Dolce far niente: A Comparative and Theoretical Study of Anglo-Italian Borrowing

© Marco Avolio 2008


Most studies about the influence of Italian on English occupy themselves almost exclusively with listing the words borrowed from Italian and categorizing them according to discourse and historical period.   I want to argue here that the reason for these trends, while not remarked upon by scholars who write about Anglo-Italian linguistic exchange, tells us something salient about the exchange.  What tends to be left out of historical and discursive categorization of Italian borrowings is a comparative perspective that aims to contextualize their influence amongst that of other languages in contact with English.  From Mario Praz’s 1929 essay, “The Italian Element in English,” to Laura Pinnavaia’s 2001 book, The Italian Borrowings in the Oxford English Dictionary, this is the case.  Even more general studies on the influence of other languages on English, such as Mary S. Serjeantson’s A History of Foreign Words in English and Gerry Knowles’ A Cultural History of the English Language, talk about each language more or less independently, with little regard for the lessons comparison might offer. 

I said there is a reason that most studies focus on the categorization of borrowed words rather than a comparison of linguistic influence.  It is simple enough, but can only be observed through comparison: rather unlike the many other languages that have affected English, Italian has only influenced it through direct word borrowing (an expansion of the idea of borrowing follows this section).  This is the case because of the history of Anglo-Italian cultural contact is rather unlike that of most languages that exerted influence on English.  Whereas English had to struggle for power with the likes of French and Latin in order to keep its linguistic power and integrity, its relationship with Italian has always been more leisurely and less antagonistic. 

This paper will proceed to briefly re-examine the history of Anglo-Italian borrowing and cultural exchange through comparative and theoretical lenses.  It will compare the role of Italian in English with that of French and Latin, two languages more profoundly entrenched in England’s politics, religion and scholarship than Italian could ever have been.  For the history I will draw primarily upon Pinnavaia, whose exposition of the relations between Italy and England, and their influence on the English language is the most thorough I have come across.  I will also elaborate on her theories of borrowing, which occur to me as extremely useful to understanding the history, but which are regretfully severed from it in her book The Italian Borrowings in the Oxford English Dictionary.  My aim will be to fill the gaps left by this severance and elaborate on it using a comparative approach to understanding cultural exchange and its impact on linguistic influence. 

What is borrowing?: A Few Suggestions

Borrowing is not only the adoption or adaptation of one language’s words by another.  As many scholars have pointed out, borrowing extends also to structures and patterns of language imitated or reproduced by another.  A few definitions will help to build a framework for our present task.

Uriel Weinreich defines borrowing as a linguistic mechanism “where one vocabulary can interfere with another” (Weinreich 47).  Weinreich’s definition understands borrowing as something inherently aggressive, emphasizing the interference often characteristic of colonial borrowing.  This type of interference is what often goes on in Anglo-French and -Latin borrowings, but not simply at the level of vocabulary. 

Einar Haugen defines borrowing as “the attempted reproduction in one language of patterns previously found in another” (Haugen 81).  Haugen’s definition emphasizes a less antagonistic side of borrowing, crediting the agency of the borrowing language (though one must concede that the borrowing language would have to make some effort at reproduction even in the case of an “interfering” borrowing).  It also expands the realm of borrowing beyond vocabulary to include “patterns.” 

Both of these definitions are good, but incomplete on their own.  Pinnavaia seeks to be more comprehensive, defining a borrowing as “a linguistic element which, while belonging to the linguistic system of one community, is imitated and comes to interfere in the linguistic system of another community” (Pinnavaia 50).

The kinds of borrowings I will be concerned with are both of the aggressive, interfering type and of the imitative type.  Italian borrowings fall under the latter category, while French and Latin fall under both, leaning more towards one or the other depending on the historical circumstances. 

Now that we have established some definitions of borrowing, we should move to outlining some functions of borrowing, as those are what the comparative approach really helps to illuminate. 

The Functions of Borrowing

The following functions, proposed by Pinnavaia, will serve as the last pieces of our framework for understanding the Italian influence on English.   She argues in favour of three semantic functions of Italian borrowings:

The Ideational Function

This refers to a borrowing that fills a linguistic void—a word that alone defines what it describes.  Such borrowings come out of a need to identify an object or idea that is new to the borrowing language (Pinnavaia 129).  In Italian borrowings these tend to refer to both the external and social worlds.

External: archipelago, tarantula, influenza, miniature, cannelloni, .

Social: falconet, bulletin, blackshirt, manifesto, graffito, pastoral, carnival, .

Ideational borrowings from Italian fall primarily under the latter category.  This is because English depends more on Latin, French and colonial borrowings for the nomination of physical things beyond its vocabulary and because its interest in Italy has been chiefly for ideas and culture.

The Interpersonal Function

The purpose of borrowings that serve this function is not to label objects and ideas as much as to offer a certain perspective on them.  “For this reason borrowings with an interpersonal function normally have denotational equivalents in the receiving language and their appearance in it is not motivated by the objective necessity to fill a lexical gap but rather by the wish to add to the receiving language a certain richness of style as well as to provide either positive or negative social messages” (Pinnavaia 133).  Such borrowings communicate a particular attitude towards the culture borrowed from, generally reflecting appreciation or disdain for it.  Pinnavaia notes exclusively positive interpersonal borrowings such as enamorate, bravura and palazzo, all of which symbolize "a very refined world" and are more exalted sounding than their English equivalents, fall in love, display of daring, and wide-legged pants.  All of these examples are borrowings from the Renaissance, which was a time of great interest in Italian culture in England.  If we look to borrowings from the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries, it is not hard to find less flattering interpersonal borrowings: capriccio, intrigue and Charlatan from the seventeenth century and vendetta and mafia from the nineteenth all reflect the English disdain for the corruption and decadence of Italian culture and politics during those eras.

The Textual Function

While interpersonal borrowings reflect moral preferences, textual borrowings have more to do with aesthetic preferences and rhetorical effect (Pinnavaia 136-37).  Borrowings are often more precise, colorful or expressive than native terms, making texts or speech more interesting that they would be were a native term used.  It is usually their foreignness that gives borrowings with a textual function their effect.  Consider the following terms:

Borrowings: fragor, gusto, rimbomb, vista.

Native equivalents: perfume, taste, resound, sight.

The expressive sound and onomatopoeia of the borrowings are novel, and—and would have been especially so when the words first came into use—are more energetic and vigorous than the words we are used to hearing (Pinnavaia 138).  Moreover, these are words of relatively light moral or political weight, making them more ornamental than any interpersonal borrowing.

Necessity and Prestige

Pinnavaia further divides these semantic functions into two categories of borrowings: (1) borrowings of necessity and (2) of prestige (Pinnavaia 139).  Ideational borrowings fall under the former category, while interpersonal and textual borrowings fall under the latter.  Italian borrowings, even when they are ideational or negatively interpersonal, tend to take on a semantic and cultural function of symbolizing prestige. They are consistently textual in function and shiftingly interpersonal, depending on England's attitude towards Italy in a given period.  This has everything to do with the circumstances under which Anglo-Italian cultural exchange has historically taken place, which are quite different from those under which the exchanges that led to French and Latin borrowing.  The relations in which grew the French and Latin influences on English always involved a power struggle of some sort, requiring the English language to negotiate its role, so to speak, in an English culture where French and/or Latin was the dominant mode of official communication.  The necessity of such negotiation resulted in a much deeper penetration of English by these languages than mere vocabulary borrowing—which is what Italian, influencing English under more peaceful and leisurely circumstances, is more or less limited to. Before turning to the history of Italian borrowings I feel it is important to demonstrate this difference in influence.

Comparative Contextualization: A bit about French and Latin influences on English

After the Normans: Negotiating with French

The French language begins to influence English much earlier than Italian, and in a significantly different context.  After the Battle of Hastings (1066), England was ruled by the duke of Normandy.  During Norman rule, naturally, French (albeit a very different French from the one we know today) was the language spoken by the ruling class, and Latin was the language of record-keeping.  As this was the case until the 14th century, Anglo-Saxon was all but lost as a written language: it was not until the fall of Normandy that English writings begin to appear, and they do so mostly as translations of French works (Knowles 46-47). 

It is no surprise, then, that by the time English began to be spoken again by the upper classes the language they did speak was deeply influenced by French—not only at the level of lexical borrowings, but even in terms of spelling and grammar. 

House, for example, had a [u:] sound during this time and was first spelled hus in Old English.  This vowel sound was represented in French by <ou>, which is where the 13thcentury spelling, hous comes from (Knowles 49-50).

The influence of French on grammar can be seen in the expansion of the function of hwa (who), following qui, the basic asking of questions, to have a place in relative clauses. 

The Latin Sentence

From its earliest contact with French, English had to struggle and negotiate with it, and the French influence, often characterized by compromise and mediation, reflects this.  Such is also the case with Latin, which affects the very structure of English.  “In early printed texts, words were grouped according to the way they would be spoken aloud” (Knowles 71).  It is very difficult to make sense of much early English writing if you try to break it into sentences.  Knowles cites an illustrative example from Caxton (1490):

After dyverse werkes made / translated and achieued / hauying noo werke in hande. I sittyng in my studye where as laye many dyuerse paunflettis and bookys. happened that to my hande cam a lytyl booke in frensche. which late was translated oute of latyn by some noble clerke of fraunce whiche booke is named Eneydos / made into latyn by that noble poete & grete clerke vyrgyle... (Cited in Knowles 71)

Understanding the passage is easy enough, as long as you do not try to read the divisions as complete sentences.  The English sentence as we know it today was developed by scholars in the early 1500s, who started to group words according to the rules of the Latin sentence.  At this time English was only beginning to be used as a written language, Latin having had exclusive claim to that role prior; it was only by compromise with Latin that English would be able to slowly supersede it.  Comparable to the case with French, the compromise involved the adaptation of linguistic patterns as fundamental as the sentence itself.  This type of deep-pattern borrowing is characteristic of cultural relations in which linguistic authority is a crucial symbol and tool of political authority.  When we look at Anglo-Italian cultural contact, we find no comparable political or scholarly power struggle to those present in Anglo-French and -Latin exchange.  As a result there is no need for any compromise of linguistic structure, instead rather straight-forward lexical borrowing.

Italian Borrowings and Anglo-Italian Contact: A Brief Survey of the History

While English attitudes towards Italy and Italian change throughout the periods of their greatest cultural contact, the conditions of that contact, for the most part do not.  Anglo-Italian contact is always leisurely and takes place at the level of the upper classes, who have an economic base which allows them to travel the distance necessary to engage with Italian culture, as well as the educational base to allow them to access and bring home ideas, customs and lexemes. 

We first begin to see Italian borrowings in English between 1300 and 1500, during which period there are about twenty, mostly filtered through French.  It is not until the sixteenth century that Italian borrowings take on any notable significance, so it makes most sense to start a survey of their history there.

The Renaissance and Italian Humanism

During the Renaissance, Englishmen become greatly interested in humanistic studies and classical languages, and consequently in Italy as the hub of these subjects.  Scholars at Oxford and Cambridge begin producing translations of Italian literature and histories of Italy that find a welcome audience at the English court (Pinnavaia 164).  Many of these, in turn, make trips to Italy, during which they write travel books that serve as guides to Italian life, history and art for other courtesans. 

The Italian language also comes to be seen in this period as a sort of new Latin—being the closest language to Latin, it is best suited to take its place as the keepsake and transmitter of the ideals of antiquity while maintaining a post-medieval charm (Pinnavaia 165).  Writers such as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio gain much popularity with English writers (such as Wyatt, Sydney and Spencer) and readers alike, many of whom desired to read them in the original. 

Italian thus is taught at court, and, by the time Elizabeth I accedes, all of the English court speaks the language (Pinnavaia 167). Unlike the Norman French spoken by the 11th century English court, the Italian of the 16th century court is not primarily a language of communication, rather a symbol of culture, education and good manners.  More Italian borrowings appear in this period than in any other (828), and they reflect the values of the English court enamored (yes, an Italian borrowing, though one filtered through Old French) with humanistic ideals and Italian culture much more than any necessity.  Such values include:

Physical appearance: inanulate, mustachio, leggiadrous.

Mental skill: scope, genio, grandezza.

Skill in the art of fighting: falconet, pistoletto.

Pleasure (especially symbolized by skill in fencing and horse riding): curvet, pomada, punto dritto, punto riverso.

Social appreciation and esteem: ingentilize. (Pinnavaia 156-58)

Almost all of these borrowings are of the interpersonal variety.  Not only do they evoke the elegance of Italian, they also demonstrate an appreciation of Italian culture.  Used to describe traits valued by Englishmen, these borrowings serve to link those traits directly with Italy and its culture.  This is true even of the more ideational words, falconet, pistoletto, curvet, pomada, punto dritto, and punto riverso, as the idealization of the activities they help to describe suggests that their use has more to do with cultivating prestige than with linguistic necessity. 

It is also worth noting that most of these words are adopted directly into English, with no change from their original Italian spelling.  This characteristic of most Italian lexical borrowings highlights two aspects of their function: first, that they are decorative.  Their forms are preserved but they are not integrated into the language the way adapted borrowings are, indicating a preference of foreignness over functionality.  As Italian words they cannot behave according to the rules of English grammar and syntax.  Second, those that are adapted follow the conventions of Latin adaptation: inanulate; ingentilize; genio later becomes genius.  As soon as the words take on a more practical role in the language, leaning towards the ideational side of borrowings, they must take forms more characteristic of English words—perhaps paradoxically, they need to become Latinized. 

Latin Borrowings in the 16th Century

It is interesting, then, that Italian should be view as the new Latin, since its influence on English at this time rather contrasts that of its supposed predecessor.  Alongside the demand in England to read foreign books in the original grew a demand for texts written in English.  Because of the long predominance of Latin as the language of writing in England, writers found that they were missing English equivalents for concepts usually discussed in Latin.  As a result we find a great number of ideational Latin borrowings during this period, introduced to develop precision in a language that had previously not needed it.  Sir Thomas Elyot’s inkhorn terms are a central example of this trend.  In his 1531 book, The boke named the gouernour, he introduced words as continuously important as aristocracy, democracy, education and society into an English that did (and still does) not have any equivalents (Knowles 69).  While the great amount of debate about foreign borrowings sparked by the use of inkhorn terms suggests that some people saw them as in some way interpersonal—that is, as somehow tributes to a language seen as superior to English—the fact that many of them are still with us and unparalleled indicates that their ideational function has been far more important.

From Ideas To Culture

By the 17th century, starting with Shakespeare and his contemporaries, there is a shift in English interest away from Italian ideas and literature, and towards Italian culture.  But the interest is not as positive as it had been: the portrait of Italy that we see in works like Romeo and Juliet and Every Man in his Humour is as “a land of incest, intrigue, violence and hypocrisy...” (Pinnavaia 171). 

Between 1650 and 1700 there is an influx of borrowings relating to theatre, (Catholic) religion, and education.  The first two were banned by Cromwell when he served as Lord Protectorate (1653-58), and their re-flourishing afterwards is largely a result of the vibrant interest in Italian culture at the time (Pinnavaia 159).  English theatre becomes heavily influenced by the Italian stage, imitating it not only in terms of action and production, but also by borrowing its terminology, much of which is still in use today: scenary, pulvil, pulvilio. Nonetheless, there is a notable decline in Italian borrowings that begins in this period.

Music, Science, and Encyclopedias

The change in interest away from Italian literature and ideas and towards Italian culture coincides with the era of the Grand Tour (about 1660-1820).  This Tour was a travel itinerary, mostly for British upper-class men, which took travelers through most of the western European countries and could last from several months to several years (Pinnavaia 160).  It comes as no surprise that most of the literature on Italy was written by the wealthy travelers able to take the Tour.

Despite the drop in Italian borrowings at this time, the borrowings we do see in relation to lifestyle, food and drink, music, art, and science are quite significant.  The popularity of opera at the time, as well as the view that only the Italian language was worthy of song, make this period the richest in terms of musical borrowings:

adagio, aria, libretto, segue, toccata, bravura, falsetto, sonata, double bass, oboe, trombone, violoncello, pianoforte, etc.

What is true of music in this period is also true of science, especially after 1839, the year the first congress of Italian scientists was held in Pisa (Pinnavaia 161).  After 1850, there is a growth in Italian borrowings in the fields of biochemistry (ergonovine), chemistry (bezetta, kosin), physics (dietheroscope, neutretto), geology (ceppo, terra rossa) and mineralogy (nicolo, terra).

Many dictionaries and encyclopedias that are created to help inform people about the arts and sciences, such as Ephraim Chamber's Cyclopedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Science (), Grassineau's A Short Explication of such Foreign Words as are made use of in Musick Books (1724) and A Complete Dictionary of Music (1740), the Manual of Mineralogy (1851), and most importantly, The Encyclopedia Britannica (1768-)—all of these are frequently cited in the OED in entries on data of Italian origin.

Although there is a change in attitudes towards Italian culture during this period, as well as a decline in borrowed lexemes, the examples of loaned music and science terminology demonstrate that the nature of those borrowings and the conditions of cultural exchange with England remain consistent.  Musical and scientific terms retain their Italian forms, though not for the same reasons as the words examined under the Renaissance section.  The musical language developed in this period became standardized in Europe thereafter as a means of facilitating the performance of pieces written by composers in countries other than their own.  In this sense these words are broadly ideational, addressing the linguistic need of an increasingly international music community.  The explosion of dictionaries and encyclopedias to explain these terminologies further emphasizes the point, as it indicates that the demand for knowledge of these fields was considerable.  Yet we must recognize that borrowings in the spheres of music and science would only have been of consequence to those with the money and education to access them.  Use of these words, with their marked foreignness and highly specialized focus, served above all to underscore one’s culture and prestige.  The waning fashion of Italian ideas and literature was replaced by the waxing trendiness of Italian culture.

The Romantics

There are several possible explanations for the loss of interest in Italian ideas and literature in the 17th through 19th centuries.   It probably has much to do with the British Empire’s continued success at this time.  England was politically superior to Italy, whose perceived state of corruption and scandal could have nothing to offer by way of ideas (Knowles 140).  As for the turn from Italian literature, that was due largely to the popularity in England of French criticism—especially that of Voltaire and Boileau—of Italian authors as being “superficial and full of conceits, or else rough in form and chaotic in conception; ...over-elaborate in style and often licentious in subject matter” (Pinnavaia 172). 

For English Romantic writers, however, this aspect of Italy and its literature was exactly what attracted them to it.  The earliest enthusiasts of Italian literature were none other than Foscolo, Shelley and Byron.  The OED records many words introduced in this period through various magazines, including The Edinburgh Review, for which Foscolo wrote beginning in 1816, publishing articles about the links between Italian writers like Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio and Tasso, and English literature (Pinnavaia 175).  These links are both confirmed and reforged by the great English writers of the time.  Kenneth Churchill writes of Byron:

the whole environment seemed to be a stimulating embodiment of the anguished tension which he felt within himself.  Italy was the country upon which Nature had lavished her blessings, which was full of delights of wine, women and sun, where men had attained some of the peaks of civilisation, but whose achievements, stranded in political degradation and economic backwardness, were now almost a mockery of the magnificent confidence which had created them (Churchill 32).

Byron's passion, shared by Shelley and later Ruskin, for the grandeur Italy's past led him to attempt to re-evoke it in his poetry, which includes many Italian terms and settings, and is sometimes written, as is the case with Don Juan, in ottava rima, a distinctly Italian meter.  The Romantic poets’ interest in Italy is on the one hand radical and counter-cultural—they ironically admired all the excesses in Italian culture for which Voltaire and Boileau criticized its literature—yet this interest nonetheless follows in the tradition of rich, educated Englishmen enraptured by the exoticism of the place, bringing back from it themes and structures whose power is contained in that very exoticism.  It is hard to imagine a Byronic Byron without Don Juan or ottava rima—or even worse, with English equivalents such as Lord John and the octave rhyme. 

The Twentieth Century

Although there is a great amount of interest in Italian culture and a consequent increase in the number of borrowings from the 18th century onward, the view of Italy as a once-great culture in a state of political and moral disrepair remains strong and continues to flourish in the early 20th century, especially with the arrivals of World War I and Fascism.  This view of Italy continues to flourish to this day in English speaking countries, as well as within Italy itself (see Fisher).  Borrowing peters off at the beginning of the 20th century, not to flourish again (though never in the numbers of the 16thand 19th centuries) until after World War II, when we begin to see many Italian immigrants moving to North America.  It is in this period that many of the Italian borrowings more familiar to us begin to see widespread usage, this time because of Italian travelers bringing their culture with them to English speaking countries:

pizza, cappuccino, antipasto, Calabrese, pesto, zucchini, scampi, spaghetti, etc.

Borrowings in this period chiefly relate to the popularity of Italian food in English-speaking countries.  It is important to note, however, that the level of cultural exchange, as well as the semantic functions of the borrowings, are here as they are in all periods of Anglo-Italian contact.  Certainly there is an ideational function to most of these words, but the connotative significance of one's preference for a cappuccino over a coffee, or of an antipasto over an appetizer is clear.  These preferences symbolize a certain refinement of culture and express an air of prestige, both of which are characteristic of the interest in Italian borrowings throughout the centuries.

The Present and Onward

Much more so than during any other period of its history, in the present day the weight of influence has shifted in Anglo-Italian exchange.[1] With the dominance of English as the primary international language of commerce, media and entertainment, we are now seeing its influence exerted more strongly on Italian than the reverse.  One does not have to spend long amongst Italians or watching Italian television before hearing words like internet, computer, news, club, life, and many others in frequent use.  While a great deal of these serve ideational functions, they are themselves often recent coinages in English, leaving few reasons for the non-existence of new Italian coinages but the mark of culture, prestige and education (English being required in all post-secondary institutions in Italy at all levels) that using the English word gives.  Even in the context of a reversed cultural exchange the borrowing retains the same characteristics: words are adopted, not adapted; they are interpersonal or textual rather than ideational; and their air of prestige and education is indicated by their foreignness.  I hope to have demonstrated that this is a result of the consistently leisurely, non-aggressive cultural contact between England and Italy that primarily affected the English upper classes.

Conclusions and Afterthoughts

As always happens when a writer comes to the end of a paper and compares what has been written with the research that led to it, I cannot help but feel the need to point out the final product’s partiality and imagine what “could have been” had I more time and ingenuity.  While there is not doubt in my mind that Italian borrowings in English are what they are largely because of the efforts of trend-setting upper class English men traipsing around the Continent in their leisure time, I am sure that perspective comes at the loss of others.  A less symptomatic reading that looks at Anglo-Italian exchange beyond borrowings might yield a set of complementary results.  Botticella, for instance, discusses the counter-cultural aspect of Italian English, exploring its use “in more informal and less “patrolled” settings such as the media, entertainment and culture industries, and online communication. Unbound by regulatory concepts of the English language,” she argues, “the ever-changing nature of Italian English in Italy’s pop culture industries prevents the realization of a Standard, and perhaps static, form of English or Italian.”  An interesting study might be conducted examining counter-cultural Italian English in relation to other comparable non-native Englishes.  Such a study would probably require a book, but the rewards would likely be worth it.  What I hope to have shown by a jointly theoretical and comparative approach to Italian borrowings is that there is much to be gleaned from linguistic analyses that take the time to look beyond their range of specialization and try to understand what they are doing relationally.  This type of effort is beneficial both for broadening general linguistic knowledge as well as providing new perspectives for researchers’ existing focus areas.


Botticella, Tania. “Si, Parliamo Itangliano, Baby! Italian English Revisited.” The English Language(s): Cultural and Linguistic Perspectives. Ed. Carol Percy. University of Toronto, 2007. 3 January 2008 <>

Churchill, Kenneth. Italy and English Literature, 1764-1930: Barnes and Noble, 1980.

Coleman, Julie. “The Chronology of French and Latin Loanwords in English.” Transactions of the

Philological Society. 93.2 (1995): 95-124.

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Hopkins UP, 1991.

Dillon, Myles. “Linguistic Borrowing and Historical Evidence.” Language (1945): 12-17.

Fisher, Ian. “In a Funk, Italy Sings an Aria of Disappointment.” The New York Times Online. 13 December 2007. 3 January 2008 <>

Haugen, Einar. “The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing.” The Ecology of Language: Essays by Haugen. Ed. Anwar S. Dil. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1972. 79-109.

Knowles, Gerry. A Cultural History of the English Language. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

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[1] For an excellent article on Italian English, see Tania Botticella’s, “Si, Parliamo Itangliano, Baby! Italian English Revisited.” The English Language(s): Cultural and Linguistic Perspectives. Ed. Carol Percy. University of Toronto, 2007. 3 January 2008 <>