My Dantean memorization journey

This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

Note: Many of these points can be tweaked to apply to foreign language works in general.

While I doubt many people learn another language simply to read one book, there really is no experience quite like reading a work in its original language. And if you’re a Dantista, be you autodidactic like I am or professionally trained with a Ph.D., odds are good you’ll want to read the Commedia in Italian. Who cares if it’s not widely seen as a “useful” language like Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Chinese? You should learn a language because you genuinely want to, other people’s opinions be damned.

However, one need not become fluent in Italian prior to reading or rereading the book, take formal classes, or do self-study. All one needs to do is get an edition with side-by-side Italian and English. Maybe you want to read each canto in English first, then Italian, or vice versa. Or do it tercet by tercet. Maybe even be bold and read the entire book in Italian first, or just listen to someone reading it in Italian.

This is what personally meaningful immersion is all about, something many foreign language teachers don’t understand. It’s easier to learn a language if one truly enjoys it instead of treating it like an obligatory academic requirement. While I studied Italian my senior year of high school, and studied the very similar Spanish for seven years, starting to read and memorize the Commedia in its original language has already begun working wonders on my language skills. I recognize verb forms and cognates, and can match Italian words with their English translations.

The more you immerse yourself in a language, the more you begin to naturally understand. After a certain point, you’ll rely less and less on the English side or looking words up. And then one day, you find yourself speaking, reading, and/or writing in that language as though you were always fluent.

Even the best translations will never be 100% accurate to the Italian original. E.g., Dante uses a lot of R sounds to evoke the feeling of dried, twisted tree branches in the Wood of the Suicides, and he uses many L sounds to evoke the running water near Geryon. It’s impossible to translate that into English without taking multiple linguistic liberties.

Another example is Canto XII of Purgatorio, where four tercets in a row start with the word Vedea (I saw), the next four start with the poetic one-letter word O (no translation needed!), and the next four start with Mostrava (showed, depicted, displayed). In many manuscripts until about the late 18th century, the letters U and V were printed or written interchangeably. Thus, Dante is spelling out the word uom (man, in the old-fashioned generic sense to refer to all humans).

Some translators have ambitiously risen to the challenge and spelt out MAN in English, with phrasing like “My eyes beheld,” “Ah,” and “Now was shown,” but again, that requires linguistic liberties. All translations (of any book or poem) do this to some degree, but it just looks and feels more impressive and emotional in the original.

When you have a side-by-side edition, it’s easier to discern when and where the translator took liberties, even if you’re not fluent in Italian. It’ll be obvious when entire big sections of lines are invented, when things are put in the wrong order, and when words are translated inaccurately. E.g., some translators translate the line “And like one with laboured breath” as “like a swimmer with laboured breath,” or simply as “And like a swimmer” in Canto I of Inferno.

I understand the reason for this, given the following lines where Dante compares himself to being released from the perilous waters of the deep to the shore, but again, it’s not helpful if you’re serious about learning Italian and having an accurate of a translation as possible.

Since starting my memorization journey in March, I feel much closer to Dante. He’s always been the only one of my fave writers who’s always felt like a dear, personal friend instead of just someone I deeply admire and/or would love to spend a few days talking with, but reading and learning his words in his native tongue made our suprarational connection even stronger.

When you read a book, story, poem, or play untranslated, you’re reading it exactly as the author wrote it, not someone else’s presentation of it in another language. So many words and phrases can’t be fully expressed in translation, and it just feels more emotional, evocative, expressive, beautiful, haunting, intense. Something is always lost in translation.

While you can understand many things and learn a lot of Italian from reading the original, it’s still in Medieval Florentine Tuscan, not modern standard Italian. Granted, modern Italian is strongly based upon Florentine Tuscan due to how many literary lights used it, but they’re not one and the same.

Open a new document, set the language to Italian, and type out a canto. You’ll see which words are flagged as misspellings and autocorrected, and which words pass recognition. Most of the differences aren’t that great, and if you already know Italian, you can figure out what a lot of the unfamiliar words mean based on context and similar spellings.

Basically, it’s equivalent to reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, with far fewer spelling differences.

Learning another language gives us a passport to another world. Who better to learn Italian with than the Supreme Poet?

Italian language

Copyright Enzino at WikiCommons

Because Italy consisted of independent city-states for centuries before unification, there are countless regional dialects still spoken all over the country. They include Tuscan, Sabino, Tarantino, Neapolitan, Barese, Romanesco, Venetian, and many more. There are also many Italian-speakers in border areas (the best-known probably being Switzerland) and countries with a long history of Italian rule (e.g., Malta, Slovenia, Croatia).

Other Italian-speakers are found in diaspora communities all over the world. Besides North America, many are also to be found in Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, the U.K., Australia, and France.

Percentage of Italians in Argentina, 1914 Census

Modern Standard Italian is based on Tuscan, in particular the Florentine dialect, because that was the language of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini. The lattermost was a politician and historian who probably isn’t very well-known to most people today, but he was huge during the Renaissance.

When the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, la pronuncia fiorentina emendata (the amended Florentine pronunciation) was chosen as the official language. Because of its association with such great literary lights, it was seen as a language of high culture and prestige.

About 3,500,000 people speak Tuscan Italian today. There are at least eleven sub-dialects of Tuscan, four Southern and seven Northern. The Corsican language also began as a direct offshoot of Medieval Tuscan.

1898 linguistic map

Though there are many differences between Standard Italian and Tuscan, the most obvious tends to be that of gorgia Toscana (Tuscan throat); i.e., the weakening of consonants. There are also a number of Tuscan words which are completely different in Standard Italian, false cognates, or only used in that way in literary Italian.

Like all other languages, Italian too developed through many centuries. It evolved from Vulgar Latin, and gradually entirely replaced Latin as the area’s official language and lingua franca. Because Italian is so closely tied to Latin, it’s easy to learn one language if you already know the other.

Italian also has many similarities with Spanish, which made it very easy for me to take to it like lightning when I studied it my senior year of high school. At that point, I was in my sixth year of Spanish, and had informally studied Italian a few years earlier on a public TV show (the same channel where my mother and I learnt some Japanese).

I really wish I’d decided to continue with Italian when I went to community college or transferred to university. Though I usually got good marks in Spanish, I only studied it because my parents chose it for me over French. Night and day next to my genuine passion for Italian language, history, culture, and literature.

My mother herself told me my Italian pronunciation was a lot better than my Spanish pronunciation!

I would absolutely love to get back in touch with the language so I can read Dante and Boccaccio (and other great literature) untranslated, watch Italian films without subtitles, and do serious genealogical research into my Italian branch of my family tree. They came from Sacco, a small town in the Province of Salerno, in the Campania region. At the moment, I only know back to my four-greats-grandparents, born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dante is known as the father of the Italian language because he was the first major writer to use his native vernacular instead of Latin, just as Geoffrey Chaucer broke tradition when he chose to write in Middle English. In Italian, Dante is called il Sommo Poeta, the Supreme Poet. He, Boccaccio, and Petrarch are the tre corone (three crowns) of Italian literature.

Though Latin continued as Europe’s lingua franca into the early 19th century, it was more a language of scholars, theologians, scientists, historians, and musicians who needed their works to reach a wider audience, not poetry and prose. Dante’s success in Italian was a major force in kicking down the doors for writers to use their own languages instead of Latin.

Many musical terms from Italian have become an established part of English; e.g., duo, concerto, fortissimo, pianissimo, coda, cadenza, operetta, libretto, intermezzo, soprano, oratorio, and vibrato. Many art, architecture, and food words also come from Italian. Other fields with Italian loanwords include literature, theatre, clothing, geology, geography, finance and commerce, military and weaponry, politics, science, and nature.

Fifty of my favorite words

(This post was originally published on my old Angelfire page, possibly between 2004 and 2007.)

I love words one doesn’t get a chance to use very often, many of them beginning with X and Q. God love the Greeks for having given us so many interesting words.

1. Juxtaposition

2. Transmogrify

3. Ameliorate and amelioration

4. Dichotomy

5. Paradigm. I learnt both “pagadigm” and “dichotomy” from my awesome tenth grade European History AP teacher, and I’ve never neglected a chance to use them since. I also still remember so many of the fun stories he told us, and the line “Baroque [art], think butts in seats.”

6. Portmanteau. Portmanteau words themselves are frickin’ awesome, never mind the name for them!

7. Xyloid (relating to wood)

8. Xanthrochroid. This is my favorite synonym for blonde.

9. Xylograph (engraving in wood)

10. Uncouth

11. Manifestation

12. Hydrophosphates! (This comes from the 1932 Laurel and Hardy short Helpmates.)

13. Horsefeathers (1920s slang for “nonsense”)

14. Xanthene (a yellow crystalline compound used as a fungicide) and xanthine (a crystalline compound found in blood and urine)

15. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcaniosis. I learnt this 45-letter word in my third grade advanced reading class.

16. Xanthocomic (yellow-haired)

17. Xenagogue (kind of like a tour guide to foreigners)

18. Zoroastrianism

19. Xenodocheionology (love of hotels)

20. Xenodochium (a building for the reception of strangers)

21. Xenoglossy (Knowledge of a language one otherwise doesn’t know fluently, often experienced in past life regressions and past life dreams. I myself have experienced this many times during my past life dreams.)

22. Xenolalia (same as xenoglossy)

23. Echolalia (repeating back the words someone just said)

24. Corprolalia (involuntary cursing)

25. Xylomancy (divination through wood)

26. Xenomenia (menstruation from abnormal orifices)

27. Zouave (a light infantry regiment of the French Army from 1830–1962)

28. Hemidemisemi-quaver (a 64th note in music)

29. Unbirthday

30. Foul

31. Hideous

32. Mind-revolting

33. Mind-sickening

34. Quadragintesimal (forty-fold, or having forty parts)

35. Quadragesimal (lasting 40 days, or something similar to or pertaining to Lent)

36. Quadragesimarian (one who observes Lent)

37. Quantophrenia (one obsessively relying upon statistics and mathematical results)

38. Quaquadrate (a sixteenth power)

39. Quaquaversal (bending or facing all ways)

40. Quadquicentennial (125th anniversary)

41. Quaternitarian (one who believes the Divine consists of four parts)

42. Transubstantiation

43. Consubstantiation

44. Quintessence and quintessential

45. Ingest

46. Masticate (In spite of how it sounds very similar to “masturbate,” it really means “to chew.”

47. Proboscis

48. Obliterate

49. Ucalegon (neighbour whose house is on fire, after a character from The Iliad)

50. Heterochromia (two different coloured eyes)

My transliteration style

When I was sixteen and majorly getting back into my Russophilia, I developed a rather purist, some might say nit-picky, approach to transliteration. I do letter-for-letter transliteration and never “translate” personal names. I also go one step further and use accent marks when I know where the stress falls. Accents aren’t normally written outside of dictionaries and language textbooks, but I feel it’s a courtesy to provide a pronunciation guide. For example, knowing if O is stressed or unstressed impacts the pronunciation. When the accent falls on O, it’s pronounced like an English O, but when there’s no stress, it’s pronounced like a long A. For example, Boris is properly pronounced Bah-REECE, not BOR-iss.

[Update: As of July 2015, I no longer use accent marks. It came to feel too pretentious and nitpicky even by my standards.]

When an accent falls on the vowels Ye, Ya, or Yu, I don’t use accents. Maybe it’s hypocritical, but that might give the impression of those being separate letters in Russian, instead of one complete vowel.

My style of letter-for-letter transliteration seems to be a more modern style, whereas some of the alternate styles you might’ve seen are based in a more old-fashioned approach, of perhaps enforcing Anglo norms and expectations on Russian spellings. But for me, those older styles don’t always give the impression of the true pronunciation. For example, I originally thought Tatyana was pronounced Tat-ee-ann-a, because I’d only seen the spelling Tatiana. The more accurate Tatyana spelling suggests the true pronunciation, Taht-YAHN-ah.

The letter E is and isn’t the same as the English E. It can take the sound we expect of an E, but more often than not, it’s a YE sound. For example, Nadezhda is really pronounced Nahd-YEZH-dah, not Nad-ezh-da. When it makes sense, I render the E as Ye, so as to avoid pronunciational confusion. Why use the spelling Ekaterina when the name is really pronounced Ye-kaht-e-REEN-a?

Why have a double E or an E after another vowel? That gave me false pronunciational impressions for awhile, like with the Imperial town of Tsarskoye Selo. I thought, based on the Tsarskoe spelling, that it was pronounced Tsar-sko. I thought the Anglicized version of the Russified form of Ukraine’s capital was pronounced KEEV, based on the Kiev spelling. When my non-Ukrainian and non-Ukrainophile characters say the city’s name, it’s rendered as Kiyev. The proper Ukrainian spelling actually transliterates as Kyyiv, but that just looks confusing, so I go with their preferred transliteration of Kyiv. It’s particularly weird to see a double E, like in Gordeeva. That makes it look like the famous skater’s surname is pronounced Gor-DEEV-a, not Gor-de-YEV-a.

Look at these names, in their Russian spellings, and see the final letter they all have in common:

Андрей
Алексей
Матвей
Николай
Сергей

They all end in й, a letter which is transliterated as Y. Many times, these names are transliterated with an I on the end, though the I sound in Russian is represented by и nowadays, and used to be represented by I. If they truly ended in I, they’d be pronounced differently; e.g., Ahn-dre-ee instead of Ahn-DREY.

It seems rather old-fashioned to render Ya, the final letter of the alphabet, as IA. When I see a spelling like Daria, Katia, or Tatiana, I’m going to want to pronounce the I and A separately, whereas the YA tells me that’s just one vowel.

And look at these names, and see what final two letters they have in common:

Юрий
Лаврентий
Евгений
Дмитрий
Георгий
Геннадий
Виталий
Василий
Анатолий

All end in ий, IY. Most people use one or the other letter since they probably assume a spelling like Yuriy or Vasiliy looks too weird to an Anglophone, though both of those vowels are used together for a reason. They’d be pronounced a bit differently if they only ended in one or the other. And frankly, a spelling like Vitaliy or Lavrentiy looks a lot simpler and more normal than Kyyiv.

On the same note, many people choose to represent the -iya ending on certain names as just -ia, though I of course choose to use the full, letter-by-letter transliteration. Maybe some people think it looks weird, but I don’t see anything odd about spellings like Mariya, Anastasiya, Kseniya, Klavdiya, or Lidiya. It’s just how they’re written. Using the YA after the I tells me how to accurately pronounce the name. A subtle difference is still a difference.

Russian does not have a letter X. It uses the letters K and S to represent that sound. For example, Aleksandra or Kseniya, not Alexandra or Xenia. The Cyrillic letter that looks like X transliterates as KH, as in loch or Chanukah.

Finally, the letter Ë is transliterated as YO, not E or EO. What spelling of the Russian form of Theodore most accurately shows its pronunciation of FYO-dahr, Fyodor, Fedor, or Feodor? Although I do leave it as ë when it appears in a surname, like Gorbachëva or Likachëva. The alternatives look awkward, like Kyyiv. Sometimes it’s necessary to go with a simpler transliteration, even if it’s not 100% accurate.