Parole Perdute – Lost Words – Say goodbye to our Italian immigrant dialect

I’ve said it before and I will say it again - the language of our ancestors, our grandparents, our parents, and ourselves - the italian immigrant “dialect” is literally moments away from extinction. Why? Because as our aging parents approach a ripe old age, we the children of Italian immigrants, have not passed this unique language down to our children, and they will not be able to pass it down to our future generations, therefore, rendering our beloved “language” extinct!

It is time to face the facts: we, the children of Italian immigrants are the last generation to experience the italo-canadian mishmashed makeshift English, created by our parents.  For example: “Ma, make me a sandwich!”  Nu sanguicciu?”  “Ma where are my slippers?” “E sclippere?”  “Ma where’s the garbage?” “U crapicciu?”  “Pop can I take the car?” “U carru?” “Ma where’s my lunch?” “U lonchu?” “Pa do like my new house?” “Nu bellu bungulo!”

What are we to do? Create a dictionary, a thesaurus, or at the very least, a short feature film, to preserve what is left of this sacred tongue. But this is only half of our problem. This mishmashed, makeshift English, is also accompanied by our parents’ traditional old country dialect. For example, my parents are from a tiny remote village, somewhere in the foothills of Consenza. Their Italian does not even resemble the “real Italian” my Saturday morning Italian school teacher tried tirelessly to teach my Cosentino comrades and myself.

The following is a sample of the conversation/lesson that took place in the late 1970’s, that cost that dear Italian teacher his career and possibly his health, one particular Saturday morning: teacher (while pointing to a chair), asked:  “Cosa e questa?”

Quickly, a smart aleck boy, whose parents came from the remote village of “la Petra Mala”, jumped up and shouted, “Maestru, io u sacciu! Chista e una seja!” Even at the tender age of 10, we knew the look on our teacher’s face was a clear indicator that the lesson was heading downhill.

After a few long sips from what we believed to be his “coffee” thermos, teacher redirected the lesson to “body parts” as he tapped his pointer towards our classroom poster of the human skeleton. How were we to know that our quick answers would bring this poor man to his knees.

I’m not sure which Cosentino word caused “the straw that broke the camel’s back” effect. It may very well have been any one of the dozen or so little descendents of numerous remote towns somewhere in the foothills of Calabria: a Petra Mala”,  “i Cannavalli”, “Savuto”, or “Aiello”.   It seemed that as teacher moved his pointer up down that poster, from the skull to the big toe and every bone and body part in between, our loud excited answers caused his body to jerk as though he was at the receiving end of an amateur knife throwing act.

It went something like this:  head - capu, neck - cuolu, ear - ricchia, mouth - vucca, shoulder - spalla, nose - nasu, throat - cannarottsa, arm - vratsu, elbow - vuvitu, wrist - puzzu, chest - pietu, stomach - stomachu,  thigh - cosha, knee - ninochiu, foot - pede, ankle - garunne, and last, but not least, the rear end - culu.

I don’t think it helped that when he told the class it was time for lunch, some of us cheered, “menu male pechi nui simu camatti e mue mangiamu nu bellu lonciu, cu nu sanguiciu e na 7uppa!!”

For some reason, teacher abruptly left us to our own devices. In fact, that was to be the last Saturday morning Italian school class he would ever teach, and to this day, I wonder if it was because of something we said - in our beloved soon to be extinct dialect.

By Dosi Cotroneo