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Italian-American - Regional Lexicon

I'll post this here because I think it's a larger issue than any one of the Northeastern US boards, plus it's of national interest. (Hey, I'm in Indiana...)

When I've been in Northeastern USA Italian delis and restaurants, I've noticed many ways in which Italian names for foods and dishes get changed, usually shortened.

I'd be interested in seeing how many such modifications there are, and also whether we should view the modifications as carryovers from Italian dialects or instead as accommodations to English. (By accommodation to English, I mean especially the very frequent dropping of gender/number vowels from the noun endings in standard Italian). My starter examples:

MOOTS-adell or MOOTS-arell (mozzarella)
pro-SHOOT (prosciutto)
manigott (baked manicotti)

And are there exceptions? I don't think anyone says "pizz" for pizza. (But I have heard that people pronounce "apizza" as "a-BEETZ." Does anyone say "spa-GETT" for spaghetti?

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  1. I have actually heard someone from Northern Jersey say spa-GETT. I'm not sure if he was joking, but judging by his affection for gabagoo and mootz, I wouldn't be surprised if he actually has spaghett' night at home. Curiously, though, he likes to finish dinner with an "expresso."

    3 Replies
    1. re: JungMann

      Cool. But what's gabagoo?

      I should add "pasta fa-ZOOL" to my original list.

        1. re: Bada Bing

          There are *two* words that sound like "gabagoo".

          Only one of the words is a pronunciation of the Italian lunchmeat, capicola ... the other is a word that basically means "stuff to eat" ... often desirable type food, sandwiches .... basically, good stuff to chew.

          Pronouncing the “c” sound as a “g” sound and chopping the end of the word is a very Sicilian way to speak.
          So this results in a pronunciation for the lunchmeat ham capicola as “gabagol”. (pronounced "gahba-gole")

          The other term meaning stuff to eat, is “gabbagool”.

          In the original Godfather movie you can hear both terms actually being used in the same sentence.
          The character “Paulie” is working at the Corleone wedding and a button from a few feet away says: “Hey Paulie ... I got two gabbagool ... gabagol and a prosciutto!”; and throws Paulie two sandwiches, one capicola and the other prosciutto.

      1. Never heard "pizz" or "spa-gett" but pro-shoot, manigott and moots-arell are definitely heard in the outer boroughs. A couple more:

        ravs - ravioli
        ice-cee - Italian ice
        ga-knowl - cannoli

        1. Traditionally, it's the Southern Italian dialect (?) to drop the last vowel in many words and names. As an aside, many pizza places here in CT adverttise and sometimes use in their name, A-peez, instead of "pizza." Anyone who has heard Giada Delaurentis say "spaghetti" can't help but notice the stress she places on the last syllable...almost OVER stressing it.

          Yes..gabagoo is cappicola, cavadeel = cavatelli, pasta fazoo - pasta e fagilola.

          1. This comment is only tangentially related. Over the summer I was in Istria--part of Croatia.

            The word for their locally made, air dried ham was Przut. Which spelled phonetically can be more-or-less approximated by: pir-ZHOOT.

            So. Totally different language, but it sounds like the italian american and/or sicilian pronunciation of prosciutto. Sometimes very old words transcend dialects, and even languages.

            1. When I took Italian in Rhode Island, there was a guy in my class who was so proud of the Italian he spoke and thought he'd do great in Italy. When he started dropping the ends of words, the teacher said he needed to learn how to speak "real" Italian or people would think he was stupid. But I heard all those words said by most of the Italian-Americans I knew who often did not otherwise speak any Italian.....they also knew how to swear and gesture in "Italian."

              5 Replies
              1. re: escondido123

                As a linguistic matter, I would find it odd if a whole region of (southern) Italy just stopped even bothering with the gender and singular-plural markings of noun endings. It's always seemed to me more likely to reflect the fact that English doesn't use noun endings for gender and therefore also for singular/plural distinctions. Once you start sprinkling Italian words into English, people who actually know Italian would understand that there is no function in English for the varied endings. That's why English speakers almost invariably say lasagna (Italian singular) when they almost invariably mean lasagne (Italian plural).

                But I truly don't know. Maybe Sicilian and Campanian dialects really don't observe gender/plurals marking. That teacher who said your classmate might sound stupid could mean simply that he thinks Campanians sound stupid!

                1. re: Bada Bing

                  I agree. I think it is an Italian-American thing. Maybe the reason people think it is what is spoken in the south of Italy is because so many Italian-Americans came here from the south...because they were so damn poor.

                  1. re: Bada Bing

                    Gender/plurals are used throughout Southern Italy, with varying emphases. In Calabria, they are clearly voiced, if not in a standard way. The street dialects of Naples, which have so widely informed Italian American food talk, regularly cut off or dramatically silence vowel endings, so that "Napoli" is "Napul(e)". "Guaglione" becomes "guaglion'" and the like. Nepaolitans have traditonally shaped Italian American food culture in many ways--linguistically, too. The rest of Campania varies somewhat from this metropolitan standard.

                  2. re: escondido123

                    That’s funny. Your teacher thought such pronunciation makes a person sound stupid.
                    Well, the Calabrese side of my family might say that of my Sicilian side too.
                    This sort of thing made our holidays quite, ah, festive.

                    Mashing words together, specific pronunciation of certain letters, and chopping the ends off words is a very Sicilian way to speak.

                    One, if not somewhat “famous”, then useful example is (again) from the Godfather movie when Luca Brasi is in Tattaglia’s bar and a guy across the bar says to him in English “I am Bruno Tattaglia” ... and Luca says back, “io te conosco” ... but he pronounces it in Sicilian so he says something that sounds like “eedee gohnosh”. Yup, mashed and chopped.

                    Differences in language and in lots of other things too. Food for instance. You’d be surprised how much can be said at a family get together at the holidays about whether it is appropriate to put sugar in spaghetti sauce, when half your family is Calabrese and half is Sicilian.
                    You know that when it gets loud and lapses into Italian, that is when Nonna (grandma) is going to get the 3-foot wooden laundry spoon to restore order.
                    (Anyone else remember the laundry spoon?)

                    Different dialects and customs came together to become what Americans think of as “Italian”.

                    1. re: Sonny_Funzio

                      Sonny, the laganatura was the tool that kept order in our house.

                      When mom would say (in her dialect), 'Mo piglia lu laganatura' ... that sent us all scampering.

                  3. I grew up in northern NJ and heard it both ways. Just last night my mom sent me this link about dropping vowels in parts of NYC and NJ.


                    1 Reply
                    1. cov-a-deal = cavateli
                      ri-gawt = ricotta
                      sa-drules = cetriolo

                      sfa-cheem = fare (to do, or when I was a kid, "little doer" really meant to mean little fucker)
                      kaga-zowt = codardo? (again as a kid, it was implied "shitty pants)

                      And it's not a poor thing, or an invented Italian American thing, it is absolutely a regional dialect phenom. It's not heard alot in Italy anymore because of improved education, etc. Much like American affectations, such as mew-vee=movie, feew-ed=food, or southernisms, like ya'll, or fixinto or windas (windows) or awn (on).

                      1. ^^And it's not a poor thing, or an invented Italian American thing, it is absolutely a regional dialect phenom.^^ Exactly.

                        There is something to getting "sh" in there, too--e.g., there's a bakery in Hartford, Mozzicato De Pasquale. My mom always says De Pash-quall.

                        shvoyadell = sfogliatelle
                        pizza freet = pizza fritte (fried dough)

                        CENT'ANNI! Notice even when Sinatra used to toast it, it was more like CHEN DAHN!

                        ETA: How did I forget pizza fritte?! And for non-food: baKOWzoo = bathroom (backhouse/outhouse).

                        1. We were recently in Firenze and heard someone order a "cappooch" at a bar (coffee shop). He was served a cappuccino. Guess it happens in Italy as well.

                          But as BiscuitBoy said in his post, we shorten English words and skew their pronunciations as well. It's just part of language.

                          I have to admit that since travelling in Italy a few times now, it is difficult for me to say certain food words the way I grew up saying them as an Italian American. I have to pronounce them more the way the Italians in Italy do or it sounds weird to me. Which makes me sound a bit affected when going to my local salumeria and pastry shops here where I live or with my family. It's a very interesting topic.

                          1. The vast majority of Italians who emigrated to the northeastern US were from southern Italy, most commonly from Sicily, Calabria and Campania. While it's not accurate to speak of southern Italian as a single language, the various southern dialects do share some peculiarities of pronunciation. Three features, among others, that can be found in these dialects:

                            1. The vowel "o" in standard Italian often becomes "u" (pronounced "oo") in the southern dialects.

                            2. Unvoiced consonants in the standard language can be voiced in the southern dialects. For example, t becomes d, k becomes g, and p becomes b.

                            3. There is a tendency not to pronounce the vowel in unstressed syllables fully, but rather to pronounce it indistinctly as a schwa. From there, continuing evolution of the language in America has resulted in dropping the vowel entirely when it is at the end of a word.

                            Pronouncing capicolla as "gabuhgool" illustrates all of these traits: replacement of unvoiced c by voiced g, replacement of o by u (oo), replacement of the middle unstressed i by a schwa, and dropping of the final unstressed vowel entirely.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: cheesemaestro

                              Great distillation of the emerging patterns!

                              1. re: cheesemaestro

                                I don't believe there is a "K" in Italian. Where you referring to the pronunciation of the hard "c". such as in capicolla?

                                1. re: RGC1982

                                  Right. There is no K in Italian, but there is a k sound, which can also be referred to as a hard c.

                                2. re: cheesemaestro

                                  Thanks for making clear the points I was attemptjng to illustrate above. Food vocabularles and pronunciation carries the longest across generations, and with it more history and tradition than many realize. There are, indeed, reasons for "mozzarell'" that are not related to Vinnie on the corner.

                                3. Having lived many years in NJ, I have heard all sorts of abominable pronunciations of words (both in and out of the Italian-American food context). Some of the bastardizations, I submit, are from two forms of “Americanizations” as well – employing familiar sounds and truncating. For example, one deli near me has counter staff that all tend to correct me when I order prosciutto (pro-shoot) or sopressata (super-sot). Then, there is the tendency for English words to be “clipped” over time – think “lab,” “fax,” or “gas.”

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: MGZ

                                    What is "abominable" about these pronunciations? Italy was, and remains, a country of dialects, many so different one from another than mutual comprehension is difficult, if not impossible. What we know of as standard Italian is a form of the Tuscan dialect that became the lingua franca after Italy was unified. The language of the media and government across Italy is standard Italian, which is taught universally in the schools. When Italians from different regions speak with each other, they will also use standard Italian, but when people speak with others from the local area, it is usually in their own dialect. The dialects are not inferior bastardizations of the standard language. They are living representations of the language in their own right, and they have evolved over time in different directions. That evolution has continued among Italian-Americans whose families have lived abroad for a hundred years or more. Think about how American English has changed from British English in pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. Should Americans consider that their form of English is a bastardization and an abomination compared to what is spoken in the UK?

                                    1. re: cheesemaestro

                                      “Think about how American English has changed from British English in pronunciation, vocabulary, etc.”

                                      That was basically my point. The words are pronounced in neither their American English form, nor any clearly recognizable Italian form. Instead, they are articulated by English only speakers with a momentary, exaggerated accent employing “sounds” from their everyday English usage. To me, it’s funny because it’s phony and yet subscribed to as though it lends authenticity.

                                      My apologies if I was a bit hyperbolic in my word choice.

                                      1. re: cheesemaestro

                                        A similar pattern of language variation applies in Germany. The "standard" dialect (used by newscasters and college teachers and so forth) actually is locatable to an area in the north-center, roughly around Göttingen. When I learned pretty good standard German, boy was I surprised to find that I couldn't understand the Bayrisch dialect from the South nor the Allemansche (from the Southwest). Indeed, when I was there in the late 1980s, most Germans could discern nuances of dialect from just 10 or 20 miles down the road.

                                        1. re: cheesemaestro

                                          I am not so convinced that this is a regional issue. Many years ago, when I had the opportunity to study Italian in school, my mother and her sisters almost didn't recognize the Italian I was learning, yet Italian was their first language. They were native speakers, and they had to learn English when they got to school in New York. I am sure that the New York Diocese taught quite a few native Italian speakers up to and during the 1930's. IMO, this is a class issue, perhaps more than a regional differentiation. They referred to the proper Italian I was learning, found in books and newspapers, as "Alt-Italiano", or "High Italian" i.e., the language of the upper class and the educated. My family were farmers and laborers, so they were clearly not of the upper class. Now, when you consider that most immigrants from about the turn of the 20th century through pre-WWII were running from poverty and lack of opportunity in Italy, and were usually uneducated, and then consider the tendency to "Americanize" words, you can easily see how many words are mispronounced so commonly. It is the same way in other languages too, including English.

                                      2. I think there is a huge long thread elsewhere on CH about this thing.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. can't forget:
                                          shka-tawl - escarole
                                          and the ever popular, but misunderstood:
                                          fon-guwl - fare culo, literally, to do in the ass

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: BiscuitBoy

                                            vattelo a pigliare in culo!


                                            1. re: Novelli

                                              Or the more polite "Vaffanapoli".

                                              1. re: bob96

                                                Which is "go to Naples." A slur if ever there is one from anyone north of Naples (or so those northerners believe).

                                          2. Hazelton, Pa has a thick dough, tomato topped bread called "pitz", the kind of speciality locals take on the plane back to their new homes out west.
                                            Where the hell did southern NJ get the panzerotti???? I only know of it there.

                                            1. Residing in the boroughs of NYC and constantly being surrounded by Italian neighbors, I think I can say that I have heard it all. Dialects from the beloved regions of Sicily, Calabria, Naples, and Bari were those most popular and those most heard around me. Nothing surprises me in pronunciation any more, but I do often chuckle at the "similarities" in pronunciation we all share. I used to get uncomfortable having to decipher what was just spoken to me in conversation, but now I find it just adds to the fun of the moment. As a fellow Italian, I take great pride to say that it's great to hear Italians speak their native language here in the United States. *** I just wish there was more of it -- dialect or otherwise. ***

                                              Wanted to add that there is an interesting wiki entry explaining the origin of the Buca di Beppo name. It fits right in with the format of this thread. ; > ) I can envision a Sicilian guy sayin' this right now. LOL.

                                              1. Both of my grandparents came from the same little town in Italy (in the providence of Benevento, today there are about 1200 people living there)
                                                My grandfather was never educated and learned to read and write here in the US (he was 15 when he got here)

                                                Their dialect was similar to what has been turned into what I call “Italian-American Speak” for many different words. Our last name, even having a vowel at the end of it, the pronunciation of the vowel has gone from an unstressed “eh” at the end of the name to being totally unpronounced by anyone in our family

                                                “Sah la mun eh” has turned into “SAYL uh MOAN”

                                                Many “c’s” were pronounced with a “g” such as gabagooleh (for capicolla) with the “eh” being nearly silent
                                                Another word that my grandparents used to say was “buh-zil-igo” stress on the “buh” (or at least that’s how it sounded to me) yeah, that’s basil = basilico
                                                I remember being in elementary school at lunch, one of the kids asked what I was eating. (very large green squash, cooked with tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil) I told the kid “gah-goots” because that’s how as a kid, I processed the Italian version of what my grandparents called cucuzza. (He tattled and told the lunch monitor I said I was eating guts for lunch)
                                                Kids eating peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches thought I ate “weird” stuff, so telling someone you’re eating “gah-goots” probably doesn’t help

                                                I digress… while I don’t really LIKE the Americanized version of “poor people” Italian, I can understand where it comes from. Besides, who wants to walk around sounding like Giada de Laurentis all time with her over-pronunciation! (spah-GET-tee)

                                                6 Replies
                                                1. re: cgarner

                                                  There was a tremendous arabic influence on southern italian pronunciation and you hear similar sounds in portugal and southern spain. Sicily in particular was a crossroads for every kind of language and it's Italian reflects its remarkable place in history as an early "melting pot."

                                                  1. re: teezeetoo

                                                    My mom’s family is from Siracusa Sicily and their last name is an Arabic word for “arrogant” (Salafia)
                                                    Siracusa was the gateway for all kinds of cultures coming into Italy. There’s Greek, Spanish, Egyptian, Germanic and Norman presences all over the old city. (it’s really quite beautiful there)
                                                    Her family, in contrast to my Dad's, was well-to-do and educated. They prided themselves on speaking “Proper” Italian. Though when my Mom went to Rome with friends, her “proper Italian” was called into question, when a jewelry store owner asked her if she was Sicilian. Apparently the dialect was still evident to a native Roman.

                                                  2. re: cgarner

                                                    "kids eating peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches thought I ate “weird” stuff, so telling someone you’re eating “gah-goots” probably doesn’t help"

                                                    LOL I am literally at work laughing out loud over this. I bet most of us first or second generation Italian Americans can tell a story along these lines. Thanks for the laugh and memories.

                                                    1. re: ttoommyy

                                                      My Mom can! ttoommy, she's first generation and they moved from Philadelphia into the middle of farm lands of Bucks County.
                                                      Her grandparents lived with her and her Grandmother would pack her lunch. Imagine being 12 years old and your lunch is a foccacia with anchovies and garlic and rosemary on it
                                                      sure it was delicous, but it smelled like, well anchovies and garlic

                                                      1. re: cgarner

                                                        Had a few of these experiences growing up, but there was one sandwich I did not like at all and I hid it under my chest of drawers for almost a week so I wouldn't have to eat it. It was La Poveretta on two pieces of Wonder Bread. My mom made it even worse because she made hers with red wine vinegar. Awful thing for a young kid to eat. Here's a recipe: http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1850,...

                                                        Also, be reminded that we Italians are not alone in this circle of ridicule for what we eat. Does anyone recall the reference to Moose Caca ? Here it is at 3:03 or so.
                                                        Look --> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vS1aFV...

                                                    2. re: cgarner

                                                      But in a way, both pronunciations share the same trait – that attempt at temporary accent. I mean, who wouldn’t be amused by a fourth or fifth generation American of Welsh ancestry adopting an accent to articulate the words “bangers” or “pudding?”

                                                    3. another item of the Italian-American lexicon ...
                                                      With some old folks ... when it comes to spaghetti ... sauce is "gravy" and the pasta noodle, almost regardless of type is referred to as "macaroni".