Italy’s Many Dialects.

A NY Times “What in the World” piece by Gaia Pianigiani describes the results of Italy’s complex linguistic situation:

Say you’re shopping at a farmer’s market in Rome, and you’d like to pick up some nice, ripe watermelon. The signs at some stands call it “anguria”; others say “cocomero” or “melone d’acqua.”

Why so many different words for the same fruit? Because in their daily lives, many Italians don’t speak Italian.

That is, they don’t shop or chat or argue in standard Italian, the kind that is studied in school and heard on the news. They use one of the country’s hundreds of local dialects, each with its own quirks of pronunciation, inflection and vocabulary.

“You call it watermelon in New York, and that would be ‘anguria’ in Italian,” said Tino Mattiussi, a third-generation owner of a fruit and vegetable stand in the colorful Campo de’ Fiori market in central Rome. “But here, everyone knows it as ‘cocomero,’ so I wrote what people understand better.”

A few stands away, Mauro Ranucci had a different approach. “We advertise it as ‘anguria,’ as that is Italian,” he said firmly. “At least, that’s how people call it in the north.” When a southerner once asked him for a “melone d’acqua,” Mr. Ranucci said, it took him a minute to realize what he meant.

“We all speak Italian with strong regional connotations, even if the discrepancies are minor,” said Giovanni Ronco, vice director of the Italian Linguistic Atlas. “No other country has so many linguistic differences in such a limited space.”

There follows a brief discussion of relevant history. Oh, and if you were wondering, cocomero has antepenultimate stress: co-CO-mero. Thanks, Eric!



    Paper (in Croatian) on the various words for watermelons, cantaloupes and cucumbers in Croatian coastal dialects and their (mostly) Italian origins, with a nice table of the Croatian names, with accentuation, listed by locality.

  2. Sorry, here’s a working link

  3. Spanish sandía ‘watermelon’ comes from ‘Sindh’, from Arabic. Likewise the Sardinian síndria, by way of Catalan.
    Italian WP briefly discusses some more etymologies.

  4. I learned the words “cocomero” and “cocodrillo” from children’s songs. “Un cocomero tondo, tondo // Che voleva essere il più forte del mondo…” and “Il cocodrillo come fa?”

    At least “cocomero,” “melone d’acqua,” and “anguria” refer to the same fruit. But how do you translate this into English:

    “Amarene, visciole e marasche sono i “parenti poveri” di ciliege e duroni”?

  5. David Marjanović says

    “No other country has so many linguistic differences in such a limited space.”


  6. January First-of-May says

    Well, it might be true if you only include countries whose languages are still (mostly) closely related (so that the “linguistic differences” don’t rise to the point of “completely different language”). Even so, England (and/or Scotland) must be pretty close (Ireland would’ve been even closer but English is in the way).
    But yeah, there are many countries with a lot more linguistic diversity (culminating in Papua New Guinea).

    EDIT: And I won’t be surprised if there’s some Pacific country (Micronesia? Kiribati?) where most people speak some variety of Polynesian but the dialects still vary significantly.

  7. This article has things completely wrong. The author should perhaps have extended her sample beyond three people in a market or else looked at a dictionary. Both “anguria” and “cocomero” are acceptable in Italian. If anything “cocomero” is considered standard Italian and “anguria” more regional. Here is a link to an article at the Corriere della Sera website followed by a translation into English for those who don’t read Italian.

    It is well known that the most appropriate term, which follows the botanical one, is cocomero, scientific Latin being Cucumis citrullus; and cocomero is used throughout central Italy, whereas in Southern Italy the common term is mellone (or melone) d’acqua, to distinguish it from mellone di pane, which is what in the rest of Italy is called simply melone (melon), and in Tuscany also known as popone.
    Anguria is a more regional term, which is widespread throughout the North. Just to confuse matters more, in Lombardy itself and in various parts of Piedmont and even in the South, cocomero means cucumber.
    Going back to anguria, the name can be traced back to late Greek angurion (which actually meant cucumber), a term which came over to Italy with the Byzantine domination, around the 6th Century AD, and which became widespread in the whole of Northern Italy with the Hexarchate of Ravenna. With such solid historical references, anguria is fully entitled to citizenship, and we can use it with no qualms as an alternative to cocomero.

  8. Phillip Hill: Thanks, I love that kind of detail!

  9. So both cocomero and anguria can be traced down to an old term for cucumber: Latin cucumus, genitive cucumeris, and Byzantine Greek aggourion, pl. aggouria. The Russian word огурец, according to Fasmer, is derived from Middle Greek ἄγουρος, similar to the more widespread ἀγγούριον.

    Treccani agrees that anguria is regional, albeit widespread: “Nome region., molto diffuso, del cocomero.”

  10. John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary defines cicómero (sic) as ‘a cucumber or water Melon’, and that is the OED’s first hit for watermelon. See also our discussion of cowcumber

  11. Trond Engen says

    The Norwegian word for cucumber is agurk, clearly another descendant of ἄγουρος. The difference between them must have been minor before modern plant breeding.

  12. David Marjanović says

    EDIT: And I won’t be surprised if there’s some Pacific country (Micronesia? Kiribati?) where most people speak some variety of Polynesian but the dialects still vary significantly.

    This culminates in Vanuatu: over a hundred languages and/or dialect continua, all but three of them Southern Oceanic, three Polynesian; higher language density than PNG.

    clearly another descendant of ἄγουρος

    Start perhaps from Russian огурец; swap the more or less diminutive suffix for another one, and you get Polish ogurek, declined with loss of e. Then start an export business. The German result is Gurke – suddenly feminine, like okurka in g-less Czech.

  13. George Grady says

    The English word gherkin apparently comes from the Slavic via the Dutch *gurkkijn, too. Where’s the h come from?

  14. According to Etymonline, it was simply added to preserve the hard g.

  15. The relationship between gourds and melons is clearer in languages like Chinese and Japanese.

    In Chinese, 瓜 guā is a term used for members of the Cucurbitaceae and the Caricaceae (papaya etc.) The cucumber is 黄瓜 huángguā ‘yellow gourd’ (because cucumbers go yellow when fully ripe) and the watermelon is 西瓜 xīguā ‘western gourd’. The pumpkin is 南瓜 nánguā ‘southern gourd’. The most celebrated type of sweet melon is 哈密瓜 hāmìguā, from Hami in Xinjiang.

    The Japanese word for a gourd or melon in general is ウリ uri, written 瓜. The cucumber is キューリ kyūri written 黄瓜 ‘yellow gourd’, originally キウリ kiuri. The watermelon is スイカ suika written 西瓜 ‘western melon’. The name is from Chinese. Japanese also uses 南瓜 to write the word for ‘pumpkin’, カボチャ kabocha, but the name itself is, I believe, derived from the country Cambodia.

    To get an idea of what ウリ and 瓜 look like, check Google images.

  16. Stephen C. Carlson says
  17. Bathrobe: is the nickname Uranari ‘pale pumpkin’ in Sōseki’s Botchan, derived from uri?

  18. And I won’t be surprised if there’s some Pacific country (Micronesia? Kiribati?) where most people speak some variety of Polynesian but the dialects still vary significantly.

    Island Oceania shows great diversity of languages, but the typical situation is many mutually unintelligible languages rather than dialect gradients. Kiribati is unusual in having one language over a largish archipelago, with small dialect diversity is not significant. Tuvaluan and Tuamotuan are also exceptional in that regard. Perhaps Fiji is the closest analogue to the European situations.

  19. I haven’t read Botchan and I had to check this one out on the Internet.

    Apparently the Uranari in Botchan is an abbreviation of 唐茄子のうらなり kabocha no uranari or ‘unripe pumpkin’. (Note that kabocha here is written ‘Chinese eggplant’.)

    The term uranari is derived from ura meaning ‘back’ and naru meaning ‘ripen’. It refers to a vegetable that grows right at the end of the vine, which is typically of poor colour and flavour. By extension it’s used to refer to people with a poor complexion who lack vitality.

    So the answer is, no, uranari isn’t etymologically related to uri, but yes, it’s related to those kinds of vegetable.

    (Incidentally, the normal Japanese word for a gourd is actually 瓢簞 hyōtan using Chinese roots. Uri is mainly used for vegetables of the gourd type. I remember a Japanese hotel guest who used to complain that the メロン meron served at breakfast were just uri — lacking in flavour and sweetness.)

  20. Thanks, Bathrobe.

    By the way, Botchan is one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s very funny.

  21. Another great cucurbit word is cucumarazzo, a delicious thing from Puglia that’s sort of a cross between a cucumber and a melon. And eggplants are also fun to track etymologically across the globe… a friend of mine who was working at a garden center was completely baffled once by an elderly guy asking for petonciani (rather than melanzane), which she’d never heard before despite being thoroughly Tuscan; turned out it was just the older name, much closer to the Arabic.

  22. And eggplants are also fun to track etymologically across the globe

    They sure are.

  23. ktschwarz says

    ‘Cucumber’ words mentioned above: Byzantine Greek ἀγγούριον (angoúrion), Russian огурец, Polish ogurek, Czech okurka, Norwegian agurk, German Gurke, English gherkin … and Hungarian has joined the party with uborka, which was originally ugorka according to a dictionary quoted by Wiktionary. No idea why they changed the g to a b.

    The spread of these ‘cucumber’ words from Greek was previously discussed at Language Hat under JOHNSON, when the Economist was considering how to translate German Gurkentruppe to English.

    As for watermelon, if you want a ton more words for that, Polyglot Vegetarian has them, including words from a couple more Italian dialects (Calabrese, Salentine) in a comment there. (Naturally, that blog was always already linked from Language Hat, too.)

  24. Anguria made it into English as well, for a while. It got into the OED’s first publication in 1884, marked with the tramlines ‖ indicating a not-fully-naturalized word, and defined vaguely as “A genus of plants of the gourd family; also their fruit.” OED3 revised it in 2019 and marked it obsolete, but nevertheless did a thorough revision, with a more precise definition:

    Originally: any of various edible gourds and plants bearing such gourds; esp. the watermelon, Citrullus lanata, and its fruit. In later use: spec. the West Indian gherkin, Cucumis anguria, which has a round, spiny, yellowish fruit.

    an extensive list of quotations, antedating the appearance in English to 1551, with a last quotation in 1884; these are a couple of nicely descriptive examples:

    1598 Ther is an other sort like Melons, called Patecas or Angurias [Dutch Angurien]..: they are verie waterish and hard to byte.
    W. Phillip, translation of J. H. van Linschoten, Discours of Voyages East & West Indies i. liv. 97/2

    1611 Anguria, the coldest fruit in taste that euer I did eate.
    T. Coryate, Crudities sig. V2 v

    and a detailed etymology:

    < post-classical Latin anguria watermelon (14th cent. in British and continental sources) < Hellenistic Greek ἀγγούριον (plural ἀγγούρια) watermelon, of uncertain origin.

    Compare gherkin n., which ultimately shows a formation (with diminutive suffix) < the same Greek noun.

    Compare Middle French, French †angouria (1549), †angurie (1566), †angourie (1575; late 15th cent. as engourie), Italian anguria (c1485); also Dutch Angurien, plural (1596 in the passage translated in quot. 1598).

    Note, they think the medieval Greek ἀγγούριον was watermelon, rather than cucumber as most other sources say. (By which they probably mean not what you’ll probably find labeled “cucumber” in a supermarket today, Cucumis sativus, but some similar melon such as the snake melon.)

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    the normal Japanese word for a gourd is actually 瓢簞 hyōtan

    (Of Morning Musume we do not speak. They’re just so wholesome …)


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