Scrapbook Rabbit: Italian, Sicilian, Neapolitan and Linguistic Perspective

Hello everyone! First of all, I can’t help it – I have a new column name, for things that aren’t quite as refined as Behind the Curtain but don’t fall into my others (Gremlin’s Library for reviews, Chaos Queer Cooking for recipes, Genrefvckery for music, etc.) Scrapbook Rabbit is my attempt to actually chronicle some of the weird little research black holes I fall into, without feeling like I have to get them up to some sort of nebulous Quality Level.

My research hole for today is on Italian-American… or American Italian, or New York Italian, or Gabbagool as it is apparently sometimes called. The context: I’m writing a screenplay for a tv show (for fun; don’t expect to see it any time soon) and started researching ethnic slang for the era, which is 70s New York for two Italian-American characters. Oh dear. I both over- and under-estimated what I was taking on.

See, when it comes to say, Jewish identity, or Hispanic identities, these stories are a little simpler and a little better chronicled. While the whiteness of Jews is an ongoing discussion (don’t get me started…) it’s very true that Jewish and White American identity are still only on vague nodding acquaintance. Yiddish isn’t well preserved, but most people are at least passingly familiar with its existence, and words like ‘Oy vey’, ‘bagel’, ‘kippah’, ‘chutzpah’, etc. ping to a reasonable number of people as Jewish words. Hispanic identities are still massively discriminated against, and on top of that, while people may not actually know the differences, the concept of there being Puerto Rican Spanish vs. Mexican Spanish vs. Venezuelan Spanish mostly tracks. (The detail that Brazil speaks Portuguese and not Spanish still gets lost on a lot of people, but we’re setting a baseline here.) In fact, the point I’m illustrating really is that this is a pretty pathetic baseline. People are aware that these dialects exist.

When it comes to American Italian, though… Oh, goodness. There’s a single primary site dedicated to chronicling the odder slang terms – some of which are familiar (jamoke, capisce) and others of which are utterly, bewilderingly new. Admittedly, no, I’ve never lived in New York! But it means I’m tilting my head all the more at words like ‘buttagots’ and ‘mamaluke’ that don’t sound Italian at all. I don’t let things go easily, especially when it comes to linguistics; that’s how I ended up digging deeper and discovering why American Italian is so weird. One, depressingly; Italian was actively discouraged from being spoken during WW2, to the point of there being internment camps for Italian-Americans. But two… The Italian that “Italian-Americans” brought to the US isn’t the Italian spoken in Italy.

Confused? Yeah, me too. This article lays it out quite neatly, although it shows up in the Wiki articles and other places as well; in short, “Italian”, like German, wasn’t really a singular language until the 20th century and even now still isn’t, really. There isn’t a single German or Italian language, but the construction and standardization of High German and Standard Italian means that the dialects (which, arguably, are languages in and of themselves) are in danger of extinction. After all, who really thinks any variant of a European language would be in danger? However, the Italians who immigrated to North America and particularly New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s did so for a reason. They were southern Italians – from Naples and Sicily, for the most part – whose ways of life, languages, and cultures were in danger because of this standardization.

This might still sound kind of odd. How different can Neapolitan or Sicilian Italian really be from Tuscan/Standard? Before I answer that, if you’re genuinely asking that, I’d like you to stop and think about how different Caribbean English, Ulster English, Cockney English and White Southern English are from each other. The north of Italy was where the original Roman conquests occurred; they took over the Etruscans (Tuscany) and then the rest of Latium, before moving south to conquer what was at the time Magna Graecia – Larger Greece, a series of Greek colonies. So Sicily, Naples, Sardinia, Corsica etc. were Greek-speaking long before Rome ever got near them, and their position on the ocean means that they’ve been the crossing-places for Arabic, Spanish, Persian, etc. since. As a result, “pure” Neapolitan and Sicilian aren’t even mutually intelligible with Tuscan Italian.

This is super, super cool to find out! It is also REALLY DEPRESSING. Because Neapolitan and Sicilian? You can’t exactly pull up ‘how-to’ books for them. They’re hanging on by their fingertips in Italy as it is… and so, as a horrible result, when Italian-American kids try to reconnect, they’re left learning a language that doesn’t sound anything like the scraps they have. They might be able to theoretically put together that gabbagool is capicola, but learning Standard Italian isn’t going to let them talk to their grandmama, or read her letters. As much as the joke about New York Italians “not speaking Italian” is funny, it very instantly loses a lot of humor when you realize why they don’t.

Luckily, even as somebody who doesn’t speak Italian, let alone Neapolitan or Sicilian, I’ve managed to squirrel out some resources. While Arba Sicula doesn’t seem to have updated since 2017, they’re still selling their journals (I’m working on getting a CD/DVD of most of them), and I’ve been putting some of their Sicilian onto Wiktionary as alternatives of the close Italian words. Arba Sicula is a journal that seeks to preserve Sicilian heritage with articles on culture, literature, art, etc. from Sicily – written in both Sicilian and English. Neapolitan doesn’t seem to have anything similar that I’ve found yet, but as I find scraps of Neapolitan elsewhere on the English-speaking internet, I discover that there are more resources with Neapolitan-Italian and vice versa; so my job is primarily translating (laboriously and carefully…) those entries so that there’s a Neapolitan-English version as well. (Ex. just created sfaccimma; the meaning is confirmed by a few people here; there’s also a pre-existing entry here from Neapolitan into Italian.) So much of dictionary/translation work is just collation. Whew. Gotta make all the things point to the right things. Appreciate your local wiki/indexer/librarian today.

One of the side effects of this is that the “true” meanings of things are becoming clearer and clearer. Anthony Longo’s American Italian site is wonderful, but has a few major pitfalls. The main one is that a lot of these are transcribed from memory or overheard conversations, and don’t have standardized spelling – which is fine! But it makes it hard to track down the meaning or other locations of the word. Take ‘buttagots’, for example. Longo’s entry for it is:

buttagots/butta’ gazz’ – annoying idiot (buttana u’ cazzo) [boo-taa-GAATS]

It’s a good thing he included the possible source, but trying to look for it doesn’t yield any other results. (Entertainingly, if you look just for buttagots, you do find it used as an insult a lot; so it’s definitely a real WORD.) It’s the next entry that gives it away:

buttann’/puttann’ – b_tch/whore (putanna); Note: more mild than “sciaquadell” [boo-TAAN]

It took me sort of an embarrassingly long time to connect the two and realize that whether by genuine misunderstanding (a lot of the contributors I believe were children when they heard these/had them defined to them) or an attempt at bowdlerization, Longo had given what is the Neapolitan or Sicilian version of ‘puttana del cazzo’ – ‘fucking bitch’, basically – and defined it as ‘annoying idiot’. WHOOPS. It doesn’t help that he spells puttana differently below, either; when dealing with Google, spelling mistakes/differences are basically the worst to deal with. Essentially, ‘buttagots’ is a contraction, ‘putt-a-cazz” with a b/p and c/g shift. I know that articles are different in both Neapolitan and Sicilian, but I haven’t been able to find much on what they are, so I don’t actually know what dialect this is. It’s one of them. (Very useful for dictionary-keeping, I know.)

It is… really sad to me, though, that Italians essentially have become a joke; fodder in the “white people who think they’re oppressed” joke, not helped by the number of Italian-Americans who have bought into the myth of white supremacy, perhaps thinking themselves more closely related to Mussolini and Julius Caesar than Sicilian pirates and penniless farmers. To be clear, I understand why jokes like ‘spicy white’ are so common. There’s a difference between being an ethnic minority and trying to take up space from people of color, and the narrative that “Italians and Irishmen didn’t used to be white” isn’t 100% accurate; they weren’t fully included into whiteness, but they weren’t excluded in the way that Black and Brown people still are. Still, it’s sobering realizing how much the insistence that Italian-Americans are “white and nothing else” has erased a lot of the ethnic and linguistic nuance – and had the effect of furthering the demise of the dialects involved. It’s all the stranger the more I look into this and realize that to Italian-Americans, at least some of this is still known – at least that their language was discouraged through xenophobia and enforcement of English monolingualism. It’s the rest of us who seem to be clueless.

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