Elizabeth Gilbert, concluding the first vignette of her book, writes, “I offer up to the universe a fervent prayer of thanks. / First in English. / Then in Italian. / And then—just to get the point across—in Sanskrit” (9). This episode, paired with the obvious but important fact that she is a writer by profession, signals early in the book Gilbert’s fascination with language as an intentional, meaningful choice. An individual’s choice of language, not simply of words within a given language, can bear great significance. The Italian language mesmerizes this author, not because she needs it as a communication tool or to pad her résumé, but simply because it is beautiful and lively. Gilbert begins studying the language and even immerses herself in it with the sheer intention of grasping its richness. Gilbert’s efforts to learn Italian represent her desire to pursue pleasure. She delights in idioms and vocabulary because they are a part of the world of beauty that Italian unlocks for her.
This links to the history of the Italian language which, as Gilbert explains, was the result of an intentional decision of sixteenth century intellectuals to select the most beautiful, poetic dialect ever spoken in Italy and introduce it on the streets. Gilbert marvels that a group of intellectuals could make such a decision “and it actually worked” (46). The language created for its aesthetic qualities lends itself perfectly to Gilbert’s personal pursuit of beauty and pleasure. This history of the conception of modern Italian is similar to the Turkish Language Reform of the 1930s. This government-backed policy revamped Ottoman Turkish, the language of an entire empire, to give it a new alphabet and purify it of Arabic and Persian influences. In a handful of years, an entire country had to learn new vocabulary, grammatical structures, and script. Language is a powerful symbol, as the early leaders of the Turkish Republic knew. Sometimes languages evolve gradually, but sometimes they are intentionally created or manipulated.
Similarly, sometimes individuals choose to speak the language with which they grew up, but sometimes they choose to express themselves in another language because of what it represents to them. Maria does this, much to her husband’s frustration, when she scrawls her anger all over their wall in Italian instead of her native English. Giulio interprets this as her repression of emotion, because for her Italian represents a thought-out effort at communication instead of a purely personal form of expression. Both the choices of entire societies to modify their languages and decisions of individuals to express themselves in a second language show the symbolic significance of language, which Gilbert learns to appreciate in her travels.