An Italian laboorah was distractedly searching the construction site for some too-bah-forra and an eencho of lead piping. He was having a rotten day. First he ran out of gasso on the way to work. Then he discovered he’d forgotten his loncheeboxa. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he was late getting back from buying his loncho and the impatient formannee shouted: “Ahrree-ahppa\" Small wonder that, in his agitation, he tripped over some breekee and broke his leg.
Got that? The odd-looking words are neither Italian (Italiano) nor English (Inglese) but a little of both. They are Italiese— a hybrid language, invented by workingclass immigrants, which recently acquired the ultimate respectability. It became the object of research. Soon, it will be brought together for the first time in a book by University of Toronto professor Gianrenzo Clivio that will include a dictionary of the 2,000 words and expressions currently in circulation. Clivio explains that the flood of postwar Italian immigrants to Canada developed their own language by inserting English words into the grammatical structures of their native tongue. Although some linguistic accommodation takes place whenever one language collides with another, Italiese is the first to provoke serious study in Canada, mainly because of its extensive use by the Canadians (538,360 in the 1971 census) who name Italian as their first language.
Italiese will thrive only as long as there are large groups of first-generation ItaloCanadians, but it has been an indispensable part of their cultural integration. Many Italian immigrants, arriving from small towns and speaking dialect instead of standard Italian, found they had to make up new words for things they had not known or used in Italy. So subway became sabbuè. Workmen’s Compensation Board became combustéggini. Even when the equivalent Italian word existed, immigrants came to prefer the Italiese. “They regard English as desirable,” says Clivio. “They adapt English words almost as a device to appear more elegant.”
Until a few years ago, Italiese was little known outside the Italian community. Speakers of standard Italian looked down on it. Italian academics shuddered at its impurity. But in the last decade the sons and daughters of the early immigrants started to arrive at university and enroll in Italian courses. They brought with them special educational problems. Tina Trifone, a 20-year-old University of Toronto student majoring in French and Italian,
has the complex linguistic background of many of these students. Although born in Canada, she spoke only Italian dialect until she started school. As she grew up she continued to speak dialect with her parents but English with her friends. She wasn’t even aware that her Italian was liberally spiced with Italiese until she enrolled in an Italian course. “Nobody ever raised eyebrows when I spoke,” she says. “But then I was speaking with the generation that invented Italiese.”
The University of Toronto, Canada’s largest and oldest centre of Italian studies
(with 1,000 students), established the first special course for dialect and Italiese speakers in 1972. Professors drew up a list of the most common Italiese words and drilled the students with the proper Italian equivalent. Italian studies departments in universities across the country watched with interest, but so far only one, McMaster in Hamilton, has followed University of Toronto’s example—despite its obvious success in helping to break down the psychological barrier many Italo-Canadians have developed toward learning standard Italian. Says lecturer Domenico Pietropaolo: “They have to understand that what they speak is not inferior, but it isn’t Italian.” ANGELA FERRANTE
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