“The Beautiful Italian”

by Marc J. Randazza

I grew up hearing what I thought was “Italian.”

As I busted through my grandparents’ door, as soon as one of them saw it was me, “Figghiu miu!” (my son!) echoed through the house. “Bu mangiati?” (you want to eat?) My grandfathers brought me down to the docks in Gloucester, where everyone was Sicilian, and I heard “Italian” all the time. I didn’t learn to speak it back then, and I didn’t really understand it perfectly, but I could often follow the conversation.

When I was 20, I decided that it was time to study Italian. I sat down at my desk in Perugia, and opened my book as the teacher began speaking to us.

I couldn’t follow a single word.

This was not what my grandparents spoke. This wasn’t what the old men spoke down at Dulie’s, the coffeeshop by the wharf.

I remember going with a friend to a restaurant in Italy shortly after. He explained that this place was known for its “lumacche.” When the bowl of snails arrived, I exclaimed with delight, babbalugi!

Everyone laughed. “That’s not Italian, my friend. That’s dialetto” (dialect) “that’s Sicilian slang.”

I returned home, fluent in “Italian.” My grandparents gathered friends and relatives to welcome me home. My grandmother beamed with pride and said “he speaks the beautiful Italian.”

“Not like ours. Ours is just slang,” said a great aunt.

That conversation always made me sad.

Imagine having such a cultural inferiority complex that you would imply that yours was “the ugly” language.

What is a “dialect” and what is a “language?” Max Weinreich said “A language is a dialect with an army.” Sicily has never had its own army. Neither has Abruzzo or Puglia or Campania. But they have their own languages, with their own histories, and their own literature. Italian is dominant, but all over Italy there is renewed interest in the regional languages. Even in America, where descendants of immigrants are learning Napolitano or Sicilianu along with Italian or even instead of “standard” Italian.

Exploring these regional languages is like a trip back in time. When Italy became a unified country, even the King did not speak “Italian.” In fact, only 3% of the country spoke this constructed language — which was really an adaptation of the Florentine “dialect.” In the 1800s, “the beautiful Italian” really became spread through literature. And in the far flung portions of the country, many did not usually hear, and certainly did not speak Italian well into the 1960s, but then television and radio chipped away at them further.

When I visit Terrasini, where my grandparents came from, even I struggle to understand everything at first. But, after a short time, I hear those old voices singing back to me from my youth. I hear the old women singing in their apartments, and I see my grandmother again. I hear the old men arguing in the café, and I am back on the wharf early in the morning, drinking coffee even though I am only 10.

During one visit to Sicily, we met some relatives and spent a few hours chatting. Slowly, but surely, I fell happily into a mix of Italian and Sicilian, using what Sicilian words I knew, and filling in the rest with Italian.

After a while, my daughter Natalia, who speaks fluent Italian, got bored. She was seven years old and had had enough. She tugged at my arm, getting more and more impatient. Finally, her patience shattered and she yelled out “DADDY AMUNINNI” – which is perfect Sicilian for “andiamo” or “let’s go!”

This, on Via Ungheria in Terrasini, the very street where my great grandparents lived.

As far as I was concerned, Natalia spoke “the beautiful Italian.”

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