How Capicola Became Gabagool.

An Atlas Obscura piece by Dan Nosowitz has a pretty decent layman’s explanation of the origin of the peculiar NYC-area pronunciation of Italian foodstuffs (perhaps best exemplified by “pastafazool” for pasta e fagioli, which he doesn’t cite); Nosowitz talks to “a few linguists and experts on Italian-American culture,” provides some historical background and a helpful map (though it should be labeled “A map of Italy in 1494,” not “A map of Italy from 1494”), and gives some basic linguistic information:

During unification, the northern Italian powers decided that having a country that speaks about a dozen different languages would pose a bit of a challenge to their efforts, so they picked one and called it “Standard Italian” and made everyone learn it. The one that they picked was Tuscan, and they probably picked it because it was the language of Dante, the most famous Italian writer. (You can see why calling these languages “dialects” is tricky; Standard Italian is just one more dialect, not the base language which Calabrian or Piedmontese riffs on, which is kind of the implication.)

Nice photos and video clips, too. Worth a read. (Via MetaFilter.)


  1. And when I went to Italy, very few people could understand me, even the people in my parents’ region. They recognized that I was speaking as if I was a 70-year-old man, when I was only 26 years old.

    I wish there was more on this part — what kind of response he had from old people, whether people found his oldisms charmingly retro or fussy or bamma, how people felt about oldisms are still surviving in the US.

    Previously on LH.

  2. Previously on LH.

    Excellent find! Sadly, I have no memory of posting it…

  3. marie-lucie says:

    More of the same in Italy:

    When I was a graduate student in the US (many years ago), one of my classmates was from a Sicilian-American family. His parents had run a grocery store while the largely monolingual grandparents looked after him and his sister, who grew up bilingual. He had recently returned from some months in the Sicilian village the family was from. I asked him how he had been getting along in Sicilian. “I had no problem communicating”, he said, “but I spoke like an old man”.

  4. It’s a pretty patronizing discussion, even if after the first few paragraphs it’s technically accurate.

    I’ve been reading the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. In English translation, we are frequently told that the characters are speaking “dialect” (i.e. Neapolitan) – some characters speak only Neapolitan, others only Italian, and some code shift, and this is important, socially and politically. From what i have been able to discover, in the original, the narrator’s voice speaks in Italian and the characters speak in Italian or Neapolitan, as appropriate. There’s no way to translate this, and I’m sure that the absence of the two languages is a significant loss to the English reader.

  5. gwenllian says:

    Damn. Now I really want some pašta fažol, even though I’ve just had breakfast.

    I’ve got nothing useful to add, sorry. Carry on.

  6. Ah, that finally explains the word that always puzzled me in the Dean Martin song ‘That’s Amore’…

  7. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Oh my, gabagool sounds distinctly Australian Aboriginal… Some of these look like they might have been influenced by the quirks of English phonology (flapped /d/, aspiration possibly more salient than voicing) but then I’m rather ignorant about Italo-Romance linguistics.

  8. ‘That’s Amore’

    Looking over the lyrics and playing back Dino’s performance in my mind (here in the hospital it wouldn’t be fair to play it out loud), I’m pretty sure he flaps the “t” in “vita bella”. That can’t be Nnapulitano, because that only interchanges /d/ and /r/, not /t/. (This is sometimes attributed to an Oscan substrate, though haud credo.) His native language was Nn, though he was born here, and he learned English in school. But yes, English phonology is deeply relevant. Why not? Italian-Americans speak English, and for many it is their first or even only language.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Nnapulitano … only interchanges /d/ and /r/, not /t/. (This is sometimes attributed to an Oscan substrate, though haud credo.

    You are probably right to haud credere. I don’t know either Napolitan or Oscan, but it seems to me that this must be of the same order as attributing the gorgia toscana to an Etruscan substrate.

  10. Bloix: I read Ferrante in the original Italian, and she almost never uses dialect, she usually just tells the reader that the person in question is speaking dialect, just as in the English translation. I don’t know if anyone has asked her why she made this choice. It may be that “Ferrante” (whoever she really is) no longer speaks Neapolitan well (or possibly never did). Trying to write in a dialect you aren’t that comfortable in would be as hard as writing in any foreign language you don’t know fluently, so it is probably not that surprising Ferrante doesn’t try.

  11. The article doesn’t mention American English arugula (British rocket) beside standard Italian rucola or ruchetta. Many years ago, I sifted through the forms of this word in all the glossaries of the southern Italian topolects that I could dig out of Widener Library. If memory doesn’t fail me, the forms from Basilicata like arucola, arucula, etc., usually came closest to the form that was generalized in American English. But I am far from being an expert, here. When I lived in Somerville, Massachusetts, the old Italian guy who was my next-door neighbor had let most of his back lawn become a vast arugula patch, and he called it arugula, so I assumed that the word had entered English from the southern Italian topolects spoken by immigrants. I wonder if any Language Hat readers of Italian and Sicilian heritage remember any variants of arugula that their grandparents used in the kitchen, or that they still use today.

    An initial a- also appears in northern Italy (one sees a form from Lombardy, arigola, cited—I haven’t looked for it in the dictionaries of the Lombard language). I wonder if standard Italian la rucola arose from metanalysis of l’arucola with initial a- from an earlier *e- (Latin ērūca, “arugula, cruciferous leafy vegetable”) before -r-?

  12. The assertion that “it’s next to impossible to pick out a specific regional accent in the way a Jewish American says ‘challah'” is not completely correct; in Chicago we say “chally” (also matsy, etc.). Some tie this to a particular subregion of Northeastern Yiddish where final unstressed e becomes i (a majority of Jewish immigrants to Chicago spoke Northeastern Yiddish), but I think it’s just one of those things that happened.

  13. In addition, writing in Nnapulitano, which the ordinary Italian cannot read fluently (as opposed to painfully decode), would seriously limit the market for her work. Actually bilingual novels like War and Peace are rare because the circumstances which would gain them a wide readership are rare, and even then Tolstoy made some accommodations to the Russian-only reader.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    The Roman I heard speak a few years ago turned every single /p t k/ into [b d g] – a complete merger with /b d g/ in apparently all environments. This makes for a really strange sound system, made even stranger by the fact that z was still voiceless [ts] and ci merged into sci instead of becoming voiced. He probably took out several linguistic universals in every sentence.

    Consonant length was gone, too. He was quite surprised that I didn’t know who Monica Bellucci was – I did, I just hadn’t recognized her name behind [mɔnəˈgabəlʊɕ] or something like that.

    pašta fažol

    Oh, this is a good opportunity to ask: what’s up with all this retroflexion of Italian words in, at least, coastal Croatian? It seems completely regular to me, not sporadic. Is it some kind of hypercorrectivism?

  15. vanya: as for Ferrante’s identity, I’m of the school that believes her books are highly autobiographical and the anonymity is to protect herself and her family – that is, I believe that she is a native speaker of Neapolitan. I’m a little disappointed to learn that the “dialect” passages in the novels are written in Italian – but, perhaps, an Italian from (say) Milan would not understand a passage written in Neapolitan.

    Ben – my parents (both sides) are from Brooklyn, and they said, and I say, challey. My wife’s parents are from New Jersey, and she says challah. My father took great pleasure in using his own father’s pronunciations of Hebrew and Yiddish – oomyn for amen, dye-inee for dayenu. In our house, the Shabbos blessings began with the ringing announcement, Yaym ha-shee-shee.

  16. fisheyed: My parents came from Umbria to Canada in the 1950’s-1960’s, and we spoke Italian @ home. While “standard” Italian developed through newspapers & TV in Italy, we spoke & maintained the standard dialect at home (which is reasonably close to standard because my folks were from central Italy). When I go back to visit relatives, I often get one of several responses:
    1) Young people I meet for the first time tell me, “you speak like my grandfather speaks”.
    2) If I’m conversing with an older person, sometimes they say, “I haven’t heard that term in years!” One very localized example: I get smiles and/or laughs when I describe a deluge of rain as a “sgrullo” – the term also applies to flicking a towel or tablecloth to dry it or clean it off.
    3) Some people compliment my Italian without being able to place the accent or dialect (they haven’t heard it before, or in sooooo long, it’s actually kind of foreign).

    Further complicating the issue is that at home, if I didn’t know the Italian word for something, we’d often use an Italian-ized version of an English word. For example, in Italy, a store is called “negozio”. Here, more often than not, we’d say “storo” as a Latinization of “store”. Try that in Italy a few times, and you get the odd looks, indeed!

    I’ve also heard the same thing from Finns I know whose parents came from the old country & spoke Finnish @ home – kids going back to visit in Finland get told they sound like the old folks, and old folks mention terms they hadn’t heard in years.

    Great piece – thanks for sharing!

  17. we’d often use an Italian-ized version of an English word. For example, in Italy, a store is called “negozio”. Here, more often than not, we’d say “storo” as a Latinization of “store”.

    YIddish did/does that too. The (female) tenant one floor up was called the ‘upstairsikeh.’ I told this to a woman of Polish origin, who responded that her mother used a Slavicized concoction that more or less included ‘vacuum cleaner’ to refer to that device. bulbul? Piotr? Others?

  18. Essentially all immigrant languages take in vocabulary from the superstrate like this. Here’s the 1921 version of Mencken’s “Non-English Dialects in America” (meaning the American dialects of languages other than English) from the second edition of The American Language. The 4th edition is much more comprehensive but not on line. And of course zillions of professional studies have been done. Here’s a lovely bit of heavily Americanized Nnapulitano (with concessions to the standard) written for the Italian theatre in New York, flourishing in those days, which Mencken quotes:

    Ne sera dentro na barra americana dove il patrone era americano, lo visco era americano, la birra era americana, ce steva na ghenga de loffari tutti americani: solo io non ero americano; quanno a tutto nu mumento me mettono mmezzo e me dicettono: Alò spaghetti; iu mericano men? No! no! mi Italy men! Iu blacco enze. No, no! Iu laico chistu contri. No, no! Mi laico mio contry! Mi laico Italy! A questa punto me chiavaieno lo primo fait! “Dice: Orré for America!” Io tuosto: Orré for Italy! Un ato fait. “Dice: Orré for America!” Orré for Italy! N’ato fait e n ato fait, fino a che me facetteno addurmentare; ma però, orré for America nun o dicette!

    Quanno me scietaie, me trovaie ncoppa lu marciepiedi cu nu pulizio vicino che diceva; Ghiroppe bomma! Io ancora stunato alluccaie: America nun gudde! Orré for Italy! Sapete li pulizio che facette? Mi arrestò!

    Quanno fu la mattina, lu giorge mi dicette: Wazzo maro laste naite? Io risponette: No tocche nglese! “No? Tenne dollari.” E quello porco dello giorge nun scherzava, perché le diece pezze se le pigliaie!…

    Note fait ‘punch’, not ‘fight’.

  19. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Oh, this is a good opportunity to ask: what’s up with all this retroflexion of Italian words in, at least, coastal Croatian? It seems completely regular to me, not sporadic. Is it some kind of hypercorrectivism?

    You mean the s, z → š, ž? AFAIK things like Polish żagiel and German Segel, OCS мьша and Latin missa, Czech komže and camisa and so on are explained as resulting from an alveolar articulation of the sibilants in the source language (so they were perceived as closer to the Slavic hushing sibilants). Perhaps in some Italian dialects this alveolar articulation persisted longer than in others (cf. Castillian Spanish vs Andalusian and American Spanish).

  20. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    I told this to a woman of Polish origin, who responded that her mother used a Slavicized concoction that more or less included ‘vacuum cleaner’ to refer to that device. bulbul? Piotr? Others?

    Seems likely to me but since I’m not familiar with any people from the diaspora (so-called Polonia) so I can’t verify this. Online you can find some lists or even dictionaries of words (borrowings and derivations) supposedly used in the language of the diaspora, which are occasionally brandished to shock and baffle the law-abiding, prescriptive-minded citizens.

  21. Leo Rosten wrote a revised version of The Joys of Yiddish called The Joys of Yinglish, in which he spent quite a bit of space on Yiddishization of otherwise English words. This included both nonce forms and ones that appeared to have entered widespread use. (Unfortunately, my father lost my copies of both books, so I’m working from memory on this. Also, I recently learned that Leo Rosten and William Steig were married to Margaret Mead’s two sisters.)

  22. I told this to a woman of Polish origin

    And she responded:

    ‘Vacuuma. A feminine device. ” ta Vacuuma nie robi”‘

    ‘My mother used to use the word ” vacuumovatch ” as the verb “to vacuum”. As in ” ja po vacuumovawa”
    This would be “I vacuumed” in the feminine.’

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Perhaps in some Italian dialects this alveolar articulation persisted longer than in others

    Oh. That could be.

  24. English pastrami also has a final [ i ], indicating I suppose a Yiddish pronunciation of pastrame (early spelling פּאסטראמא [?], now standardized as פּאַסטראַמע) with [ i ], like challah (Yiddish כאַלע ,חלה, from Hebrew חלה). My favorite example of non-English dialects in English is the word often spelled tabbouleh or tabbouli, usually pronounced [tə.ˈ] in American English, with the typically Lebanese realisation of the final tāʾ marbūṭa letter ة in tabūla تبولة as [ i ].

  25. Sorry, Arabic tabbūla تبولة with geminate.

  26. Bloix: Interesting about challey. What about matsy or kishkies?

    Sounds like your father’s heritage dialect was Central Yiddish, the kind spoken in most of Poland and Galicia, as well as parts of Ukraine and Romania. Ashkenazic pronunciations of Hebrew match the vowels of the Yiddish dialects, which is a sort of nice thing.

    Patrick: Pastrami is an interesting one. I always assumed the analogy of Italian deli meats influenced this English spelling and pronunciation. Although now that I’m thinking of Italian deli meats, bologna -> baloney seems relevant.

  27. Tabbouli: add tahini too, by the same route, although WP offers Greek ταχίνι as a possible intermediate.

  28. Ben – my father’s father was from Krakow. In our house, matzah was matzuh, kishkes were kishkes, and latkes were latkes, but bubbeh and zaydeh were bubbie and zaydie.

  29. Oh, this is a good opportunity to ask: what’s up with all this retroflexion of Italian words in, at least, coastal Croatian? It seems completely regular to me, not sporadic. Is it some kind of hypercorrectivism?

    It’s definitely not sporadic. I haven’t given it much thought, but I sort of assumed it was some sort of Slavic thing. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that we get it from the Mleci (I love that word), but Ксёнѕ Фаўст’s theory makes a lot of sense. Anyone know for sure?

  30. vita bella

    Actually, what Dean Martin sings is vi[tʰ]a bella, sort of hyper-Anglicized. The rhyme, however, is gay [tʰ]aran[t]ella, which surely sounds like tarandella to naive anglophone ears (which is indeed the way the backup singers pronounce it). The whole thing is phonologically unstable: tarandella has light [l], but the next ocurrence of it rhymes with lucky fella, which has two instances of [ɫ]. There are plenty of final epenthetic vowels, but then plenty of places where they “should” be and aren’t. Per contra, the final vowel of scusami is slightly diphthongized, and the contrast between this [ij] and [ɪ] in English is robust.

  31. YouTube forwarded me to “Mambo Italiano; I wasn’t listening closely, but I did note mozzarella with stressed /u/, though the tune demands and gets four syllables out of the word.

  32. I’ve never come across wakumować ‘to vacuum-clean’, but I can well imagine that American Poles could coin a hybrid verb like that (e.g. wywakumowałam pokój ‘I [fem.] have vacuumed the room’). I could quote similar examples from the fully native Polish of my students. English is the language of instruction in my department, so there’s quite a lot of L2 -> L1 transfer in the students’ classroom jargon at the lexical level. But also mainstream Polish has been strongly affected by English influence, especially in its slangy register, I suppose you can guess what the phrase forwardować e-mail /ˈimejl/ means. Lajkować coś na fejsie means ‘to “like” sth on Facebook’.

  33. My father has told me that in his parents’ social circle (pre-war Jewish immigrants in the northeastern US) there were Anglo-Yiddish words in use like shtoyv for “stove”, and koyt for “coat”. (I wonder if those two were the most memorable because oy is a funny sound.) He also told me that his father spoke some kind of pidgin with the Poles at the bakery where he worked. Poles weren’t unknown in his region of Ukraine, so it may have been something taken from the old country.

  34. The most memorable ones to me are op/donsterziker/e, transparently from English up/downstairs and meaning ‘up/downstairs neighbor in an apartment building’, with gender marking. Not all American-specific Yiddish vocabulary is adapted from English in this fashion, but a fair amount of it is, and some of it has survived the transition to English either because of its expressiveness or its useful semantic chunking, as in this case.

  35. Mleci (I love that word)

    That is a great word, and the etymology (which I just looked up) is amazing:


    Venezia, Mleci, Mletaka < Mneci, Mnetaka < stsrp. Bnetci < Bьnetьci, dalmatoromanskim posredstvom od lat. prideva veneticus ‘venecijanski’, množina Venetici ‘Venecijanci’ (Skok I 137–138). (A.L.)

    I never would have guessed it was etymologically related to Venice as well as meaning ‘Venice’!

  36. David Marjanović says:

    So Mlet “Venice” is a back-formation? 🙂

    Interesting that /v/ was borrowed as /b/. Either Slavic /v/ was still [w], or “Dalmato-Romance” had a Spanish-style sound change…

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