Italians are that happy bunch of people speaking super-loudly while rapidly moving their hands in front on them making gestures with no apparent meaning to foreigners. Everyone knows that, everyone has seen that!
Well, as an Italian, I can tell you that although that may be true, what probably most people including also you don’t know, it’s why Italians speak like that with their hands!
In this article, I will give you a brief historical introduction to Italian hand language in a way that will help you to better understand where and why all this idiom originates and why Italians they speak like this today. On your next trip to Italy, for sure you pay more attention and perhaps truly see the value behind this this seemingly crazy way of talking. Let’s get started!
The cradle of Italian body language has been Naples, but of course all regions in smaller or bigger part contributed to craft and develop the common hand-gesture language the Italians use today.
The main curiosity you will take away from this article is this: Italians hand-gestures have been born because of necessity between the fall of the Roman Empire and today.
Indeed, after over 1000 years of Roman domination, in the 4th century a.C. Italy has been constantly conquered and re-conquered by a myriad of barbaric tribes, countries and foreign nations. All its regions where shattered in hundred micro-nations, micro-republics and city-states; often speaking completely different languages from one another.
Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards and the French with Charlemagne where the first populations to enter Italy after the fall of the Roman empire. But then arrived also Spain, Germany, America… while countless cities where founding their own independent (and often weak) city-republics (such as Genova, Venice, Milan, Florence etc.).
The rapid changes in country borders and foreign domination over different parts of Italy, and the consequent cultural effects, were often too much for local populations to handle. Between all the changes that ruling conquerors where bringing, one was surely creating lots of communication problems: language!
Under the Spanish, locals where supposed to learn Spanish. Under the French, locals where supposed to learn French. Under the Ostrogoths, people where supposed to learn “Ostrogothian” and so on and so forth. Imagine the mess in trading constantly with neighbors constantly switching languages.
This exact mess, is the reasons why Italian hand-language was born: for common people to have a common language to understand each other, anytime and anywhere, independently from the ruler of that specific time. All hand signs have practical origins which then became part of Italian culture and which still today are observable when talking a stroll around Italian cities.
The Italian language is surely one of the most curious facts about Italy, and next time you will visit don’t be scared to ask locals what different signs mean, as you might discover new lenses through which peek into Italian culture and reveal interesting cultural differences.