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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!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Explanation Of Why Some People Massacre Italian

Lookin' At You, New York and New Jersey!

I have long ranted and raved about misspoken Italian, particularly the brand misspoken along the Eastern Seaboard.

In the My Fair Lady song “Why Can't The English?”, Henry Higgins comments on the state of the English language, lamenting:

One common language I'm afraid we'll never get.
Oh, why can't the English learn to
set a good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely
disappears.
Well, in America, they haven't used it for years!

I got news for ya, Hank; they ain't been usin' Italian in America for years, either. And never mind the Scots and the Irish. You want close to tears? Listen to New Yorkers and/or New Jerseyans/ites mangle and massacre the most lyrical language on earth.

“Mootz-uh-RELL?” “Pruh-ZHOOT?” I once heard somebody talking about getting some “ruh-GOAT” and I didn't even know what they were saying. Never mind “gah-bah-GOOL.” I mean, what the hell language is that? It certainly isn't Italian, where those miserably tortured words are actually “mozzarella,” “prosciutto,” “ricotta,” and “capicolla.” And don't even get me started on “MARE-ee-oh” versus “MAH-ree-oh.” Where do these people – millions of them – get these horrible mispronunciations? And why do they persist in using them even when they know better? I've seen it on TV: somebody like Anne Burrell will properly pronounce “prosciutto” in a sentence, and then somebody like Rachael Ray will repeat basically the same sentence and call it “pruh-ZHOOT.” Mi fa impazzire!

Here's the answer: it's all Grandma and Grandpa's fault. Or maybe great-Grandma and great-Grandpa. And the point is, these progenitors of two or three (or more) generations ago weren't really ignorant; they were simply speaking another language; a language other than Italian.

The political entity we know as Italy did not exist until 1861. Before that time – and actually for a few years after – the Italian peninsula was populated by fighting, feuding, warring, struggling principalities and city-states that were, in effect, separate countries. And each country had its own language. Today we call the countries “regions” and the native languages “dialects.” There were linguistic similarities, to be sure, but it was not uncommon in those pre-Risorgimento days for people from one area to travel to a neighboring area and not be able to fully understand one another.

The unification process started around 1815 and continued until about 1870, with 1861 marking the establishment of a “unified” Kingdom of Italy. Some contend that actual unification was not complete until after WWI. But they still had to work out a few bugs. One of the biggest bugs was a lack of a common language. How do you govern a country where nobody uses the same words to describe the same things? Garibaldi could have been in Higgins' shoes, singing “one common language I'm afraid we'll never get.” Except ultimately they did. I'm not going to do pages of history here: suffice it to say that the choice was made to elevate the Tuscan dialect – the language of Dante and Petrarch – to “official” status, and the language we now know as “Italian” was born.

It was not a universally popular or accepted idea at the time. Think of it: if you lived in Atlanta and the government came and told you you had to start saying “youse guys” instead of “y'all,” you would probably resist a bit. And even the people who grudgingly acquiesced to the new “Italian” still used their native way of speaking in their homes and among their families.

Now comes the relevant part – and yes, there is one: The unified Italy was a great concept on paper. The problem was that “unification” wasn't all as equal as it sounded. There developed a class struggle between the northern and southern parts of the new country. Kind of like what happened here in America except with different issues and different end results. The power wound up being consolidated in the Italian North and the South felt that they got the short end of the stick. But rather than take up arms, the disenfranchised people of the South headed for the boats. Tens of millions of them. En masse. Which would actually be “di massa” in Italian. Most of them sailed to America and most of the ones that landed here landed in New York. They spread out a little, eventually covering Long Island, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the area around Philadelphia. They brought with them their native customs, their native foods, and, of course, their native languages; languages that were not always the new “Italian.” Sicilians, Campanians, Calabrians, and others brought their unique dialects with them from the Old World to the New and settled in enclaves and neighborhoods where those unique speech patterns were perpetuated and passed on to succeeding generations. Even though they technically came from the same “country,” none of them were “countrymen.”

To make a really long explanation much shorter, the people in America who say things like “mootz-uh-RELL and “gah-bah-GOOL” are actually speaking a dead language. It's not “Italian.” It's an Italian dialect, but one that really doesn't exist anymore. If a dyed-in-the-wool Italian-American from New Jersey were to go into a salumeria almost anywhere in Italy and ask for “gah-bah-GOOL,” the proprietor would look at him like he was speaking a foreign language. Because he would be; one that died out over a hundred years ago, but is kept alive based on nothing more than tradition. You say “gabagool” because that's the way your nonna or your bisnonna said it when she came here from the Old Country, wherever that might have been. That wasn't necessarily “Italian;” it was whatever dialect she spoke when she came here. And that pronunciation got handed down through successive generations and that's why you say it the way you do. You might find a 90-year-old shopkeeper in Palermo who knew what you were talking about, but good luck with that in Rome. Because it's not Italian.

There's a mind-numbingly scholarly piece over at www.atlasobscura.com that goes into all the details of vowel deletion and voiceless consonants and raised sounds and other linguistic arcana. You can read about it at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-capicola-became-gabagool-the-italian-new-jersey-accent-explained. But there's one sentence there that sort of sums it up: “Italian-American Italian is not at all like Standard Italian; instead it’s a construction of the frozen shards left over from languages that don’t even really exist in Italy anymore with minimal intervention from modern Italian.”

The Italian side of my family hails from Emilia-Romagna and they got to North America before Italy was Italy. So I have no doubt there were some odd pronunciations somewhere in my family's past as well. But we wound up in Canada. French Canada. Just thinking about how “gabagool” would translate in French makes my head hurt. So when I learned Italian, it was “proper” Italian and not something filtered through a dialect.

Now I don't think for one tiny little second that anything I've written here or anything at Atlas Obscura is going to make the slightest difference to any of the Italian-American crowd who loudly and proudly say “pruh-ZHOOT” and “mootz-uh-RELL.” It's their piece of the Italian experience and they're gonna stick with it no matter what some Internet brainiac says. Especially an Italian-French Canadian. I mean, what do I know? Other than the fact that most of them probably don't know any “real” Italian at all and are limited to a few mangled words from their ancestral past. Another quote from Atlas Obscura seems appropriate: “There’s something both a little silly and a little wonderful about someone who doesn’t even speak the language putting on an antiquated accent for a dead sub-language to order some cheese.”

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