[lg policy] Speaking to My Father in a Dead Dialect

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 26 20:16:41 UTC 2014

forwarded from Wfierman at Indiana.du

Speaking to My Father in a Dead Dialect


June 25, 2014 8:16 pm

Private Lives

Private Lives: Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our

The 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico believed that as a
civilization progressed, it lost touch with its creative origins. An
ancient warrior would never declare “I’m angry”; he would wax metaphorical
with “my blood boils.” The Roman poet Horace went a step further, believing
that when words died they took memories with them. Just as forests change
their leaves each year, so, too, do words: new languages “bloom and thrive”
but only after “the old race dies.”

Growing up, I could feel the language of my parents wither and die like
autumn leaves. They had immigrated to the United States from Calabria in
the late 1950s and continued to speak the dialect of their poor southern
Italian region, but it was a tongue frozen in time by exile and filled with
words that no longer existed in their homeland.

After a decade in America, my father decided to buy a fancy car. The
Italian for a car is “una macchina,” and the Calabrian equivalent is “’na
macchina.” But in the car-crazy suburbs of postwar America, an immigrant
such as my father was bound to defer to his host nation. He went to the
Chevy dealership and asked for “’nu carru.” The Calabrian “’nu” sounds like
new, and “carro” means cart. But the dealership knew what he meant, and
sold my father a maroon 1967 Chevy Impala. He bought it the year that I,
his first American child, was born.

My father’s dialect flourished only in fits of anger: “mala nuova ti vo’
venire” (“may a new harm befall you”), when you annoyed him; “ti vo’
pigliare ’na shcuppettata” (“may you be shot”) and “ti vo’ brusciare
l’erba” (“may the ground beneath you combust”) when you really got under
his skin. It’s difficult to translate these makeshift phrases. Better just
to imagine them uttered by a man who could pick up a small backyard shed.

My mother faced her own herculean linguistic challenges. There were no
freezers in her Italy, so when she wanted to preserve goods on ice, she
talked about “frizzare,” to freeze, rather than the standard “congelare.”
When her six children got the best of her, she threw her hands up and added
an extra vowel to the ends of her Americanized words. We washed our clothes
in a “uascinga mascina,” vacuumed the carpet with a “vachiuma cleena,” and
drank lemonade on the “porciu” — the porch.

Luke Best

My parents’ skirmishes with standard Italian were nothing compared to the
all-out war they waged on English. They would answer calls for their sons
by saying “she’s a no’ home.” I took this gender-bending as an assertion of
my individuality, my access to a world that separated me from all the other
kids on the block. I may have lived in a three-bedroom ranch just like
everyone else, but we were different. My family had no need to worship the
idols of the second- and third-generation immigrants, with their cries of
“mamma mia.” When my father swore at me in Italian, he did so out of anger
and not nostalgia.

This authenticity extended to the table. While my friends with grandparents
from Sicily talked about Italian food, my parents produced it. Each year
they churned out hundreds of jars of preserved peaches, pears and tomatoes;
gallons of red wine; and bushels of cucumbers, peas and potatoes. Plus the
showpiece crop, squash.

One year the local paper took a photo of my father and his prizewinning,
five-foot-long gourds. Sensing he was on display, he stayed silent for the
whole shoot. He didn’t understand how feeding your family could translate
into a human-interest story. But make no mistake: he was proud to have
created such a prodigious vegetable, and he made sure the part in his hair
was just so when the picture was snapped. His face was wrinkled, and he had
to lean on his cane when he reached for the prize gourd. He was only in his
60s but old age had been forced upon him prematurely by a massive stroke
that paralyzed most of his left side.

My father struggled to explain to the photographer how he grew his
vegetables. He had only Calabrian words for the plants, procedures and
tools. Each of his children had attained some form of higher education and,
with it, freedom from the strife and poverty that had chased him from
Italy. We now found his background primitive and remote. He had translated
or “carried over” both a family and a dialect. After all this, he believed
it was his right to talk about his squash on his own terms. Around the time
of the photo, he poured a cement base for a picnic table near his garden.
Before it dried, he signed it with a branch: P.L. Nato Acri 1923. Pasquale
Luzzi, born in Acri, Italy, 1923. He died just months later, at the end of
summer in 1995. In the obituary, my father’s passion for gardening was
listed as his “hobby,” a word that didn’t exist in his Calabrian.

After his death, I would hear my father’s voice but didn’t know how to
respond. When I imagined myself speaking to him in English, it sounded
pedantic and prissy. Answering in Italian was no less stilted, either when
I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was
unnatural to both of us. I had so much to tell him but no way to say it, a
reflection of our relationship during his lifetime. Without his words, I
was losing a way to describe the world. Memories suddenly mattered more
than ever before, and I didn’t know if I could find the language to keep
them alive.

Dante wrote in his treatise on language that though men and women must
communicate with words, angels can talk to one another in silence. Speaking
with someone who has died is similar. You learn early on that it is best to
concentrate on the person you’ve lost with as little verbal clutter as
possible. Perhaps this Calabrian I now speak with my father is the truly
dead dialect, the language that neither changes nor translates.

When I think of him now, I see him digging in his garden, unearthing the
ficuzza, Calabrian for his beloved fig tree, from its winter slumber and
propping it up for the coming spring. But once I put a word to this
picture, once this “ficuzza” becomes a “fico,” standard Italian for fig
tree, he will have left me. This is when mourning becomes memory, and when
it’s time to say goodbye to a language and a person I knew all too briefly.

Joseph Luzzi teaches at Bard and is the author of the forthcoming memoir
“My Two Italies,” from which this essay was adapted


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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