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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Appendix 2. Non-English Dialects in America

5. Italian

Rémy de Gourmont, the French critic, was the first to call attention to the picturesqueness of the Americanized Italian spoken by Italians in the United States; unluckily his appreciation of its qualities has not been shared by American Romance scholars. The literature dealing with it, in fact, is confined to one capital study by Dr. Arthur Livingston, formerly of Columbia University, who says that other “American philologists have curiously disdained it.” Meanwhile, it has begun to produce, like Yiddish, an extensive literature, ranging in character and quality from such eloquent pieces as Giovanni Pascoli’s “Italy” to the Rabelaisian trifles of Carlo Ferrazzano. Ferrazzano shines in the composition of macchiette coloniali for the cheap Italian theatres in New York. The macchietta coloniale is an Americanized variety of the Neapolitan macchietta, which Dr. Livingston describes as “a character-sketch—etymologically, a character-‘daub’—most often constructed on rigorous canons of ‘ingenuity’: there must be a literal meaning, accompanied by a double sense, which in the nature of the tradition, inclines to be pornographic.” The macchietta was brought to New York by Edoardo Migliacci (Farfariello), purged of its purely Neapolitan materials, and so adapted to the comprehension of Italians from other parts of Italy. Farfariello wrote fully five hundred macchiette and Ferrazzano has probably written as many more; many of the latter have been printed. They are commonly in verse, with now and then a descent to prose. I take from Dr. Livingston’s study a specimen of the latter:

  • Ne sera dentro na barra americana dove il patrone era americano, lo visco era americano, la birra era americana, ce steva na ghenga de loffari tutti americani: solo io non ero americano; quanno a tutto nu mumento me mettono mmezzo e me dicettono: Alò spaghetti; iu mericano men? No! no! mi Italy men! Iu blacco enze. No, no! Iu laico chistu contri. No, no! Mi laico mio contry! Mi laico Italy! A questa punto me chiavaieno lo primo fait! “Dice: Orré for America!” Io tuosto: Orré for Italy! Un ato fait. “Dice: Orré for America!” Orré for Italy! N’ato fait e n ato fait, fino a che me facetteno addurmentare; ma però, orré for America nun o dicette!
  • Quanno me scietaie, me trovaie ncoppa lu marciepiedi cu nu pulizio vicino che diceva; Ghiroppe bomma! Io ancora stunato alluccaie: America nun gudde! Orré for Italy! Sapete li pulizio che facette? Mi arrestò!
  • Quanno fu la mattina, lu giorge mi dicette: Wazzo maro laste naite? Io risponette: No tocche nglese! “No? Tenne dollari.” E quello porco dello giorge nun scherzava, perché le diece pezze se le pigliaie!…
  • Most of the Americanisms are obvious: barra for bar, visco for whisky, blacco enze for black-hand, laico for like, chistu for this, contri for country, fait for fight (it is also used for punch, as in chiaver nu fair, give a punch, and nato fait, another punch), loffari for loafers, ghiroppe for get up, bomma for bum, pulizio for police, nun gudde for no good, orré for hurray, giorge for judge, wazzo maro for what’s the matter, laste for last, naite for night, toccho for talk, tenne for ten, dollari for dollars. All of the macchiette coloniali are gaudy with the same sort of loan-words; one of the best of them, says Dr. Livingston, is Farfariello’s “A lingua ’nglese,” which is devoted almost wholly to humorous attempts to represent English words as ignorant Italians hear and use them.

    As in the case of Yiddish, there is a movement among Italian intellectuals in America, and especially in New York, for the restoration of a purer Italian. These purists are careful to use the sotterraneo to take them nell bassa città. But the great majority prefer il subway or the tonno (=tunnel) to take them tantane (=downtown). All the common objects of life tend similarly to acquire names borrowed from American English, sometimes bodily and sometimes by translation. In the main, these loan-words are given Italianized forms and inflected in a more or less correct Italian manner. Dr. Livingston presents a number of interesting examples from the advertising columns of an Italian newspaper in New York. Pressers are pressatori, operators are operatori, machines are mascine, carpenters are carpentieri, presser’s halpers are sottopressatori, a store is a storo, board is bordo, boarders are abbordato, bushelmen are buscellatori, customs-coats are cotti da costume, men’s coats are cotti da uomo. “Originally,” he says, “the policy of this paper was to translate, in correct form, the Italian copy. The practice had to be abandoned because poorer results were obtained from advertisements restored to the literary tongue.” In other words, the average Italian in New York now understands American-Italian better than he understands the standard language of his country.

    The newly arrived Italian quickly picks up the Americanized vocabulary. Almost at once he calls the man in charge of his ghenga (=gang) his bosso, and talks of his work in the indiccio (=ditch) and with the sciabola (=shovel), picco (=pick) and stim-sciabola (=steam-shovel). He buys sechenze (=second-hand) clothes, works on the tracca (=track), buys food at the grosseria (=grocery) or marchetto (=market,) eats pinozze (=peanuts,) rides on the livetta (=elevated,) rushes a grollo (=growler) for near-beer, gets on good terms with the barritenne (=bartender,) and speaks of the auschieppe (=housekeeper) of his boarding-house, denounces idlers as loffari (=loafers,) joins a globbo (=club,) gets himself a ghella (=girl,) and is her falò (=fellow.) Some of the new words he acquires are extremely curious, e. g.,canabuldogga (=bulldog), pipe del gasso (=gas-pipe), coppetane (=’ncuop+town=uptown), fruttistenne (=fruit-stand), sanemagogna (=son-of-agun), mezzo-barrista (=half-time bartender.) Several quite new words, unknown to Americans, have been made of American materials and added to the vocabulary. An example is afforded by temeniollo, signifying a very large glass of beer. Dr. Livingston says that it comes from Tammany Hall! Another Italian-American invention is flabussce, used as an interjection to indicate the extreme of pessimism. It comes from Flatbush, where the principal Italian cemetery is situated.

    The large emigration of Italians during the past half dozen years has transported a number of Americanisms to Italy. Bomma (=bum) is now a familiar word in Naples: a strange wandering, indeed, for the original bum was German. So is schidù (=skiddoo.) So is briccoliere (=bricklayer.)