Nancy C. Carnevale (Author of the book "A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945")

Dialetti e lingue tra gli immigrati Italiani in America: incontriamo la professoressa Nancy C. Carnevale

Apr 02, 2018 4476 ITA ENG

When you leave your homeland with almost nothing, for a land you don't know, where people you don't know speak a language you don't know, the shock is almost unbearable. That's what happened to millions of Italians during the mass emigration period.

The studies about Italian American dialects and how our fellow Italians adapted their way to speak to their new home is fascinating and very important. This is why we're glad to host Professor Nancy C. Carnevale, Associate Professor of History at Montclair State University and winner of a 2010 American Book Award for "A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945"

Italian language, American language, Italian dialect: Nancy, how did the Italian immigrants juggled between those three in the years of the mass migration between XIX and XX century?

Not unlike other immigrant groups in the U.S., Italian immigrants quickly developed their own hybrid language(s) to communicate in the absence of a commonly understood language. I use the plural because there was no one version; what people spoke could vary widely, from an Americanized Italian to an Italianized English with many transitional forms in between, or even a relatively pure dialect mingled with just a few words of “Italglish.” Even people from different localities within the same region had differences in their speech.  

So, for example, someone from one town in Sicily might use “abburdatu” to refer to boarders while another might say “bburdatu.” These hybrid forms were not simply a matter of adding some nouns: new verbs were created with their own conjugations (such as “faitare” = “to fight”) as well as idiomatic expressions. To take one example, in New York City, “andarre a Flabussce” (“to go to Flatbush”) was a euphemism for dying, a reference to the cemetery there. It could even vary between individual speakers.  

Immigrants with limited fluency in English in every wave of migrants used these hybrid languages, from the era of mass migration to the postwar era, and the post-1965 wave. 

What was the difference between home and outside?

The dialects are traditionally the languages of home and family in Italy; this was also often the case in the U.S. It was not uncommon for American born children to be fluent in their parents' dialect although it was also common for the children to have only a passive knowledge, ie, the ability to understand but not speak the dialect, responding in English, which their parents could understand but had limited fluency in. 

Outside, depending on the context, the immigrant generation used dialect, or their form of “Italglish” to communicate with co-nationals, immigrants from other countries, or the American-born.

Did Italians from different regions understand each other when speaking their own dialects?

Italians from different regions understood each other to varying degrees. In some cases, the differences were a matter of accents, and some vocabulary or idiomatic expressions, but in others the differences between regions -even between localities - could be profound. Since most of the immigrants to the U.S. were from the South, Neapolitan, as the most widely understood of the dialects, served as something of a linguistic common ground.   

Was there a different linguistic approach or development between Italian men and Italian women?

Because in the early years in the era of mass migration, married Italian immigrant women often worked in the home, not only raising children and maintaining households but engaging in various types of homework such as finishing garments, making artificial flowers, etc. They tended to learn English more slowly than men who worked outside the home with the American born, as well as Italians from other parts of Italy.

Typically, immigrant women across cultures and time periods assume the role of maintaining the culture of origin which may also help account for lower rates of English language acquisition in the U.S.

Please tell us something about Edoardo Migliaccio, "Farfariello". There was a developing of a sort of new language, "Italianizing" English words, right?

The variety performer, Eduardo Migliaccio aka "Farfariello" (1880-1946) was unique for performing in the hybrid language (the most common variant of it, spoken on the East Coast). He did not create the language but his comedic sketches and song lyrics represent one of the very few written forms of this speech. He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary performer, widely loved by the Italian immigrants and admired by American theater buffs.   

He regularly performed his macchiette colonial - comedic character sketches of immigrant life - in the downtown theaters of New York City and occasionally went on tour. His genial impersonations captured typical types found within the "Little Italies" - the iceman, the Italian patriot, and many more - to great effect. He also impersonated women, often performing in drag. He changed characters (and clothes) multiple times within a single performance.   

Caruso was a big admirer (Migliaccio also impersonated him to great effect). Later, he went on to have some success on the radio. He deserves to be more widely known/remembered.

Were there differences in the developing of this topic between the different American areas where the Italians settled?

The hybrid languages spoken by the immigrants varied depending on area of settlement. Although most of the immigrants originated from the southern provinces of Italy, a substantial number of Northern Italians settled in California. Northern Italians tended to have higher literacy in Italian as well so that the hybrid languages they developed was inflected by more standard Italian and Northern dialects than elsewhere in the country.   

The different places the immigrant generation settled also led to the need for terms that were not used elsewhere. The word “ranchio” (“ranch”), for example, was used in the Western U.S., but there was no need for it in the cities of the Midwest and the East Coast. Other immigrant languages also influenced the hybrid versions and these too varied according to what part of the country the Italians settled in. 

How did this topic evolve through the decades?

The second generation - those born in the U.S. - readily learned English in school and often retained at least a passive knowledge of dialect or the hybridized language spoken by the immigrant generation. As is the case with other groups, succeeding generations were less likely to maintain these linguistic connections to the past. 

It is worth noting, however, that Italian Americans appear more likely to use language to signal ethnic identity. This continues to be seen in popular culture such as film and television where it is not uncommon to hear isolated expressions or dialect, sometimes profane.

It is also important to remember that Italian immigration to the U.S. continued well into the twentieth century, which meant the language and culture, were periodically renewed. Although the legislation of the early 1920s made it difficult for them to emigrate to the U.S., Italians continued to arrive through various channels.

Today, there is a new wave - a “brain drain” of young, educated Italians emigrating to the U.S. and elsewhere in search of professional opportunities. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 in particular led to a significant increase in Italian immigration - they were the largest European group to immigrate to the U.S. in that era. This explains how as late as the 1970s, Italian was the second most common foreign language spoken in the home (Spanish was the first). But again, with the succeeding generations, the dialects including the hybridized languages, were often lost.

We're very curious about the use of Italian words in the naming of Italian American recipes, dishes that do not exist in Italy but are very popular among the Italian Americans…

Like languages, cuisines are transformed through migration. Many staples of Italian American cooking are unique to the U.S. even though their Italian or Italian-like names suggest that they originated in Italy. Developed by the immigrants, they often reflected the new social realities they encountered, such as the greater ability to afford meat (so, in addition to melanzane alla parmigiana, we also have chicken, and veal “parmesan”). Examples of entirely new dishes with Italianized names include the muffuletta - a sandwich developed in New Orleans, and the widely used term marinara to refer to a typical red sauce even though it is not a term used in Italy.

How is the knowledge and teaching of the Italian language among the Italian Americans today?

As with other immigrant groups, language has largely not been transmitted through the generations by Italian Americans. There are many reasons for this. Because of the premium American society has long placed on the English language, language maintenance has been especially difficult in the U.S. In any case, since most of the early immigrant generations spoke a dialect, if any language was transmitted, it was a dialect, however, the devaluation of the dialects in Italy provided little incentive to immigrant parents to pass them on.

Standard Italian required schooling in Italy which few among the pre-war immigrants had. Even those in the post-1965 wave were often dialect speakers since the use of the dialects remained widespread as the diffusion of popular Italian throughout the country (largely through the medium of television) was a slow process, particularly in rural areas of the South which continued to provide the bulk of immigrants to the U.S.

There seems to be more success in transmitting Italian among the recent migrants beginning with the “brain drain” of the 1980s/90s. They have also aided by the heightened standing of Italy in recent decades with its association with high fashion, food, and design.

The stigma earlier generations faced when Italians were a despised minority certainly contributed to language loss. Language maintenance was even more difficult at particular historical moments such as World War II when for a time, Italian nationals were deemed enemy aliens, a status which colored the view of Italian Americans in general.

In the U.S., Italian has not been as widely taught as other European languages such as French, German, or Spanish. In recent years, a renewed effort to make the language available to high school and college students had some success, but the numbers of students of the language are in decline and Italian language departments across the country are in peril. As of 2010, Italian was still just barely among the top ten foreign languages spoken in the U.S., but it is dropping at a faster rate than any of the other languages. 

You may be interested