A HANDY GUIDE TO SPEAKING ITALIAN

W8.7

 Italian gestures are one of the internet’s favourite topics, with tutorials to learn the seemingly unlimited hand gestures that embellish Italian conversations.

Although we are aware that we do it, we use gestures subconsciously; we add something physical to our words and, by consequence, to our ideas. Gestures aren’t used to save time, with ‘a gesture worth a thousand words…’, but, rather, they embellish our communication. And it’s not just our hands that we use; we often move our entire bodies in such a way that sometimes words themselves become redundant.

We have always ‘spoken’ with our hands. We have been gesticulating way before the subject became one to make fun of, and equally, one to base serious studies about non-verbal communication on. While looking into non-verbal communication myself I found an intriguing ‘List of Gestures’ on the English page of Wikipedia. Two things were worth taking away from it. First, that apparently only a few gestures are 100% Italian, and secondly, that the page only exists in two languages other than English: German and Swedish (and for these the lists are very short). No page in Italian.

The conclusion, therefore, is that we Italians stand out in this field; we are internationally acclaimed masters of the art of gestures, and therefore do not need to contribute to Wikipedia. On the contrary, we would be irritated by any tutorial.

 What everybody, Italians aside, fails to realise is that often these tutorials are wrong. Often, when an Italian watches someone try and show a certain hand gesture, the Italian will immediately repeat the gesture and say ‘no, it’s wrong, nobody does that. I’ve never seen anyone doing that. I’m not doing that’. And soon after will show, to an imaginary public, or whoever is watching, his or her version of the gesture. It’s a little theatrical show that gives some sense to our history of communicating by hand.

Our gestures today are the descendants of centuries of different languages that converged in the Italian peninsula. Here, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, people could do nothing other than communicate through gestures. These gestures trickled through the generations in a country that until halfway through the 20th century did not have modern Italian as a widely spread language. Academics theorise that Italian was only widely taught to the people through television, starting relatively recently in the second half of the 1950’s. Prior to this, they would find a way to communicate despite incompatible regional dialects. Today, however, any dialects have become an eccentric and often trendy way of speaking.

More than our face and appearance, gestures are our self-portrait. By waving our hands in the air, we become three-dimensional, and allow ourselves to show our true character while connecting with other people.

You might think that gestures are the same everywhere in the world, but nobody can gesticulate quite like an Italian, because only the Italians can move their hands, almost like a conductor would, conjuring up harmonies to add to the music of the Italian language.