Sometimes when things go viral online, they throw up surprising issues about engaging with language across cultures…. The current excitement around the world about one particular clip in Italian is so great it’s worth blogging about here. Plus it’s not often you hear Italian all over the commercial media in the Anglobubble – especially when it’s a good news story.
Where do we start? It all happened so quickly…. At lunch on the weekend, my sister mentioned a viral clip about an Italian nun singing on something like X-factor. She was quickly corrected: it was the Voice. Shortly after emails and texts started reaching me – wanting to know more about the clip and what else was going on beyond the bleeding obvious….. It was on all the TV news that evening – although they only showed a brief snippet of what really happened. It’s what they don’t tell you that’s often more interesting….
In only a couple of days the full clip (almost 9 minutes – very long as virals go) had had almost ten million views. Another 24 hours later and it’s picked up another 8-9 million…. So why all the fuss? And why is it so interesting?
As you’ll see, it’s about a surprise contestant (rocking it to Alicia Keys) on the Italian version of the Voice. The format’s the same everywhere: the judges can only hear the voice and have to turn around, if interested, to see who it is and to indicate their interest in having that person on their personal team. Here’s what happened:
It’s interesting because of what people don’t know or can’t understand – when they don’t speak Italian. What people wanted to know from me was: who was the nun (and the judges) and what exactly were they saying to each other…..? Well, that and the back story are worth considering and highlight aspects of the world beyond the Anglobubble.
Suor Cristina Scuccia is real, 25 years old from Sicily with, in her words, a gift that she is passing on. You won’t know the following from this clip, but she is a member of the Ursuline order based in Milan. And her path to taking her vows started during a musical when she played the role of a soon to be nun asking questions about God and her own path (I am not kidding….).
The judges – all very different – are well known in Italy:
Raffaella Carrà – singer, entertainer, host, famous since the 1960s in Italy (and beyond including Latin America). She’s 70 (it’s that mediterranean diet….). You can’t be Italian without knowing who la Carrà is.
Piero Pelù – with the facial hair, Fiorentinissimo (most Florentine) from his accent – lead singer with LITFIBA – an Italian rock band that just won’t die….
J-Ax (that’s right: Jay-Axe)- famous rap singer – he’s the one with the hat breaking into tears. He’s well known for such songs as ‘A cena dai tuoi’ with Emis Villa.
Noemi – ex-talent show contestant who’s made it big, most famous for ‘L’amore si odia’ (with Fiorella Mannoia).
The discussion between judges and Suor Cristina is even more fascinating than the singing. People without Italian are curious – they can tell it’s interesting stuff (Remember it’s a very long clip – in Italian without subtitles and it is also quite complex – shifting in content, topic and perspective). Everyone – including the judges – is obviously keen to know what a nun is doing on the show.
There’s also the question of appropriate behaviour and tenor – the jocular proximity required between contestants and judges, tempered by the specific identity of the contestant, and the need to convince her to join someone’s team.
The first issue – for Raffaella to establish – is how exactly one should address Suor Cristina: she asks for explicit permission to use the informal TU form. This is not a small question – research we conducted at the University of Melbourne showed that nuns were typically addressed with the formal LEI form – indicating some reverent distancing. Quite coincidentally we’ll be talking about politeness and address in my advanced Italian class this week – so this is a good REAL LIFE example of how relationships are negotiated in Italian – so we’ll be discussing the clip. Once Suor Cristina says TU is perfectly fine, the others let rip – with colloquialisms (potentially even a little vulgar – at least to English ears), cajoling and jokes. She’s a nun but she’s young – and that’s the clincher for the other 3 (as our research also shows). Raffaella throughout is much more restrained in her interactions – despite her facial expressions…..
There’s a lot more I could say – the clip is great for deconstructing…. e.g. the many references to religion (including talk of a possible phone call from the Pope) in a very knowing Italian context (e.g. the reaction of the audience throughout). And why exactly she’s on the show….
If you’re teaching Italian, the clip is definitely something to show students – they might know about it already, but either way, they will be fascinated to see the Voice in Italian….. The shared experience of knowing the format is important: students seem to enjoy viewing their own world transposed into another language (see my earlier posts about Avicii’s Wake me Up and the Cup Song in Irish).
And if you don’t speak Italian, why don’t you just listen and enjoy and see what you can understand and make of what you see? If nothing else, Italian is a beautiful language after all – in sound and gesture. 🙂
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