As thousands of Italians immigrated to countries such as Canada at the end of the 19th century and the years after World War II, they brought their regional dialects with them. By the mid-1960s the Toronto area was home to one of the largest groups of Italians outside of Italy.
These immigrants, who mostly left rural towns in search of the work and education opportunities of Canada, slowly settled in their new home taking in the customs and culture, and most importantly the new language.
Linguists know that whenever groups who speak different languages come together in a new environment there will inevitably be hybridization.
In Canada, as well as the United States and Australia, linguists have studied how the phenomenon of language hybridization occurred in the Italian immigrant population to create what is known as Italiese — a distinct linguistic product that embodies the unique experience of Italian immigrants.
A blend of Italiano and Inglese, for Italian-Canadians the vocabulary was created to describe new objects or ideas that became part of their way of life such as vehicles (trocco), areas of the home (basamento) and places of work and commerce (storo).
“There were some things new immigrants encountered that they just didn’t have the words to describe in Italian, so they adapted Italian sounding words based on the English term,” says Dr. Roberta Iannacito- Provenzano, Associate Professor of Italian Studies at York University. “It was also a way for Italians who came here speaking a variety of regional dialects to easily communicate with one another.”
Technically the phenomenon is called code switching, Dr. Iannacito-Provenzano says, meaning passing easily from one language to the other. The alteration of English and Italian words out of necessity became a way to assimilate into the new environment, but it also became a unique method to maintain the connection to their Italian heritage. “Italianizing” everyday English words made it easy to integrate the new language into their native tongue.
Nowadays Italiese has taken on an entirely new function, as second and third-generation Italian- Canadians have adopted the hybrid language of their immigrant parents and grandparents for their own use. “What we’ve found in our research is younger generations reclaiming their roots and proudly displaying symbols of their Italian ethnicity, especially online,” says Dr. Iannacito-Provenzano who has studied how younger generations of Italians are representing their heritage online as part of a research project titled, Language and Ethnicity in Social Media: Italian-Canadians on Facebook.
Through updates and posts on their profile pages and social networking groups, they move from English to Italian or Italiese in conversations to best express their thoughts and get their ideas across. “We see them attempt words and phrases in Italian mixed with English to represent their Italian-ness and experiences with family, food and sport,” says Dr. Iannacito-Provenzano.
Rather than dying out from a lack of use, Dr. Iannacito-Provenzano has found through her research that the dialects and Italiese of Italian-Canadian immigrants are being repurposed from a language of survival and rediscovered by young Italian-Canadians as a means of self-expression.
“The younger generations are fascinated by the roots of their heritage,” she says. “There is so much interest in the regional dialect of their grandparent’s hometown, and the customs and traditions that were brought to Canada, and they’re very proud of it all.”
Dr. Iannacito-Provenzano hopes that this integration won’t be a passing fad, and that younger generations will continue to hold the culture and language of their parents and grandparents strong and celebrated, both online and offline.