How Do You Tell Somebody Their Name is “Wrong”?
“Hey, buddy! You're saying your name wrong.” That's not something you hear every day, but if you're Italian-American it just might be true.
Of course, “wrong” is very subjective. Whether given at birth or adopted later on, your name is your name and you are free to spell and/or pronounce it any way you like. For example, former MLB player Matt Diaz pronounces his last name “DYE-az.” Never mind that everybody else says “DEE-az,” which is linguistically correct since there is no long “i” sound in Spanish. When Matt's grandfather emigrated from Spain, he wanted to be different. So “DYE-az” it became. This caused confusion in the press booth and aggravated Hispanics who considered that Matt was “mispronouncing” his name, but there it is. Anglicizing/Americanizing ethnic-sounding surnames is something that happens in all cultures. But when it comes right down to it, nobody beats the Italians for “mispronouncing” names.
A popular example comes from “The Godfather” movies and the Corleone family. Notice that about half the characters in the movies pronounce the name as “core-lee-OWN” and the other half say “core-lee-OHN-eh.” Dropping the final “e” is probably the most common alteration of a traditional Italian name. Look at singer Joey Fatone. It's not really “fah-TONE;” it's “fah-TOH-nay.” Same goes for “Iron Chef” Marc Forgione and his famous father, Larry Forgione. Both men pronounce their name “for-gee-OWN.” But in Italian, it should be “for-JYOH-nay.” Names that end in “e-s-e” are also prone to change. I was watching a documentary that featured Italian-American mob figure Michael Franzese. And he was pronouncing his name “fran-SEEZ.” Another Italian guy called him “fran-ZAY-say,” which, from a linguistic standpoint, is correct. I know an Italian-American doctor who calls himself “guh-DICE,” but his name, Giudice, would actually be “JEW-dee-chay” in Italian. So why do all these sons of Italy – and so many other Italian-Americans – pronounce their names “wrong”?
For better or worse, we live in an age of diversity, wherein “different” is okay. It's okay to look different, it's okay to sound different, and it's okay to have an unusual or “different” name. But it wasn't always that way. A hundred years or so ago, anybody “different” was looked upon with suspicion, if not outright hostility. You had to look American, act American, and sound American in order to be American. Anything else and you not only directed suspicion and hostility toward yourself and your family, you also limited your opportunities. A recent study showed that immigrants to the United States in the early years of the 20th century earned as much as fourteen percent less if they failed to change their names to something that sounded “American.”
The entertainment industry is a good example. Many of today's actors, singers, and entertainers have “foreign” names. Sometimes it even makes them more popular and “exotic.” But as recently as fifty years ago, it was still standard practice to change an ethnic name to something “American” in order to enhance box office or chart appeal. In fact, a lot of Italian-American entertainers followed this practice. Sometimes they made the decision on their own, but most often it was made on the advice of their agents. Would Dino Paul Crocetti have been as popular as “Dean Martin?” Would teenagers have gone as crazy over Walden Robert Cassotto as they did over “Bobby Darin?” Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero would never have fit on a marquee as well as “Connie Francis” did. And although Madonna became enormously popular by using just her first name, I wonder what would have happened if she had insisted on being “Madonna Louise Ciccone?” Of course, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta bypassed the issue by calling herself “Lady Gaga.”
Most Italian immigrants didn't entirely change their Italian names. Many just “Americanized” them. Immigrant chef Ettore Boiardi got tired of Americans mangling his name, so he made it easier for them to pronounce. He started calling himself Hector Boyardee. You know him as “Chef Boyardee.”
But most Italian immigrants didn't become famous. They changed the spelling or pronunciation of their names for different reasons. In the early days of immigration to the United States, the mindset of the immigrant was entirely different from what it later became. They wanted to distance themselves as far as possible from their native countries and to start entirely new lives as Americans. They weren't interested in being Italian-American or Irish-American or Franco-American or Mexican-American or any kind of American that involved a hyphen. They just wanted to be American. In a land where all their neighbors were called “Smith” or “Jones” or “Johnson” or “Brown,” traditional Italian names that ended in vowels didn't “sound” American enough, so they simply dropped the final vowel. Or they adopted the English language convention of the “silent” vowel, something that doesn't exist in Italian. Thus, someone whose name ended in “o-n-e,” instead of pronouncing it “OH-nay” as they had back in Italy, they now pronounced it “OWN.” It just sounded less foreign that way.
Many immigrants didn't effect the change themselves. They had it forced on them by people who simply couldn't pronounce their names. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people who worked in government offices often held their jobs based on their ability to read and write. But they didn't necessarily have to read or write well. Refer back to “The Godfather: Part 2.” Remember the part where the clerk at Ellis Island processed young Vito Andolini from the town of Corleone and arbitrarily dubbed him “Vito Corleone?” That happened all the time. And the enumerators who conducted the US Census were notorious for spelling names the way they heard them. That's how some of my Italian forebears went from being “Violi” to being “Vallee.” And it wasn't always the fault of a government clerk. Oftentimes it was just the neighbors. My grandparents' parish priest was Father Sansone. He pronounced it “sahn-SOH-nay,” but many of his rural American parishioners couldn't get the hang of that and called him “Father San-SOWN.” He answered to both, but he, himself, always used and preferred the proper Italian pronunciation. I don't know why, but Italian names just seem to be beyond many American's linguistic limits.
Historically, political climates have also had a lot of influence on the pronunciation of “foreign” names. During WWI, the British royal family changed its surname from the decidedly German-sounding Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to a more properly British-sounding “Windsor.” And when Benito Mussolini was flexing his fascist muscles in Italy in the years leading up to WWII, Italian-Americans were dropping final vowels and silencing final “e”s all over the place. Being identified as an Italian was not a popular thing in an America soon to be on the outs with Italy.
Much is said about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Often forgotten, however, is the plight of Italian-Americans during the war years when nearly 600,000 Italian-American citizens were branded as “enemy aliens.” They were required to register with authorities and carry cards identifying them as such. They were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from their homes without permission. They were not permitted to own firearms, radios, cameras, or even flashlights – considered to be “signaling devices.” And on the West Coast, they were subjected to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. The FBI arrested around 1,500 Italian-Americans between December 1941 and June 1942. Most were quickly released, but about 250 spent up to two years in internment camps.
In odd contrast, an estimated 1.2 million Italian-Americans served in the U.S. military during WWII. The only enlisted Marine in U.S. history to win the nation's two highest military honors -- the Navy Cross and the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor – was Italian-American John Basilone, a U.S. Marine sergeant, who died at the Battle of Iwo Jima.
These wartime conditions left indelible marks in the Italian-American community. Signs and flyers were posted directing “enemy aliens” to “speak American.” As a result, many Italian-Americans stopped speaking their mother language altogether. Others Americanized their names or otherwise attempted to distance themselves from their heritage.
Generations have passed since these early days of immigration and war. Many modern Italian-Americans don't even realize their names are “wrong” in the traditional Italian sense. The doctor to whom I referred earlier had no idea how to pronounce his name in Italian. He said it the way his parents and his grandparents always said it. It was just his name. He said it the way he was taught to say it. He didn't know there was a “proper” pronunciation. (He also didn't know his name means “judge” in Italian.) That's very common among second, third, or fourth generation Italian-Americans who know little or nothing about the native language of their ancestors. And I'm not inferring that Italian-Americans who maintain their Anglicized names are less proud of their Italian heritage. That's certainly not the case in the big Italian-American enclaves of New York and New Jersey. Those people may pronounce their names wrong and they may butcher the hell out of the beautiful Italian language with bastardized words like “pro-SHOOT” and “moot-sah-RELL” and “ri-GOT,” but when it comes to ethnic pride, nobody waves the Italian flag higher than they do.
In the end, though, I think the reason most Italian-Americans tolerate the mispronunciations of their names and their language is because they are, at heart, a very humble, unassuming, and polite people. Unlike the French, who will beat you about the head and shoulders over the slightest linguistic transgression, Italians are grateful that you even attempt to recognize or speak their language and they are much more inclined to overlook minor flaws and defects in pronunciation. Unfortunately for those transgressors I encounter, I have French blood mixed in with the Italian, so I tend to be much less tolerant. That's why I involuntarily flinch and cringe every time some restaurant server tries to sell me “broo-SHET-uh” and “MARE-uh-NARE-uh.” But that's a rant for another time.
Thing is, even though Italians and Italian-Americans are very humble people, they don't have to be. They have every right to be proud of their heritage and shouldn't feel compelled to accept ignorance and disrespect. Even if America wasn't necessarily “discovered” by an Italian, Cristoforo Colombo did quite a lot for its ultimate development. The “new” continents themselves were named for an Italian, Amerigo Vespucci. Although not an immigrant, few can dispute the impact Guglielmo Marconi, “the Father of Radio,” had on America and on the world. Next time you drop by a local branch of your bank, think of Amadeo Pietro Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, who instituted the practice of branch banking in the United States. One Antonio Meucci actually “invented” the telephone; Alexander Graham Bell just beat him to the patent office. Do you like orange juice or coffee with your breakfast? Tropicana founder Anthony Rossi pioneered the pasteurization of orange juice, and while Vince Marotta didn't actually invent coffee, he did invent “Mr. Coffee.” Do you own a battery-operated device? You wouldn't if not for the pioneering work of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta. The list goes on and on. Do we even have to mention Dante, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Botticelli and their contemporaries? No, when it comes to impacting the world, Italians don't have to stand in line behind anybody.
As I stated at the outset, your name is your name and it is your prerogative to say it and spell it any way you see fit. Add a syllable, drop a letter, or say it backward while standing on one foot, it's all up to you. If you think of yourself as Italian, just consider that in the beautiful, lyrical, exquisite language from which your name is derived, there is most likely a wrong way and a right way to say it. And, because of social, political, and historical factors beyond your control, you could be saying it wrong.
Soltanto un po di cibo per il pensiero.