You Say Prosciutto, I Say Pro-SHOOT, and Purists Cringe

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 20 18:28:08 UTC 2004

>>From the NYTimes, September 20, 2004

You Say Prosciutto, I Say Pro-SHOOT, and Purists Cringe

Ann Gustafson can discuss food - especially Italian food. She spent many
days in the Bronx with her Sicilian grandmother, Sebastiana Ceraolo,
learning how to cook with mozzarella. Only Mrs. Gustafson did not call it
"mozzarella.'' She said "mozzarell.''


Not to many New Yorkers or New Jerseyans. (Doesn't Tony Soprano drop his
final vowels?) Not to some vendors at the annual Feast of San Gennaro in
Little Italy this week. But it makes Italian teachers, the purists who
love the language just as Dante wrote it, wince. They suffer prosciutto
(pro-SHOOT-toe) becoming pro-SHOOT, calzone (cal-TSO-nay) becoming
cal-ZONE and pasta e fagioli (PAH-stah eh faj-YOH-lee) becoming pasta
fasul (fa-ZOOL).

Outside a butcher shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, recently, Mrs. Gustafson
said that her language lessons were conducted at the kitchen table.
"Everything I know about Italian is food-centric," she said, adding that
her grandmother was not educated and could not spell the words as she
wrote down her recipes, which ended up half in Italian, half in English.
Neither grandma nor anyone in her neighborhood, the Morris Park section of
the Bronx, which had a large enclave of Italian immigrants, ever
challenged Mrs. Gustafson's pronunciation. And neither did the Italian
butcher who pronounced his final vowels.

"The Italians - they don't correct," Mrs. Gustafson, 34, said. "They're
not like the French, who will correct you." Stefano Albertini, who is the
director of New York University's Italian cultural center, Casa Italiana
Zerilli-Marim, agreed. "Generally speaking, Italians are rather grateful
to anyone who speaks in Italian," he said.  "They think Italian comes in
so many varieties and accents."

In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common.
Restaurantgoers and food shoppers in the United States ended up imitating
southern and northern dialects, where speakers often do not speak their
endings, Professor Albertini said. Liliana Dussi, a retired New York
district director for the Berlitz language schools, said many first- and
second-generation Italians whose ancestors immigrated to the United States
before World War I were informally taught Italian expressions and the
names of food, some of which has ended up part of everyday language in New
York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

And Gregory Pell, an assistant professor at Hofstra University who teaches
Italian, said that because of the way double consonants were spoken, such
as the double "t" in manicotti, Americans might not clearly hear the last
"ee" sound. When New Yorkers drop their endings, he said, "it's become a
new word and its own version." Professor Albertini, speaking from an
educated, native Italian's perspective, said "it makes us cringe sometimes
at the beginning, but we get used to it."

Ms. Dussi said that she did hear some lovely Italian spoken in New York,
which she attributed to widespread use of computerized language lessons
and an emphasis on education. American universities teach the standardized
version, which is based on 13th-century Florentine vernacular and
pronunciations. And only once in her 20 years in working for Berlitz did a
student specifically ask to learn a dialect, Ms. Dussi said. That student
worked as an agent for the F.B.I. and wanted to speak like a Sicilian.

The rest of us can improve by following some simple rules. "In proper
Italian, you always pronounce every letter and the double consonants," Ms.
Dussi said. "The only letter you don't pronounce is the silent h." That
is, pronounce all final vowels, including the final sound in manicotti.
For the word bella, which means beautiful and contains a double consonant,
the correct pronunciation is "bel-la" not "bel-a," she said.

Within the 20 regions in Italy, 10 to 18 main dialects are currently
spoken, Professor Pell said, and if they are broken down by their nuances,
the count could go into the hundreds. Historically, each dialect is
virtually a different language. Joseph Trovato, who owns an Italian
restaurant in Brooklyn, said that he understood dialects from Bari,
Sicilian and Naples but that when his son, Lenny, studied Italian in
college, he could not help him: "I didn't understand what he was saying."

Among the class conscious, anything less than standardized Italian is
sneered at, Professor Albertini said. But many say it is more of a
personal choice when to speak in dialect. In Ms. Dussi's native region of
Istria, now a part of Croatia, the teacher who taught standard Italian in
school would speak in the local tongue once the final school bell rang.
Some find it easier to start with the standard. "If I speak with an
Italian guy who is a stranger, it's not in a dialect," said Sal Chimienti,
a member of a Brooklyn Italian social club, Mola Club. "It's in perfect
Italian." Although Mr. Chimienti said he understood almost all Italian
dialects, when his wife, Mary, a native of Naples, was alive, they spoke
to each other in English.

Tony Affronti, who owns Los Paisanos Meat Market in Brooklyn, said he made
no attempt to teach his English-speaking customers the proper Italian
pronunciations. Likewise, some of them do not even attempt to pronounce
the names of the Italian meats lining the showcase. "They look and say,
'What's this over here?' " he said, imitating the flick of their head.
As for the linguistically challenged, who mangle "prosciutto," he said,
"as soon as they open their mouths, we know exactly what they want."

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