I came back the other day from the pharmacy in town with a new haul of inhalers and antibiotics. And there was another little box in my medicinal cocktail: a cough serum in droplet form called Levotuss. Sure, I was able to decode what the name means—get rid of the cough, basically. But that wasn’t my immediate reaction. Instead, I heard my father’s voice saying something that sounds like “leva mind.” It’s how he used to say “never mind.”
This wasn’t anything new, though. Nuccio/Tony, my dad, has been gone from this plane of existence about eight months. And all these months later, his less than masterful command of the English language still pops up all the time in my head and while talking to The Spartan Woman and my sister. (Behind the two names: My father’s name was Antonino. One diminutive of that is Nuccio. And in the U.S., he anglicized his name to Anthony, and most people called him Tony.) It’s kind of comforting; my mom used to say that you weren’t truly dead until no one remembered you. Well, pop, as far as I can tell, you’re still around.
We used to call his malapropisms “Nuccio-isms.” Sometimes they took the form of weird mistakes in colloquial expressions. My favorite was “you ‘affa to [have to] cry the consequences.” It always made me think that Patsy Cline would’ve had a hit with that title. Other times he’d conflate a brand name with the product—cars were “oldsmobiles” and refrigerators “frigidase” (this is a common mistake in New York City immigrant dialect).
You have to be an Italian speaker, or at least be acquainted with the language, to figure out where other mistakes came from. He could not pronounce the consonant combo “ct” to save his life—the combination isn’t common in Italian, if it exists at all. Hence, “dottor” (doctor) and “fatt” (fact). Other times he left out personal pronouns. So instead of saying “He’s a good guy,” Nuccio would simply say “Ees a good guy.” Why? In Italian, you don’t have to say personal pronouns like “I” and “she” and “we”—they’re understood from the verb conjugation that you use.
The Spartan Woman and I are always uttering these Nuccio-isms, and most of the time it’s with a fond laugh. But it also reminds me of how much I miss him, and how in some ways my siblings and I had a slightly zany and interesting time growing up. My sister and I in particular viewed what we called “normal families”—i.e., with two native born, English as a mother tongue speaking parents—as somewhat dull. My sister called them “Americans” and I went along with that.
On the other hand, Nuccio gave me a leg up when we decided to live here in Italy part-time. For one thing, when I was born he was an Italian citizen, which meant I got an Italian passport and could stay here as long as I want without having to worry about bureaucratic stuff like residence visas. An even better gift, though, was cultural and linguistic. I didn’t learn to speak Italian until I was in college, though I understood it fairly well before then (and didn’t let on). But languages have another dimension, expressions that are almost nonverbal but can say whole sentences. Here’s an example: I thought everyone understood that when someone slightly raises his or her head and say “buh” (pronounced, sort of, like “boo”) it meant “I don’t know.” I did that once in the U.S. and got a really funny look. Here in Italy, everyone knows what it means.
I WISH THAT MY parents had started early speaking to me in both English and Italian. I think I was at least partly bilingual when I was 5 years old because my Sicilian grandfather lived with us and we took long walks together, talking all the while—and he didn’t speak English. Then again, maybe not. I have some cousins who, like me, grew up in the United States. But both of their parents emigrated from Italy, so Italian was the language spoken at home. Those who kept it up may have better accents than I do, but they got lazy later and didn’t follow up with formal instruction, so their written Italian and comprehension isn’t great.
I may have started later in life, but grew up hearing that other language, so it was relatively easy to pick up, especially after five years of middle and high school French. (Yeah, they’re the same language with different accents. Tell me what’s the difference between J’ai besoin d’un autre divan/Ho bisogno di un altro divano?—okay, I cherrypicked the words for “I need another sofa,” but you get the idea.) It didn’t hurt that I worked for an Italian media outlet for a couple of years and had to write articles in both English and Italian.
As young first-time parents a zillion years ago, we tried getting Kid No. 1 to speak Italian. We bought a BBC language series for kids. It consisted of a bunch of VHS cartoon tapes and was pretty funny, relying on repetition and a good story line. Martina really got into it and the cartoons were on a regular rotation. That summer, we took a three-week trip to Italy, with a slight detour onto France’s Côte d’Azur. We stayed with friends here in Perugia, and one day left our daughter with our friend while we did errands. When we returned, our friend intercepted us and asked us to tiptoe in and watch Martina and our friend through the slight door opening. Our little one was, at least temporarily, fluent, talking to our friend about the Barbie doll clothes they were making. And we were astonished.
It’s much harder later. Linguists say that age 15 might be the cutoff point where you can learn a language and have it sound like your mother tongue. I believe it; I’m watching a brave friend here, who moved to Italy in July from Florida, take lessons and it’s a struggle. (He’s getting better every day, though, and you just have to admire him.) On the other hand, I have a friend who moved to the U.S. from Romania when he was 15. He’s completely fluent in English. Years ago he had a slight intonation of something else, but that’s faded.
People here say that they can tell I grew up elsewhere but my accent doesn’t tell them from where. Each time I’m here, I pick up more vocabulary and more connective tissue: In Italian you use a lot of words like however/therefore/practically. (I think I speak Italian with a slight New York accent, personally.) I don’t need to concentrate on song lyrics or TV news any more, and ignore subtitles in TV shows.
Still, it’s one thing to learn the rules and the grammar and the vocabulary. Ask the American dude in the video below.