It Don't Get No Respect
I don't get it. I just don't get it. Italian is the Rodney Dangerfield of languages: it don't get no respect. And I simply don't understand why.
Of course “Italian language” is a lot like “Italian cooking” in that it's hard to define. There are twenty regions on the Italian peninsula and there are at least twenty different dialects. A simple pasta dish can be called a dozen different things in different parts of the country even though the ingredients are all the same. “Official” Italian, the language people speak, hear, and are most familiar with, is based on the Tuscan dialect, the language of Dante. Italian is lyrical, sensuous, rhythmic, and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful languages on earth. It is the language of music, opera, poetry, art, and love. And non-Italians tear it into little bitty pieces and stomp on it every day.
Italian really is a simple language. It's phonetic. You say it like you see it. All you need to know are a few vowel sounds and a few consonant rules and you've got a good start. There are five vowels in Italian and only seven vowel sounds. Compare that to English, which also has five vowels, but has fifteen vowel sounds! And yet English speakers constantly butcher Italian by trying to make it sound like English. They put an English spin on Italian pronunciations. If the final “e” is silent in English, it should be silent in Italian, too. “Well, that's the way we say it in America.” Okay. Fine. But it's still wrong! French author Anatole France said it best: “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
I was watching “Top Chef.” The contestants were cooking in Mexico and they were cooking with classic Mexican ingredients. One of them was actually Mexican. A couple were of Asian parentage and the rest were just plain ol' Americans from places like New York, Georgia, Texas and Michigan.
Now here's what I want to know: how can trained chefs – people who supposedly know everything there is to know about every cuisine on the planet – effortlessly rattle off Spanish words like “huitlacoche” and “escamoles” and “xoconostle” and “escabeche,” “chimichurri” and “queso fresco” and “guacamole” – and then stumble all over their tongues when saying “marinara” and “agnolotti”?
Read my lips: It....is....NOT....pronounced....“mare-uh-NARE-uh.” It is “mah-ree-NAH-rah.” And roll those “r”s. If you can correctly say “hwahk-ah-MOH-lay” rather than the common Americanized “gwahk-ah-MOLE-ee,” why the hell can't you properly say “mah-ree-NAH-rah”? And please tell me why you can make a Spanish-Italian fusion dish, ““huitlacoche agnolotti,” perfectly pronouncing “huitlacoche” and then embarrass yourself by murdering “agnolotti”? Please! It's not “ag-nuh-LOT-ee.” That makes me cringe. Just like when I hear not so learned chefs say “tag-lee-uh-TELL-ee.” (Tagliatelle.) It's “ah-nyoh-LAWT-tee” and “tahl-yah-TAYL-lay.” (Even that's not perfect. I can say it better than I can write it.) And to all you clueless servers in faux-Italian restaurants, don't even get me started on “broo-SKET-uh”.
What really twists my knickers is the fact that Italian is the only language that gets the casual treatment. Do you order a “kwes-uh-DILL-uh” at “Tack-oh Bell”? Of course not. If you asked for a “bur-IT-oh” instead of a “boo-REE-toh,” you would be laughed at. And do you get “BAYG-nets” at “kaffee du MON-dee” in New Orleans. No? Then why do you insist on asking for “broo-SKET-uh” with “mare-uh-NARE-uh” at Olive Garden? Why do you feel obliged to use proper Spanish and correct French, but you can't spare a thought for good Italian? Why is that?
Somebody once tried to sell me the old “accepted through common usage” plow horse. Go back to my Anatole France quote: “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” No matter how often they say it.
And even if your Mama got off the boat straight from the Old Country, you don't get a pass on using final vowels. There's an “o” at the end of “prosciutto” and an “a” at the end of “mozzarella.” They are there because in proper Italian, you pronounce every letter. “Pro-ZHOOT” and “mootz-uh-RELL” may sound Italian to you, but to Italians, it just sounds ignorant. I heard somebody from New York talking about using “ruh-GOT” in a recipe. I had no idea what the hell they were saying. I had to look it up. How does a person mangle “ricotta” that badly?
Speaking of ignorant, is it ignorance or just stupidity when someone corrects you and you refuse to be corrected? Back to “Top Chef,” at least three of the diners correctly pronounced “agnolotti” in front of the chef who prepared the dish and slaughtered the word. And she still persisted in saying it her way. I guess it's true that ignorance is curable but stupid is forever.
And it's not just Americans. The British totally befuddle me. How can a people who commonly say “cAHn't” and “shAHn't” and “fAHst” then turn around and say “PASS-tuh”? I don't get that one at all.
The biggest part of the problem is Italians themselves. They are just too polite to correct people. The French will bite your head off and stuff your tongue down your throat if you screw with their precious language. But Italians just take it with big smiles, even as the hair raises on the backs of their necks. Take my word for it, it aggravates the hell out of most of them, but they just grin and bear it. Well, folks, I'm part Italian but I'm also part French, so I don't do a lot of grinning and bearing when it comes to that sort of thing. I may grin while I correct you, but that's about it. I know a lot of servers think I'm un stronzo (run it through Google Translate), but I'll keep right on correcting them, regardless, because I respect the language. I think at the very least if you're going to serve me something, you should be able to pronounce it.
Okay. (pant, pant) I feel (huff, huff) much better now. I'm going to drag the soapbox back up under the porch and go lie down. I think we're going to an “Italian” place tonight and I really need to rest up.