Mother Tongue: A look at the unique way Italian-Montrealers speak English

Dossier on Multilingualism

2014/02/10 - Written by Sara Germanotta
Mother Tongue: A look at the unique way Italian-Montrealers speak English
Mother Tongue: A look at the unique way Italian-Montrealers speak English (Photography By Michel Ostaszewski)
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Donatella Garofalo is a trilingual Montrealer. Like many members of Montreal’s Italian community, Garofalo, 38, grew up speaking Italian and English at home and learning French at school. She also attended Saturday morning Italian school for 12 years. When she was 16 years old, Garofalo moved to Toronto to study journalism at York University. That’s where she encountered a very peculiar problem – her classmates were having a hard time understanding her when she spoke English. 

“It’s funny, I would say things like ‘Minchia, get outta here’ and they would be like ‘Really, you want me to leave?” Garofalo laughs. “For them it was complete gibberish. They didn’t understand. They thought it was a foreign language.” But the unique way Garofalo speaks English is not gibberish at all. 

“The technical term for Italian-Montreal English would be an ethnolect, that is, a variety of English whose speakers are defined by a common ethnic background,” explains Charles Boberg, an associate professor in the department of Linguistics at McGill University who has spent years studying the way Italian-Montrealers speak English.

The latest Statistics Canada census, compiled in 2011, shows that aside from the two official languages, English and French, Italian is one of the three most common mother tongue languages spoken in Montreal. Arabic and Spanish are the other two. Professor Boberg says the city’s ethnic diversity, coupled with the local dominance of French and Quebecers’ limited exposure to standard Canadian-English makes for an interesting mélange: “Montreal is not just a big version of Sept-Îles or Saguenay, as some people perhaps wish it were. We have not just bilinguals but a lot of trilinguals in this city, perhaps more than anywhere else in North America. Ironically, the efforts to promote French in Montreal by suppressing the use of English seems to have made the local variety of English even more interesting to study because it has encouraged the retention of diverse ethnic patterns.”

Boberg’s research shows that for many Italian-Montrealers this has meant emphasizing rather than suppressing the features that make them sound Italian. The result is a form of English that is peppered with Italian.

For example, many Italian-Montrealers buy their bread at the ‘pastry’, a rough translation of pasticcerria, Italian for bakery. Their fruit has to be ‘mature’ enough to eat – from the Italian word maturo meaning ripe. They say gallery rather than balcony or terrasse. Other common expressions include 'boh' to signal they don’t know something or starting sentences with ‘Me, I.’       

Italian-Montrealers’ pronunciation also differs from standard Canadian-English, examples include the way they pronounce a hard ‘g’ sound in words such as ‘hanger’ and ‘singer’ or a ‘d’ sound in certain words that begin with ‘th.’     

There are endless ways in which their mother tongue has deeply influenced the way Italian-Montrealers speak English, and Fabrizio Sciola has been cataloguing these idiosyncrasies in an online dictionary called The New Official Saint-Leonard Dictionary (www.italiandictionary.ca).

Sciola, who is 40 years old, started compiling the dictionary about 15 years ago. He and some colleagues at work were joking about the unique way Italian-Montrealers speak English. They started tossing different words and phrases around over their cubicles and Sciola decided to put them in an email and send it to family and friends. “It spread like a virus – and this was before Facebook and Twitter. I think people recognized themselves in it right away. It’s one of those things that everyone gets used to, but when you stop to think about it and put it all together, it’s really ridiculous the way we talk. It’s so funny.”                            

Sciola says his website gets several hundred hits per month and he updates the site regularly, adding new words and phrases, many of which are submitted by fellow Montrealers. 

Working on the dictionary over the years, Sciola has developed his own theory about the way Italian-Montrealers speak.

“Most young Italians don’t speak the language to one another; everyone sort of adopted French or English. But this is a way for them to identify with each other. So, if you’re among your Italian friends, you begin using these words that everyone recognizes and you become comfortable with that. But if you’re with non-Italians, then your way of speaking changes. It’s almost as if you’re speaking two different versions of the English language.”

Although the New Official Saint-Leonard Dictionary is meant to be a comical look at the way Italian-Montrealers speak, Sciola says not everyone thinks this ethnolect (Italianese) is a good thing.

“It became a debate in the community over whether or not this is a good way of speaking. But I think it’s just the reality of the way we talk. It’s the Saint-Leonard spin.” Weighing in on the debate, Professor Charles Boberg says this ‘spin’ is not necessarily a bad thing. He believes non-standard ways of speaking, such as Italian- Montreal English, can be viewed as a celebration of our diversity.               

“For many Italians, Italianese, whatever other people may think of it, has a positive social function as a symbol of their ethnic identity and group membership. They don't WANT to sound like Anglos from the West Island: that would be as inappropriate for them as it would be for some Anglo from Pointe-Claire to talk like a person from Saint-Leonard. There’s a lot of good science behind the idea that non-standard accents, words and grammar are simply different, and when we say that they are bad or incorrect or sloppy, we are merely expressing social prejudice, not any kind of objective fact.”

Donatella Garofalo agrees with Boberg’s positive spin on Italianese. She says the way she speaks English is a result of being brought up in a trilingual environment. Speaking three languages has proven invaluable in her career as a real estate broker and Garofalo says she's proud of the way she speaks.

“I can serve my clients in English, French, Italian, Sicilian, Barese, or a combination of those,” Garofalo laughs. “It’s a big advantage to speak many languages, especially in a place like Quebec where you need English and French to get ahead. Also, I think it’s very important to keep our roots and speak Italian. That’s what I am teaching my son.” 

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