Italian Chewed to Shreds.

I’ve gotten to the Sixth Promenade in The Gallery (see this post), in which the narrator finally gets to Naples after a spell in North Africa, and was delighted to come upon a passage of linguistic interest. After an extended “poetic” peroration on the standard language (“Italian is a language as natural as the human breath…”), he gets to the local dialect, and becomes more descriptive:

I remember also the dialect of the city of Naples, which is Italian chewed to shreds in the mouth of a hungry man. It varies even within the city. The fishermen in the bay talk differently from the rich in the Vomero. Every six blocks in the squashed-together city there’s a new dialect. It’s as raw as tenement living, as mercurial as a thief to your face, as tender as the flesh on the breast. Sometimes in one sentence it’s all three. The stateliness of Tuscan Italian is missing in Neapolitan. But there’s no false stateliness in Naples either, except in some alien fountain presented by a Duchess of Lombardy. Neapolitan dialect isn’t ornamental. Its endings have been amputated just as Neapolitan living pares to the heart and hardness of life. Wild sandwiches occur in the middle of words, doublings of z’s, cramming of m’s and n’s. When they say something, the Neapolitans scream and moan and stab and hug and vituperate. All at once. And O God, their gestures! The hand before the groin, the finger under the chin, the cluckings, the head-shakings. In each sentence they seem to recapitulate all the emotions that human beings know. They die and live and faint and desire and despair. I remember the dialect of Naples. It was the most moving language I ever listened to. […] Those tongues that spoke it were like lizards warm in the sun, jiggling their tails because they were alive.

There’s Hemingway-era manly poeticizing there, too, but you’ve got to love “Wild sandwiches occur in the middle of words.”

In an earlier chapter there’s an amusing portrait of a villain who “could never forgive the war for interrupting his doctor’s dissertation in Erse philology” and who “always carried with him Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” and when in the course of sucking up to the foolish and bigoted head of the censorship department (whom he calls “a modern Actaeon”) he uses the word “bigwigs” adds: “Pardon the vulgarism…” Beware a man brandishing Fowler!

Comments

  1. I just read a description (in Hebrew) of Moroccan Arabic as “a language made of schwas”, meaning it has striking consonant clusters. Not as poetic as Wild Sandwiches, though.

  2. I wonder what is meant by “doublings of z’s” (if this does allude to a specific phenomenon, rather than just being a bit of impressionistic imagery). From what I understand, “z” always represents a geminate consonant in standard Italian. Maybe the orthography of Neapolitan reflects this more consistently? I wasn’t able to find much information about Neapolitan spelling online.

  3. Jim (another one) says:

    “an amusing portrait of a villain who “could never forgive the war for interrupting his doctor’s dissertation in Erse philology”

    A dissertation in “Erse” philology? The war seems not to have interrupted him enough.

  4. Google Ngrams says that Erse has been steadily declining since 1860, so if the book is referring to the early 1940s, the term might still be current among Dryasdusts.

  5. Plus John Horne Burns, the author, is inordinately fond of the word “arse,” and I suspect he may have enjoyed the, uh, assonance.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    there’s an amusing portrait of a villain who “could never forgive the war for interrupting his doctor’s dissertation in Erse philology”

    Well, I know someone whose lecture in Sendai (not far from Fukushima) was interrupted on 11th March 2011, not by the war, but by something you can guess. I don’t suppose she was talking about Erse philology, however.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Hat shares one book’s evaluation of Neapolitan […]

Speak Your Mind

*