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Jan 25, 2012 11:12 AM

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.