Nazi regime. Foreign newspapers and bilingual schools were hit the hardest by Italianization policies: they were forced to close down. One example of this censorship was when the Tyrolian newspaper Der Tiroler was shut down. In other cases, Italian was imposed as the sole language, and newspapers and publishing houses were practically forced to avoid foreign words and favor the corresponding Italian or Italianized terms.

Many intellectuals, including Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Gentile, the scientific director of the first (Fascist) Italian Encyclopedia in 1925, supported the Italianization policies and rigid censorship.

Italianizing Last Names

The Italianization of common foreign last names is perhaps one of the most radical changes that the Fascist regime enacted. Some Italianized last names are still used even today. Trieste is the most glaring example of this policy. During the Fascist regime, over 100,000 Slovenian and Croatian origin names were Italianized. Slovenian last names like Vodopivec became Bevilacqua, Rusovič was changed to Russo, Krizman became Crismani, Stokavaz was replaced with Fossati and so on. Now, the search engine bora.la allows citizens from Trieste to find the original forms of their last names.

Last names with German-speaking origin that came from areas that bordered Austria or Switzerland — especially those found in Trentino Alto Adige — experienced similar changes. Kostner, Gruber, Messner and Kompatscher became Costa, Dallafossa/Fossari, Monego/Sagrestani/Dallamessa and Campacci, respectively. In 1939, with the Options Agreement in Alto Adige, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini agreed that German-speaking residents in the region could choose to either emigrate to Germany and Crimea (which had been annexed by the Nazi regime) or remain in Italy and accept full Italianization. If famous journalist Dietlinde (nicknamed Lilli) Gruber was born during the Fascist regime, her name would Teodolinda dalla Fossa or Fossolari.

Specific laws were enacted to impose clerical Italianization (referred to as “restitution”) of last names of presumed Italian origin without the unlucky individual’s consent or even notifying them of the change. If their last name was clearly foreign, Italianization (called “adaptation”) was highly encouraged, sometimes under threat, though it was not technically obligatory. That said, having a foreign-sounding last name could ruin or impede someone’s career.

Historical Figures

Even famous celebrities and high profile figures of the time weren’t immune to the rigid Italianization policy. Churchill became Ciorcil, Louis Armstrong was Italianized as the very literal and dubious Luigi Braccioforte and Mary Stuart was called Maria Stuarda. Italianizing the name of famous French mathematician René Descartes as Renato Cartesio has led many students today to believe that the two names belong to two different people! Christian first names were always Italianized, for example Carlo Marx instead of Karl Marx and Giorgio Washington instead of George Washington.

Italianizing The Names Of Places

Changing place names for political purposes is hardly unique to Italy. During the fascist regime, names in Alto Adige, Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta were Italianized en masse. Names with German origin, which were the overwhelming majority of names, were transformed and Italianized by Ettore Tolomei, the author of the Handbook of Local Names of Alto Adige, which was adopted by a Royal Decree in 1923. The handbook reinforced the preexisting use of Italian names like Bolzano for Bozen while Ladin names (a Romance language spoken in the Dolomite Mountains) were Italianized. For example, Gherdëina became Gardena, Kiens became Chienes, Hafling became Avelengo and Innichen became San Candido. Some of these names remained in use after the fall of the regime.

In Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta, names of French origin were Italianized, and many Italianized names remained in use. For example, in Alto Adige Sterzing became Vipiteno, Ahrntal was changed to Valle Aurina and Morgex became Valdigna d’Aosta. In Piemonte, Oulx and Sauze D’oulx were changed to Oulzio and Salice d’Oulzio, Venaus became Venalzio, Sestrières was changed to Sestriere and so on.

The same thing took place in Venezia Giulia with names of Slovenian origin. Petar na Krasu was Italianized as San Pietro del Carso, Postojna/Adelsberg became Postumia and Illirska Bistrica was changed to Bisterza. In Friuli, the Pasian Schiavonesco area was renamed Basiliano in order to hide the fact that it was once colonized by Slavic people. Other places were Italianized in Trieste, such as Dolina ,which was renamed San Dorligo della Valle.

Sports

Sports played a fundamental role in Fascist propaganda. They instilled discipline and guaranteed that the Italian people would always be ready to fight. Sports were also used as a tool to promote Italian superiority in the world through international competitions. Italy won the 1934 and 1938 World Cup in black jerseys, solidifying Italy as a soccer powerhouse in a way that, according to many, was rigged. Blackmail, violence and psychological pressure may have been used to win.

At the beginning of the 20th century, sports were almost exclusively played by the upper class, who in turn adopted sports terms that were of English origin for sports like tennis, soccer and rugby, and of French origin for sports like fencing, saber and épée. In order to make sports more accessible for everyone, sports terms were Italianized en masse. Even the word sport was transformed into the clunky diporto and then sportivo. Hockey became ochei, palla-rotelle (“roller ball”) or disco su ghiaccio (“disk on ice”) .Basketball, formerly referred to as basket, was literally translated to palla al cesto, or pallacanestro (“hoop ball”).

The main English sports words that were Italianized were autogoal (changed to autorete); bob (guidoslitta); bookmaker (allibratore); hockey (disco su ghiaccio); dribbling (scarto, scavalco); raid (aereo) (transvolata); sprint (scatto); slalom (obbligata); tour (giro); and trainer (allenatore).

Since it was the most popular sport of the time, soccer was hit hard in the fight against foreign words. The sport experienced massive changes in 1930. In fact, using non-Italian words in any sport was banned outright. A lot of clubs went from calling themselves Football Club to Associazione Calcio. In Milan, the International soccer team (now known as Inter) became Ambrosiana. Milan was renamed Associazione Calcio Milano in 1939, and Genoa, the oldest team in Italy (and founded by the English who named it), was Italianized to Genova 1893 Circolo del Calcio.

Abolishing ‘Lei’

The Fascist regime also Italianized the government by abolishing the term lei as third-person singular verb form that’s also used as a second-person formal singular verb form. Instead, they substituted voi, the second-person plural verb form. It was believed that voi was of Roman origin and was therefore part of the regime’s sovereign policy. Italians were restricted to using the term lei in secret. In Turin, the regime organized the “Anti-Lei Show” where they showed caricatures, vignettes and satirical drawings that reduce the name to a plague to be eradicated and banned from the language because it was considered “feminine” and “foreign.” In 1933, the woman’s magazine Lei was forced to change its name to Annabella.

Foods

A fundamental part of the Italian culture, gastronomic terminology experienced a lot of changes, and several culinary terms were Italianized as a result. The most famous of these terms was tramezzino, coined by Gabriele D’Annunzio. It refers to the sandwich the was brought for the first time to 1925 in Torino. It’s a diminutive of tramezzo, a time between breakfast and lunch when you eat a spuntino, or “snack.” It was used because the word “snack” was banned. D’Annuncio also proposed the use of arzente as the word for wineries and any liquor with a high alcohol by volume level in general. The most peculiar Italianized term is definitely bevanda arlecchina, meaning Harlequin drink. The phrase replaced the word “cocktail” and was consumed in a mescita, the Italianized version of the term bar.

There are a few more food loanwords that got Italianized in this period.

  • brioche  brioscia
  • pork loin  lombata
  • champagne  sciampagna
  • croissant  cornetto
  • dessert  fin di pasto
  • krapfen (a type of doughnut)  bombola
  • goulash  spezzatino all’ungherese
  • menu  lista
  • toast — pantosto
  • whisky or brandyacquavite

Other Italianized Terms

Here’s a list of a few more borrowed words that were Italianized during the Fascist regime. You might recognize them from English, though some of them were different when adapted into Italian (dancing, for example, being a noun meaning “a dance hall”).

  • cyclostyle (a type of copier) — ciclostilo
  • dancing (a dance hall) — sala da danze
  • embargo divieto, fermo
  • extra-strong (for paper) — extra-forte
  • film  pellicola
  • hangar aviorimessa
  • hotel  albergo
  • stop alt

This article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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Paola Liberati

A student of European Studies in London, Paola spends her days dispensing knowledge about her beloved motherland, Italy. In addition to being a devourer of novels and fantasy books (sorry for this nerdy side of her), she loves to improvise food criticism, discuss politics and fight for lost causes. Her adventurous and artistic side took her to Berlin for her Erasmus.

A student of European Studies in London, Paola spends her days dispensing knowledge about her beloved motherland, Italy. In addition to being a devourer of novels and fantasy books (sorry for this nerdy side of her), she loves to improvise food criticism, discuss politics and fight for lost causes. Her adventurous and artistic side took her to Berlin for her Erasmus.