Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Camera Piano or How "It's Italian" came to be

I'm listening to the radio, or watching TV, or walking through the grocery store with my wife, and I see or hear something and turn to my wife and say one of the following things:
- "Did you know that in Italian piano means slowly"
- "Did you know that Chestnuts mostly come from Italy?"
- "Can you believe an Italian restaurant would have a commercial with such bad Italian pronunciation?"

So one day she just laughs at me and says "You sound like the father from MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, only not GREEK". The next day she puts her thumb and fingers together and gesticulates wildly and says"It's Italian!" but lately she just says "Gee you're full of trivia, too bad you can't make money at it..."

That's when it hits me, maybe someone is interested in my font of seemingly-useless Italian trivia, maybe I can monetize a blog about it, and become a millionaire... Yeah right, but then again a blog would spare my family and friends from listening to me spout useless trivia. Though of course, I do expect them to read my blog, along with an unsuspecting public.

So what I will set out to blog about will be Italian food, stuff I am learning as I attempt to teach myself Italian, and the genealogy and history of my Italian family. Perhaps in the course of this blog I will actually travel to Italy and record my impressions here.

Still with me? Moto benne! Lets start the journey with a couple of words that have slipped into the English language, not as Latin, but directly from the Italian.

Did you know the words "piano" and "camera" are Italian? Oddly enough both of these words mean something completely different in Italian than one whose first language is English might think. Try it yourself, go to Google translate, set the translation from Italian to English, and type in "camera", and hit the translate button. Your result will be "room". Type in "Piano" and your result will be "Floor". Seems odd, no? Now switch to translating from English to Italian and type "Go slow." Hit the translate button and the result will be "Andare piano."

Why is this? I'll give you a clue: leave the translation on English to Italian, type in camera and your result will be "fotocamera" and type in "piano" and your result will be "pianoforte". Still confused? OK, I'll tell you a couple of stories and maybe clear up the strange etymology of these odd cognates.

When I was 16 I worked for my father, who was the caretaker of a summer camp in Cold Spring, New York. One day, after checking out a pump in a small utility shack, I turned out the light before opening the door. The shack had no windows in it whatsoever, and the door sealed very well, with no light leaks other than a nail hole where a no-trespassing sign had once been nailed to the door. I happened to look down on my chest and noticed an amazing thing, the image of children playing near the lake was somehow projected upside-down on my t-shirt. I backed up, and the image became larger and clearer. I moved out of the way, and discovered it projected onto the back wall in fine detail. The whole room was acting like a pin-hole camera, the small nail hole in the door creating a lens, and the darkened room acting like the chamber. Excitedly I completed my rounds that day, and told my father what I had seen as soon as we were together again. He told me that this was a phenomenon that was first discovered by the Italians, and that they had mini theaters called "camera obscura" - literally "darkened rooms" where they would sit and view scenes projected in this way (By the way, the English word "Chamber" has the same Latin root as "Camera"). Now you know where the camera came from.

As for the piano, The English word is a shortened form of the Italian pianoforte, which itself is shortened from the original Italian name for the instrument: "clavicembalo col piano e forte" (literally clavichord with soft and loud). See, in Italian the word "Piano" means low, gentle, soft, or slow as in level, or it can stand for levels of gradation, as in which level (floor) are we on. So "clavicembalo col piano e forte" refers to how very responsiveness the instrument is to pressure on the keyboard, allowing a pianist to produce notes at different dynamic levels by controlling the speed with which the hammers hit the strings.

It's enough to make your head spin, so for now I'll just take the elevator to the second piano and hang out in my camera. What can I say, it's Italian!

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