The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, December 6, 2013

In Defense of Proper Italian

To paraphrase an iconic Bette Davis line, “Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy rant.”

I'm sick and tired of being called “elitist” and “snob” because I insist on proper pronunciation of so-called “foreign” words. (Remember, they're only “foreign” if they're not your native language.) In this country we laugh at “foreigners” who mispronounce common English words, but we are apparently immune to such criticism when it comes to our own blatant ignorance of other languages. That's okay. We're Americans. Everything we do and say is right, right?

Whenever I hear words like “marinara” and “bruschetta,” “bolognese” and “calzone” being mispronounced, I literally cringe. I mean, I physically react before I even have time to think. I've gotten better. I used to fly in the offender's face, but I have found a calmer place in my advancing age. Now I just sit quietly and turn colors until the urge to strangle passes.

Italian is, bar none, the single most abused and bastardized language in the United States. This is especially true because even Americans of Italian descent badly, badly mispronounce common Italian words. Part of it is the aforementioned cultural arrogance and ignorance. Some of my friends tell me, “Well, you shouldn't be so harsh. It's just the American pronunciation and that's the way people learned it.” Okay. And if somebody “learned” that the capital of Alaska is Nome, should I, knowing better, correct them or should I just tell everybody in Juneau the bad news?

Some say that a contributing cause of adulterated Italian can be traced to dialects. I can buy that in some cases. Not all Italians speak Italian. There are twenty distinct regions on the Italian peninsula and twenty distinct dialects. People in one area frequently have different words for things than their neighbors in another area. It would be like crossing from North Dakota to South Dakota and finding that people had different words for “cow.”

Officially, the Italian language is based on the Tuscan dialect, but people in Campania and Sicily and all the other regions still retain much of their native way of speaking. And when these people emigrated to the United States, they often brought their different dialects with them, so that your Italian grandmother and my Italian grandmother may not have called the same object the same thing. All that said, there are regional dialects in English, too. But when it comes down to it, proper English is still proper English. It's the English that is taught in schools and used in common speech. The same principle applies to proper Italian. Regional distinctions aside, English is English and Italian is Italian.

Probably the biggest reason for bad Italian in America is the politeness of Italian people. They know you're butchering their language when you flatten out “a”s and drop “e”s, but unlike the French, they are too polite to correct you, and so abominations like “mare-uh-NARE-uh” are allowed to pass into common usage. I guess the politeness has been bred out of me in the successive generations since my ancestors left Italy, because I'll correct you in a heartbeat. But whenever I do I get flak for being snobby.

What was it Alan Jay Lerner wrote in My Fair Lady? “Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?” The song concludes, “But use proper English and you're regarded as a freak.” Can we also apply that to using proper Italian?

One of the most common criticisms of Giada De Laurentiis is what some consider her “over-pronunciation” of Italian words. There she'll be, tripping along in her California-accented American English and she'll come to an Italian word or phrase, which she will, of course, render in perfect Italian. And for this she gets called snooty and pretentious. I don't get it. She's being snooty and pretentious for pronouncing something correctly in her native language? When an Italian pronounces an English word incorrectly, he's stupid and ignorant, but when an American pronounces an Italian word incorrectly, he's just saying it the American way. Never mind that it's wrong! Why isn't he equally stupid and ignorant? It's because of the American ethnocentric bias that maintains that everything we do is, by God, right because it's American. And we wonder why people in other countries don't like us.

What I always wonder about is why this bias only seems to apply to the Italian language. There are many ethnicities in America. They all come with their own unique languages. And English-speaking Americans seem to accept all of them and adapt to all of them – except for Italian. We're meticulous with French and proper with Spanish. We are careful to pronounce German words correctly and even attempt to get the right inflection in Japanese and Chinese. But when it comes to Italian, all bets are off. We can pronounce it any old way we want to and excuse it by saying, “It's the American pronunciation.”

Think I'm exaggerating? Consider: Do you drive a “Shev-ro-lay” or a “Chev-ro-let? When you order a layered dessert, is it a “par-fay” or a “par-fate?” Crème brûlée is “krem-broo-lay” and not “creem-bruh-lee,” right? When you go to one of those all-you-can-eat places, you're eating from a “boo-fay” and not from a “buff-et.” So why do you ask for “broo-shet-uh” at an Italian place instead of “broo-sket-ah?” Why is it more important to be correct in French than in Italian?

Or Spanish? Just to be annoying and to carry home my point, I've begun to be deliberately obtuse in Mexican restaurants. I figure if you can order “boh-loh-naze” and “mare-uh-nare-uh” in my Italian place I can order “tack-ohs” and “kwes-uh-dill-uhs” in your Mexican joint. Why should I care any more about correct Spanish than you do about correct Italian?

Of course, as I alluded earlier, one of the biggest obstacles has been Italians themselves. More specifically, Italian immigrants who wanted desperately to fit in in their new country and wound up anglicizing a lot of their own language. But dropping final vowels from Italian words does not make them English words. It just makes them bad Italian words. East coasters make my ears bleed with their “mozz-uh-rell” and “pro-shoot” and “ruh-got.” And just because there are silent final “e”s in English doesn't mean the same holds true in Italian. “Cal-zoan” and “pro-vuh-loan” are emphatically and painfully wrong. I don't care if they're common; they're WRONG! How about this? If it's so American and correct to drop the final “e,” I'll just order up some nice “gwahk-uh-mohl.” Or maybe a tasty “tah-mahl.” Ooops! Gotta watch those “a” sounds. Better make that a “tuh-măl.” And obviously only snooty, pretentious people ask for “moh-lay,” so I'll just have some “mohl.”

Is it all beginning to sound really stupid to you? Good.

Tell you what, next time you sneeze, instead of saying “gesundheit” the proper German way, I think I'll say “jess-und-heet.” Surely that will catch on and become correct through common usage.

Next, I'll go after the Chinese and order me some of that “kung pay-oh” chicken. What do you mean, it's “kung pow?” That's not the way it's spelled. In American English, “pao” should be pronounced “pay-oh,” shouldn't it? Well, shouldn't it?

English is a weird language, loaded with tricky diphthongs and silent letters and homophones. I could go into pages and pages of scholarly dissertation on why English developed the way it did. I could talk at length about the “Great Vowel Shift” that effected major changes in the sound of English between the mid-14th century and the beginning of the 18th. But what it all boils down to is the fact that there are a lot of phonetic elements in English that just don't exist in other languages. For example, there are fifteen vowel sounds in English. The letter “a” alone has three sounds; the long sound, as in “lake,” the short sound, as in “apple,” and the schwa sound, as in “father.” There are only seven vowel sounds in Italian, and the letter “a” only has one. There are just five vowel phonemes in Spanish and the Spanish “a” is sounded the same as it is in Italian, which would be the equivalent of the English schwa, producing the “ah” sound. That is why you have “tah-coh” instead of “tack-oh” and why you should have “mah-ree-nah-rah” instead of “mare-uh-nare-uh.” But for some unfathomable reason, Americans recognize and honor the difference in Spanish while totally ignoring it in Italian.

I maintain that it is the height of ethnocentric hubris to change somebody else's language rather than to learn to correctly pronounce that language ourselves. We demand that people for whom English is a second language speak it properly and correctly and we ridicule and deride those who do not. And yet we mangle and massacre “foreign” tongues with impunity simply because we are Americans and we have the intrinsic, God-given right to do so. There's no such thing as "the American pronunciation." That infers that there is something wrong with the original, correct pronunciation and that the "American way" is somehow better. Just because some tongue-tied Americans have to dumb some things down in order for them to meet their inferior philological abilities doesn't mean that such linguistic laziness is correct.

Okay. I am quietly putting the soapbox back under the porch now. I have sufficiently ranted and railed and harangued enough for today. But I'm not giving up my crusade, quixotic though it may be. I will continue to lobby for proper Italian pronunciation if for no other purpose than to show my respect for another culture and its language. If I want other people to respect my culture, then it is inherent upon me to respect theirs. And if that is seen by Joe Average American as being snooty, snobby, elitist, and pretentious, then so be it. Guilty as charged.

But rather than point fingers at me and call me names, why don't you join me? It's lonely here on the mountaintop and I'm getting hoarse from all the shouting. Stupidity is permanent but ignorance is curable and some people are actually willing to learn. I am gratified by the number of folks who, when I point out their mispronunciation, say, “I didn't know that,” and then go on to modify their speech. Of course, there are many others who just look at me like a doddering, pompous old fool and go on about their erroneous way, not really caring to change because they're content in their stupidity. But I remain extremely hopeful for the merely ignorant.

Go on. Learn a proper Italian word today. It won't hurt, I promise. And if you're successful, maybe you, too, can be snobby and pretentious someday. It'll be nice to have company.

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