The Rise and Fall of Italiese

2012/11/30 - Written by Salvatore Difalco
The Rise and Fall of Italiese
The Rise and Fall of Italiese
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Marcel Danesi, Professor of Semiotics and Communication Theory at the University of Toronto, has written extensively on the subject of how language adapts to environment. He is well known for his work on the evolution of “Italiese,” a linguistic hybrid of Italian and Canadian English words that for several generations peppered and often dominated the day to day vernacular of Italian immigrants, especially in the large Italian-speaking community of southern Ontario. 

This Canadian version of Italian falls under the linguistic category of "ethnic dialect" or ethnolect, of the mother tongue. Words borrowed from the dominant culture, in this case Canadian English, are modified or “nativized” for practical purposes. It generated a minor lexicon of useful, often colourful terms, such as “storo” for the English word “store,” “morgheggio” for “mortgage,” “ticchetta,” for ticket, “sciabola” for “shovel,” and so on. As Prof. Danesi points out, “It was through these new words that the Italian immigrants came to understand their new reality.”                   

Danesi, who was born in 1946 just outside of Lucca, Italy, and immigrated to Canada with his family in 1948, offers a unique insider’s perspective on the subject, finding himself immersed at a tender age in the Italiese ethnolect.

He recalls with a chuckle the first time he took formal Italian language lessons in Canada and was shocked to discover that “sinco” was not the proper Italian word for “sink.” Indeed, this opened the door to his larger curiosity about this linguistic quirk, or phenomenon, and linguistics in general. “My father, who worked as a comedian in Toronto in the 1950s (Danilo Danesi), used this language to point out conditions of the new world. As he would say, ‘Tutti devono pagare il morgheggio.’ Everyone knew what he meant.

This dialect, or koiné, to use the Greek term, was commonly heard in Italian-speaking stores, restaurants, places of work and the like. It revealed an interesting case of how a transplanted language can come to fulfill a basic practical need. It allowed people to maintain a connection to their mother tongue, and yet relate to their new environment in a direct, verbal way.”                    

As Danesi demonstrated to first year students when he taught Italian 101, “il garbiggio e sul floro,” though quite a stretch from standard Italian, didn’t present as a “wrong” language. It conveyed information directly and succinctly, as did the Italiese ethnolect on the whole.                           

Indeed, the abundance of nativized loanwords brought Canadian Italian to the attention of linguists, who could document and analyze the nativization process in action. That said, Italian-Canadian ethnolect does not have a monolithic form, paralleling the variance and heterogeneity that characterizes Peninsular Italian. Today Italians recognize the Italian-Canadian form of Peninsular Italian, and though many embrace it as an ethnic community language, others deride it as a deviant of the standard language.                          

Any way you look at it, Italiese, such as it existed for several generations of immigrants, is waning, and we may well be hearing its last strains. Although the Italian- Canadian ethnolect is still spoken in homes with first-generation members, the ethnic community at large—what with education, acculturation, assimilation, and any number of other social factors—has all but abandoned it.                       

As Danesi almost sadly points out, “Studies show that by the fourth generation, the ethnolect fades. This happened a generation ago in the United States. As its need diminishes, so does its use. And not a great deal of lasting written work in the ethnolect was produced, so little record of it exists. With its death comes the death of a community. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating mirror of how language in general comes and goes.”   

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