I’m reading Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard (in the translation by Archibald Colquhoun, whose ancient Scottish surname is pronounced ca-HOON), and I was taken aback by the phrase I’ve bolded in the following sentence (p. 99 of my Harvill paperback):

These were just the years when novels were helping to form those literary myths which still dominate European minds today; but in Sicily, partly because of its traditional impermeability to anything new, partly because of the general ignorance of any language whatsoever, partly also, it must be said, because of a vexatious Bourbon censorship working through the Customs, no one had heard of Dickens, Eliot, Sand, Flaubert, or even Dumas.

Surely Tomasi di Lampedusa, who had a great affection for Sicilian speech, wasn’t saying the locals didn’t know any language, even their own? Fortunately I had borrowed the Italian novel from the Donnell Branch, with its magnificent foreign-language collection, so I was able to compare the original, where the phrase in question reads “la diffusa misconoscenza di qualsiasi lingua.” My Oxford Italian Dictionary says misconoscere means to ‘not appreciate,’ so I would think the phrase should be translated more along the lines of “the widespread lack of appreciation for languages in general.” But I will be happy to hear from readers who actually know Italian (BebaManno?). [A reader suggests that ‘ignorance’ may in fact be correct and that “qualsiasi lingua” here implies languages other than Italian, so that the translation needs only to change “any language” to “any other languages.”]

I’m reading the novel in preparation for the restored version of Visconti’s magnificent movie that starts tomorrow at the Film Forum; movie lovers who live in the New York area owe it to themselves to see it. It runs for two weeks, so you have no excuse.

Incidentally, anyone with a love for historic maps will be as glad as I was to discover the Historic Maps: Garibaldi’s Conquest of Sicily page, particularly the very nice map of Palermo at the time of Garibaldi’s entrance (May 27, 1860). (If you live in NYC, the Map Division of the Research Library has a magnificent 1835 map that identifies virtually every building in the central city, which they will copy for you for a mere $5.00.)

Addendum. I’ve just discovered the Parco Letterario Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a fascinating but frustrating site; its Palermo page links to a detailed discussion of the geography of Lampedusa’s Palermo, with details of all significant palaces, accompanied by a map with red numbers next to significant buildings… but nothing to link the numbers with the text, and so far as I can tell no way to discover where the buildings mentioned in the text are on the map! [N.b.: You have to highlight the archived page to read the text.] But I will persevere, no matter how many maps I have to consult before I solve the puzzle. (Also, there’s a treasure trove of photographs of historic buildings of Palermo, and other Sicilian cities, here.)


  1. Well, the dictionary’s definition is right, but I’m not sure that Tomasi di Lampedusa used it in that sense. In the context of that sentence I’d probably translate it as “ignorance” as well.
    On the other hand, the Italian “lingua” is often referring to foreign languages, as in the expression “è uno che sa le lingue”, referring to somebody that knows some foreign language: The sentence could actually read “the common ignorance of any foreign language”.
    An alternative interpretation stems from the fact that the technical terms “language” and “dialect” have a different meaning in every-day’s speech. Even though Sicilian is considered a language by linguists ( http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=SCN ) it would be defined as a dialect by the casual Italian speaker, and Tomasi di Lampedusa’s sentence could encompass Italian, a “proper” language, but not Sicilian, a mere dialect.

  2. Thanks, that makes a lot of sense.

  3. scarabaeus stercus says

    The central ruling Governing bodies and their mouth pieces, do have a way of putting down all of those Provincial towns. ‘Tis like those that rule from London look down on Inverness as backwards but they [the Scots of Inverness] appear to have clearest enunciation of all of the Isles. Madrid is still trying instill their version of the spoken and written word, along with the rest of the Centers [centres ] of Civilised collections of wonderful thought.
    Oh! why does Society insist only on regurgitation as a standard of Education?

  4. Amen.

  5. Hi Steve,
    I only read your post this morning. I tend to agree with Stefano. It’s the only logical explanation. I’m glad you’re enjoying Il Gattopardo and I’m sure you’ll _love_ the movie.

  6. Oh, I’ve already seen the movie — that’s why I’m so excited about the restored version, and why I’m reading the book. But it was years ago, so I’m looking forward to renewing my acquaintance. (Actually, my philosophy is that you haven’t really experienced a work of art until you’ve experienced it twice, and when it comes to movies you haven’t really experienced them unless you’ve seen them in a theater.)

  7. One of the best books I’ve ever read. A great movie too, although there are some scenes in the novel that I felt were mishandled – such as the scene where the two lovers are exploring the older rooms in the mansion. On the other hand, it has the most amazing battle scene I’ve ever seen in a movie. Not glorified, heroic, fighting, but a sense of desperation and chaos that makes you feel that you are watching the genuine thing. I just watched Visconti’s Senso on a crappy TV set and all I can say is that I desperately hope they bring that one to the big screen as well! (Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles are listed in the writing credits.)

  8. I also recommend reading Jasper Ridley’s book, Garibaldi as a supplement to the film/book.

  9. Geoff Nunberg says

    My sense, too, is that “misconoscere” can go either way. But it seems to me that di Lampedusa is merely using the “lingua”/”dialetto” distinction as it’s generally drawn in Italy. In fact it’s my recollection that the Italian constitution of 1948 defines a language as any variety that is designated the official language of some nation, a maneuver that has historically allowed the state to give certain rights to the French speakers in the Val d’Aosta and the German-speakers in Friuli while not extending the same privleges to the Sicilians or speakers of other local dialects.

  10. I agree with Stefano, too.
    I suggest you also this site: http://www.adsisicilia.it/testi/dimore.htm

    = méconnu. = unknown, unappreciated.
    (Like as if I’d ever snark on this loveliest and most civilsed of blogs.)

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