When in Rome, Don’t Speak English. Grazie.

Furious Italians are defending the sanctity of their native tongue after a navy ad campaign and an aggressive PM trigger worries of an English invasion.

03.01.15 11:45 AM ET

ROME — La lingua italiana è la quarta più studiata al mondo.  So, how does it feel to see a language you don’t necessarily understand? Or one that you think you maybe do on a superficial level, but you aren’t quite sure what the phrase really means?

That’s how a growing number of Italians feel when they see an increasing number of English words plastered on billboards and sprinkled into the daily vernacular. More than 65,000 people have signed an online petition so far to dillo in italiano or “say it in Italian.” 

The last straw in what has been a slow but steady Englishization of the Italian language was a campaign by Italy’s navy known locally as the Marina Militare in Italian, telling Italians, in English, to “Be cool and join the navy.” 

Not only does being “cool” not translate easily into Italian—because Italians like to think they have what most people who want to be cool are trying to emulate—but most found it offensive to have one of the most respected of all of Italy’s defense forces shunning the national language to recruit Italians.  Insults have been hurled at the Marina Militare suggesting that the use of English signifies that Italy is a “slave to NATO” or that perhaps the Americans are trying to colonize Italy. “It seems a rather provincial approach. Why use the phrase ‘Be cool’?” Anna Maria Testa, an advertising consultant, told La Repubblica. “There are plenty of equivalents in Italian… it’s like putting ketchup on macaroni.”

The city of Rome has also joined the anglo-lingo movement, introducing a new campaign called RoMe&You, which can be read both as Rome and You, or Rome, Me, and You, which has insulted many locals since they call their beloved city Roma and who assume people visit the city because of its Italianness, not because the ad makers speak English. The publicity firm for the 2015 Expo in Milan have also joined the move with an English-Italian combination phrase very bello website to showcase the apparent “very beautiful” events.  

The peppering of English into the Italian psyche has gained speed with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s rise to power. He talks about the “jobs act” and frequently uses English words like “benchmark” and “market” in his parliamentary addresses. Nevermind that a video of his inarguably bad English pronunciation has gone viral in Italy. Renzi has insisted that Italy must modernize and he asks that his ministers all speak English, which is the first time in Italy’s history when such a requirement has been even suggested. 

But for some Italians, like linguist Gianluigi Beccaria, the use of English is a matter of snobbism versus provincialism among the Italians. Citing Dante and Galileo, he says poisoning the Italian language with English words threatens the DNA of the language. “I’m worried above all that the adoption of English as a unique language will water down other languages,” he says. “We need to be as strong as the French insisting that the native language prevails.”

Beppe Severgnini, one of Italy’s most-loved political columnists (who, by the way, writes in both English and Italian), addressed the issue in a recent column for The New York Times, pointing out the problems with the Milan Polytechnic university switching its higher level courses and doctorate degrees to English only in 2011, only to revert back to Italian only in 2013. He notes that the linguistic conversion to English was protested by faculty who embraced a 1933 law under Benito Mussolini that made Italian the formal language of academics in the country as part of a move then to block words like “cocktail” and “sandwich” from Italian advertising campaigns.

But Severgnini said it is in Italy’s best interest to embrace English, especially in education, or Italy will lag behind. “As you know, here in Italy we speak Italian. Beautiful though our language may be, it is not the medium of choice for engineers when they’re building a beltway in Norway or designing a dam in Vietnam,” he writes. “Time to face the future, signori professori, in any language you like. Just look in the right direction.”