What did you say?

I always think it is incredible when someone asks me if I speak Italian, forgetting that they might not know that I have been here for  thirty years.   Of course I speak Italian; I had to learn it to get along when I first stayed behind in 1982 after the excavations group flew back to the States without me.  And then I remember that there are people living here, people who claim to adore the local culture and society, who after almost as many years still do not speak the language.

How can you live in a place and not learn the language?   I know the answer.  You form your own small comfortable ghetto comprised of people just like you and continue to live in the bubble.  The culture “outside” is a cinematic illusion, to be sampled on outings, a kind of  resident tourism.  You are able to conserve your romantic views of the culture without getting your hands dirty, and without truly understanding what the hell is going on around you.  Good luck with that.

"Castello di Oriolo, Isolato" pencil and metallic pigment on paper

Down where we live, they proudly speak a dialect.  “V’rnallese” is its name, or “Bernaldese” in Italian.  It is one of hundreds, each uniquely-evolved on top of  crowded hilltops  in tiny anthill-like communities over three thousand years or more.  And yet these dialects are sprung from common roots:  Greek of course, as this area was Magna Graecia after all,  and Arabic.  Neopolitan, the “real”  Italian language, not that flat and colorless version spoken in Florence, which, thanks to television and the Republic, is today considered the standard version.  And smatterings of other languages as well.  Near us there are towns which conserve their Albanian language, including their street signs.  There are also towns which still have strong Aramaic roots in their dialect.  French, Spanish, even recent English contributions: In Bari they say “celery” for the Italian sedano, I am sure because of the second world war and the number of American servicemen there.   In Bernalda there are many oldsters who are known as “Shoomak” which reflects their experience as emigrants to the USA where they worked at making and repairing shoes to survive.   All these cultural contributions are smudged together in each small town to create a particular version unique to that town.

My learning curve was a little steep, because all my friends here typically spoke this dialect among themselves, although they could be prevailed upon to translate for me into Italian. If I had known Italian at that point I would have had it made!   However I spent many an evening laughing along with the group in utter ignorance of what was going on.  But I can be perceptive, and this saved me on many occasions in following the gist of things by observing body language and context in order to muddle through.   In the 1980’s, being young and blonde, it wasn’t hard to get along on nods and  smiles.

Notice I said “they” speak a dialect.  This is to say, while I understand almost everything (although I still encounter an obscure term every few days or so, and have to learn it) I do NOT speak it.  I think it.  So my cerebral routing procedure is as follows:  English to dialect, dialect to Italian.  The reason I don’t speak dialect I suppose comes from a sense of pride in my almost-perfect Italian pronunciation (people may or may not know that I am “not from around here”)…and it is also because I don’t relish the smirks and ironic comments which so often greeted my attempts at formulating thoughts in dialect.  OK, I learn.  In my mind, I speak it acceptably, but I still trust my Italian interlocutor to express my ideas.  And that Italian, in my case, is heavily-inflected with the southern accent of these parts, of which I am proud.  I ignore smirks from northerners as well.

I have spoken American English to my kids ever since they were in the womb.  They had to deal with the two most important people in their lives speaking entirely different languages to them at all times.  The conversations between myself and my husband are invariably in Italian, unless we are in the USA and he is required to use English, in which case he may surprise us all with his ability.   My kids and I speak English to each other, and they speak Italian with my husband.  It can get interesting at times, as we lapse into a strange patois  without realizing it!  “Ma!   Puozz’mangnia’ some of those biscuott’ you bought stamattina dal forno over by the ufficio postale?” *    The upshot is that my kids are truly native speakers, and by that I mean indistinguishable from natives, in both languages.  Of course we hope that this brain re-wiring will do us all good in some way.  We are flexible, and sometimes we are also confused!

I have my favorite examples, of course, of the incredible disparity between classic Italian and our jealously-preserved dialect.  My spellings are the best I can do to approach a phonetic  definition.  I enjoy following the town discussions on Facebook, where people’s attempts to write in dialect can be quite amusing.  Traditionally it has not been a written language, although scholarly types have published a couple of books on it recently.

Directly from the Greek is the orange, or arancia, which is the portaialla in Pisticci, the next town over, and l’ammaranch’ in Bernalda.   Need some wine, or vino?  Ask for “na zicca d’mieeruh.”  A napkin, or tovagliolo,  is “ooh shtiavruccula.”    Snails, or lumache?        “Cozzaiuffula.” 

Over in Pisticci, they came up with a relatively new expression–in the last century– to designate the mirage which sometimes forms over  asphalt, and I absolutely love it.   “Ooh marawall” means, roughly translating into Italian and English, “uguale al mare” which is, poetically, “the same as the sea.”    And it is!

In Italian, to ask, “If you are ready to go, let’s go, and if you’re not, we’ll stay” you might say, “Se dobbiamo andare, andiamo.  Se no, non ce ne andiamo piu‘.    In Vrnallese:  “Se ‘na ma shee, sha ma nneen.  Se nun a ma shee, nunn’ a shiamma shenn.”  It really does roll  musically off the tongue.

It is important to know which day you are speaking about, so “today,”  or “oggi”,  is ” iosh‘.”

Tomorrow, or “domani,” is “cra.”

The day after tomorrow, “dopo domani,”  is “p’scra,” and the day after that is “p’screedd.”     (The double consonant indicates a firmer pressure of the tongue against the palate.)

And the day after that?   “P’scruofula!”

"What (She Says) He Said" oil on canvas

*”Mom, can I eat some of the cookies you bought this morning from the bakery near the post office?”

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6 thoughts on “What did you say?

  1. Fabulous story! Perhaps you saw some of the recent research reports that state people who learn 2 languages at a young age are much less likely to suffer dementia in old age. That bodes well for your children and has helped motivate me to take Italian language lessons (although at my age it may be too late for the benefits noted in the studies). Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights on this blog, and your wonderful artwork, too.

  2. Geoff, I like to believe that speaking more than one language helps the mind. Although there have been some interesting times when, not being able to distinguish between the two anymore, I have spouted Italian at someone here, or English there, and had to endure the blank stares. Until I realized where I was!

    1. I’m reminded of a friend who moved here, to Raleigh, from Naples many years ago. When he arrived, his English was pretty limited but he developed excellent English language skill within the three years he stayed here. One day, after he’d lived here about 2 years, he excitedly told me of driving down the street and suddenly realizing he was thinking in English instead of Italian! I can imagine that this was quite a remarkable moment in his life.

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