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Cyclical Evolution: From Plague to Italian

vlopez's picture

Cyclical Evolution: From plague to Italian

           Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, ends with a very particular note. “…the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years… and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city”. [1] With this, Camus suggests through the metaphor of the bacillus plague that some things are cyclical; thus, a cyclical evolution begins. As an Italian-Biology major, I couldn’t help but think of Italian as an example. Like this example, Italian language has come to embody a cyclical evolution. 


           The Italian language began with Dante Alighieri’s writings. He slowly introduced Italian to the popular culture and made it an important means of communication that was valued and respected. Through his works of translation of Latin to the “vulgar language”, as Italian was commonly known, he infected writers and scholars alike with the desire to learn such a language. After Dante’s death, incredibly known writers such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca began writing their works in Italian. It was also commonly used in court, where the noble families entertained philosophers, writers, painters, and scholars to spend their time on intellectual subjects. 


          We then come to a point in time where the basis for Italian language is not so well established. This, then, allows the emergence of various dialects throughout the country. Up until today, there have been many dialects surging throughout Italy. Some are broader and are the dialect for a larger region, and there are dialects that are limited to some of the smallest towns in Italy. 


To give you an idea of the difference between the dialects, here is a video:


          Many of these dialects don’t just happen because people feel like speaking differently. A lot of it comes from political, cultural, and historical reasons. For example, there is a great difference between the Italian dialects of the North and those of the South. This is no mere coincidence. The Lega Nord, a political campaign created by the Northern regions against those of the South, was created in 1991. This was and still is a very controversial issue, as it has divided Italians in a very big way. This is mainly because those of the North believe that the Southern regions steal their money and don’t at the same time contribute to the country’s economy, amongst other things. This division is very similar to the one that existed before and during Dante’s time. There were many reigns mainly governed by noble families, such as the Medici family, all of which were continuously fighting for power; therefore, it was a time of instability. 


           These dialects are still very popular within each region in which they are spoken. But recently, there have been some changes to the Italian dialects. A re-emergence of the Italian language Dante originally brought to life is occurring. 


          In recent years, Italians have decided that it would be ideal to have a ‘standardized Italian’ language. This was widely accepted throughout, as it was an opportunity to unify Italy. It has been possible to create this standardized language, which simply means that it is the same no matter where you go in Italy, through modern media. The television is a great source for learning languages and having the actors or spokespersons speak in “universal Italian” is better for those trying to learn the language and for those who do not speak every dialect – which are many. 


          In order to establish what the standard parameters for Standard Italian would be, the people chose the Tuscan dialect. This was Dante’s dialect; therefore, it is the language he based off the Italian language he had originally created. 


           The fact that the Italian language has undergone a cyclical change or evolution, and that Camus’ statement that the bacillus plague will come back, open up the floor to the idea that evolution is not necessarily linear. What if evolution itself is evolving from linear evolution to cyclical evolution? Would a cyclical evolution be better as a prelude to a linear evolution, this being because it would allow us to become better in certain situations so then we can be able to more successfully go onto uncharted waters? These are all possibilities that seem worth exploring to me.







1. Camus, Albert.  The Plague.  1991.  Randomhouse, Inc.: New York.

2. Migliorini, Bruno.  Storia della Lingua Italiana.  1960.  Poligrafici il Resto del Carlino:Bologna, Italia.

3. Images from google.


Anne Dalke's picture

Thinking Historically



you begin this essay by locating your study of the "cyclical evolution" of the Italian language in reference to a description of the return of the plague bacillus in one of our course texts. What you don't do, though (and what I would like to see you do!) is locate the study in reference to yourself-- as a double major in biology and Italian who moves (or is learning to move!) with some facility between the two cultures of science and humanities. I like very much the "bridge" you are building here, and was fascinated to hear in the youtube video you embedded in your project, the varieties of Italian dialects, of which I had heretofore no notion. Thanks so much for the education!

My responses to your project cluster into two groups. The first is really a technical one, about the way you tell this historical story, which I'd very much like to see fine-tuned. For example, you claim that the "Italian language began with Dante Alighieri’s writings." Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the use, and acceptance, of Italian as a written language began with Dante's translations from Latin? He didn't "create" or "found" Italian; rather, he brought the common tongue into literary usage, and so made his stories, and those of his successors, accessible to a much larger audience.

You go on to say that "we then come to a point in time where the basis for Italian language is not so well established." I'm lost. Who is we? At what point in time are we? What was the basis for this establishment, and how-and-why was it lost? You then say that in "recent years, Italians have decided that it would be ideal to have a ‘standardized Italian’ language"; yet you've just described the 1001 Lega Nord, which set "the Northern regions against those of the South." Didn't that political action run counter to the ideal of  “universal Italian”? So my first nudge would be towards a much more careful accounting than you give here of the history, a filling in of a number of gaps.

My second cluster of questions are less about the particularities of the story you tell than about their implications for the larger narrative we are constructing in this course. I'd like to understand better what you mean by "cyclical evolution." To me, that phrase sounds oxymoronic-- if something "cycles back" to its beginning, can it really be said to "evolve"? Isn't evolution, definitionally (and I know we've had some real struggles with definitions in this class!) progressive, linear, forward-moving? You ask, just @ the end, whether a cyclical evolution might operate as "prelude to a linear evolution," allowing "us to become better in certain situations so then we can be able to more successfully go onto uncharted waters." For me, as for you, that seems a possibility well "worth exploring." How does it play out in the cyclical evolution of Italian? In the return of the plague bacillus? In thinking evolutionarily more generally? I'm curious to hear more.