or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mental Operation

The copy-editing centre of my brain: it never shuts off.

Yesterday, as I said, we were at the opera, which was in Italian. It had subtitles, which was a blessing, as I don't speak any Italian. (I bet at least some of the purists hate them, but subtitles or Surtitles™ make opera accessible and enjoyable to a much wider range of people.) The second opera, "Suor Angelica", contains the lyric

Suor Angelica ha sempre una ricetta buona fatta coi fiori

which means "Sister Angelica always has a good recipe made from flowers": it's ironic foreshadowing, see, because first she picks some plants to make a healing potion for a nun who's been stung by a wasp, and then later she coaxes poison from the bosoms of the flowers so she can kill herself. Yes, a suicidal nun: par for the course in world of opera.

Okay. So there's that. Then in the third opera, "Gianni Schicci", a map of Florence is prominently displayed, with a river (the River Arno, I guess) running through it and also prominently labeled FIUME.

This is where my brain, despite myself, kicked into gear. "Fiume" must, I figured, mean "river", and why should that be so? I pondered it for a second and realized that "fiume" looks a lot like the English word "flume", at which point I recalled that the English name for Firenze on the map is Florence, and then a second later realized that "fiori" means "flowers", and then I forced myself to attend to the opera, promising my brain that I'd get back to it.

And here I am. Isn't it fascinating that all three of those words should appear in such close proximity to one another? And if those three exist, what other words might evidence themselves as "fl-" words in English and "fi-" words in Italian? The only one I could bring to mind was "fiamma", which is "flame". (As I said, I don't speak any Italian: my only real exposure is through opera, which gives the occasional word or expression--and I could sing you most of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor", not that you'd ever want to hear such a thing--but not any actual facility in the language.)

But here are some others. "Flamingo" is "fiammingo", unsurprising because it's from the same source as "fiamma". "Flank" is "fianco" (just as "blank" is "bianco"). And "flask" is, wonderfully, "fiasco". (Nobody is quite sure why "fiasco" means "massive failure" in English: here are some etymologies, most of them folk.)

But "florid", even though it's related to "flower", turns out to be "florido". So changing "-l-" to "-i-" isn't some sort of rule: unless there's an underlying logic to the process, it seems to be a thing that just kind of randomly happened. It has nothing to do with Latin, which uses "-l-" in all the source words: "flamma" for "flame", for example, and "fluere", "to flow", for "flume". ("Flank" is an exception: Italian got "fianco" not from Latin but from one of the Gemanic languages. It still changed that consonant to a vowel, though: I can only assume that the words in which this happened were changed because they sounded nicer to the Italian ear.)


Blogger Alxmrfi said...

Ok I'm a few years too late, but wanted to comment anyway... I had just done a search to look for some more info on this "i" to "l" between Italians and English and I was about to give up until I saw this post, and your examples are all there, more than I could have hoped, confirming my suspicion of a sound-change rule..

The only other thing I want to find out know is exactly where "fianco" came from, if not from Latin but rather a Germanic language.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 6:54:00 PM  

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