Today’s NY Times has an article (by Stacy Albin) called “You Say Prosciutto, I Say Pro-SHOOT, and Purists Cringe.” I had hopes for this article; the local variant of Italian spoken in New York and New Jersey (I don’t know if it extends to other parts of the Northeast) has always fascinated me, and I’d love to see a good analysis of it. But this being the Times, my hopes were not particularly high, and they were not fulfilled. As was to be expected, the article nods in the direction of actual linguistics (“In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common”) but basically wallows in the lowest sort of purist chauvinism (“As for the linguistically challenged, who mangle ‘prosciutto’…”). Anyway, here are some excerpts:
Ann Gustafson can discuss food – especially Italian food. She spent many days in the Bronx with her Sicilian grandmother, Sebastiana Ceraolo, learning how to cook with mozzarella. Only Mrs. Gustafson did not call it “mozzarella.” She said “mozzarell.”
Not to many New Yorkers or New Jerseyans. (Doesn’t Tony Soprano drop his final vowels?) Not to some vendors at the annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy this week. But it makes Italian teachers, the purists who love the language just as Dante wrote it, wince.
They suffer prosciutto (pro-SHOOT-toe) becoming pro-SHOOT, calzone (cal-TSO-nay) becoming cal-ZONE and pasta e fagioli (PAH-stah eh faj-YOH-lee) becoming pasta fasul (fa-ZOOL)…
Neither grandma nor anyone in her neighborhood, the Morris Park section of the Bronx, which had a large enclave of Italian immigrants, ever challenged Mrs. Gustafson’s pronunciation. And neither did the Italian butcher who pronounced his final vowels.
“The Italians – they don’t correct,” Mrs. Gustafson, 34, said. “They’re not like the French, who will correct you.”
Stefano Albertini, who is the director of New York University’s Italian cultural center, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, agreed. “Generally speaking, Italians are rather grateful to anyone who speaks in Italian,” he said. “They think Italian comes in so many varieties and accents.”
In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common. Restaurantgoers and food shoppers in the United States ended up imitating southern and northern dialects, where speakers often do not speak their endings, Professor Albertini said.
Liliana Dussi, a retired New York district director for the Berlitz language schools, said many first- and second-generation Italians whose ancestors immigrated to the United States before World War I were informally taught Italian expressions and the names of food, some of which has ended up part of everyday language in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
And Gregory Pell, an assistant professor at Hofstra University who teaches Italian, said that because of the way double consonants were spoken, such as the double “t” in manicotti, Americans might not clearly hear the last “ee” sound. When New Yorkers drop their endings, he said, “it’s become a new word and its own version.”
Professor Albertini, speaking from an educated, native Italian’s perspective, said “it makes us cringe sometimes at the beginning, but we get used to it.”
Ms. Dussi said that she did hear some lovely Italian spoken in New York, which she attributed to widespread use of computerized language lessons and an emphasis on education. American universities teach the standardized version, which is based on 13th-century Florentine vernacular and pronunciations.
And only once in her 20 years in working for Berlitz did a student specifically ask to learn a dialect, Ms. Dussi said. That student worked as an agent for the F.B.I. and wanted to speak like a Sicilian.
To correct that last misapprehension, Sicilian is not a dialect but a separate language (Ethnologue, Wikipedia). And here‘s a good description of the various forms of Venetan, many of which drop final vowels (paron ‘owner, boss’ for Standard Italian padrone).
Anyway, if you know of a good study of New York (Proshoot) Italian, please let me know!
Update. Mark Liberman has a response from Stefano Taschini at Language Log; I was very happy to learn the linguistic provenance of “pastafazool”:
Gallo-italic dialects (Lombardo, Piemontese, Emiliano, and, in particular, Bolognese), have a rather different phonology from standard Italian. In these dialects many words end in a consonant but they cannot be seen as an apocope of an Italian word. The “fasul” [fa'zu:l] , common to Gallo-italic dialects, Veneto and Friulano, is not immediately reconducted to the Italian “fagioli” [fa'??li] (Pasta e fagioli is a typical northern dish).