The Mayans, Atlantis, the Roman Empire…where are they today? I have expressed these concerns in the past, and I will continue to express them in the future. The language of our Italian ancestors, our forefathers, our grandparents, and of course, our Italian immigrant parents may very well soon become extinct. Frightening? Yes. Disappointing? Yes. Impossible to save? No. My father scolds me time and again as to why his grandchildren are not fluent in Italian. Worse than that, he waves his fists when he is trying, once again, to communicate with my young brood in his Cosenzentino dialect, feeling misunderstood, isolated, agitated, and of course, disappointed with his daughters.
Where have we, the children of Italian immigrants gone wrong? As a new mother, I started off speaking Italian with my newborns. I was determined that my children would carry on the traditional language of my parents, forefathers, ancestors, etc. Somewhere along the way, the husband and I decided reverted from Italian to English, and before we knew it, our children were starting school with English as their first language. The rest, as they say is history. Short of understanding basic dialect focusing on food shared over Sunday dinners with my parents, for example, pane, latte, carne and aqua, my children, now young adults, resent the fact that their Italian parents greatly failed them in passing along this sacred tongue.
My father shouts, (fists pounding on the dinner table), “Too a latey!” At this point husband and I begin arguing over who was responsible for not enrolling the children in Saturday morning Italian school classes. I blame him for enrolling the boys in hockey and he blames me for enrolling the girl in dance. As the family peacekeeper, I offer to purchase the children Rosetta Stone Italian lessons. The side of the package says they should be fluent within a few short weeks. My parents chime in that they may not live that long! What is the child of Italian immigrant parents to do? Sadly, it is a lose-lose situation. The children angry on one side of the table, the parents, on the phone with their Italian lawyer, preparing to write their three disappointing daughters out of the will.
Suddenly, my memory is jarred and I remind my parents about how they have failed their three daughters by never speaking “proper Italian” to us. In a bold move, I toss dialect words in their faces that they deny ever speaking, and try to cover up their shame with the “proper or real Italian synonym”. For example, I remind pop of the time he took me to the family doctor as I had a devil of a sore throat. The doctor, always inquisitive about learning a new Italian word or two, asked me, “how does one say the word throat in Italian?” As a young child of only seven or eight, I replied, (much to the horror of my father) “cannarotsa”, followed by, “how does one say swallow in Italian?” and I replied, “colarre”. It continued – much like a gameshow called Cosentino Password. “Rain – chiove. Hot – cavuru. Cold – fridu. And the kicker – “knee – ninnochiu.”
The sea was angry that day my friends. My father turned as red as chili pepper, and I had never noticed how the vein in his right temple protruded when it trembled. Stammering to the doctor that I was a foolish child and those words were incorrect. The proper words were quite foreign to me actually – “gola, inghioitire, pioggia, caldo, freddo, ginochhio”. I asked myself, “WTF?” As my father dragged me home by the arm (firm grip I recall), he scolded me as to where those “shtupido” words came from. “Tuni e mamma mam paratu!” I cried. “Pa, te se riscodato quando hai domandatu, Dosi, te fa malla gola. Po colare. Yiamo arru medicu?” It was at that point that pop muttered some words to himself that I had never heard before. In fact, when I tried to repeat them at the dinner table that night, my mother bit the side of her trembling hand and my sisters fell off their chairs laughing.
The embarrassment for my parents was not to end there, as one afternoon, a phone call home from my high school Italian teacher went something like this: “Mr. Feraco, what language do you speak to your children at home?” Pop replied, “Italiano. Perche?” “Well, when I asked the class, “does anybody know how to say chair in Italian, your daughter quickly raised her hand.” For one brief, shining moment, Pop felt a twinge of pride for me. “She’s a very a smarty eh?” The moment was not to last, well, more than a moment, as my teacher replied, “well, actually, she answered with, “Teachero, io u sachu, i e na seja!” Pop went silent for a minute, or two or three. Fortunately, his color came back after a shot or two of Sambuca. I think the call ended with, “Can you please try to speak “proper” Italian at home Mr. Feraco, since my class is now confused and finds this Consentino dialect much more fun and interesting than “the real Italian”.
As this column prepares to go to press, I will not give up on my mission of preserving this ancient tongue. I am preparing a Cosentino dialect dictionary that will be handed down from my children to theirs, for generations to come, much like the Bible I am hoping. Maybe, just maybe, mom and pop will finally, for one brief shining moment, be proud of me….”Beh, speriammu!”
By Dosi Cotroneo