La Pisana.

I’m now almost finished with the second volume of Ferrante (see this post; my wife has almost finished the third), and I’ve come across a passage that might have been written for Languagehat, so without further ado, here it is. The speaker has been studying in Pisa and has returned to Naples:

Language itself, in fact, had become a mark of alienation. I expressed myself in a way that was too complex for her, although I made an effort to speak in dialect, and when I realized that and simplified the sentences, the simplification made them unnatural and therefore confusing. Besides, the effort I had made to get rid of my Neapolitan accent hadn’t convinced the Pisans but was convincing to her, my father, my siblings, the whole neighborhood. On the street, in the stores, on the landing of our building, people treated me with a mixture of respect and mockery. Behind my back they began to call me the Pisan.

La lingua stessa, infatti, era diventata un segno di estraneità. Mi esprimevo in modo troppo complesso per lei, anche se mi sforzavo di parlare in dialetto, e quando me ne accorgevo e semplificavo le frasi, la semplificazione le rendeva innaturali e perciò confuse. Per di più lo sforzo che avevo fatto per cancellarmi dalla voce l’accento napoletano non aveva convinto i pisani ma stava convincendo lei, mio padre, i miei fratelli, tutto il rione. Per strada, nei negozi, sul pianerottolo di casa, la gente mi trattava con un misto di rispetto e sfottò. Cominciarono a chiamarmi alle spalle la pisana.

I have to say, by the way, that while Ann Goldstein, the translator, seems to do a good job, she has a tic that annoys me: she can’t seem to resist translating invece as “instead.” Obviously she knows as well as I do that it’s used more widely than the English word and that sometimes it’s better to use “but” or “on the other hand” or just not translate it, but habit gets the better of us all. It’s not a big deal, but I have a blog so I’m venting about it. Or, as Canine Cicero would have said: blogeo, ergo ventilo.


  1. Incidentally, the noun sfottò (translated “mockery”) is obviously from sfottere ‘to mock, take the piss out of,’ itself a prefixed form of fottere, but I don’t understand the noun formation in and will be grateful to anyone who can explain it.

  2. I’m unsure this counts as an explanation, but sfottò is an irregular formation because it is colloquial and of regional origin. The regular Italian formations sfottimento and sfottitura also exist, though they are much less common.

    Sfottere itself is of Roman origin, as the Treccani dictionary confirms. Sfottò may be originally Neapolitan, but I couldn’t find an authoritative source supporting or refuting this conjecture. It’s definitely of central-southern origin. Although it’s a full-fledged Italian word now, I wonder if it remains regionally differentiated.

    At a completely subjective level, I’d never think of using the word like Ferrante. To me, sfottò is concrete and countable: a taunt is uno sfottò, but mockery isn’t lo sfottò. However, I cannot say if that’s just me or a more general Northern usage.

  3. Thanks, that was extraordinarily helpful and interesting!

  4. vrai.cabecou says

    Something my friends and I noticed reading the first novel was the frequency of comma splices. Is that a feature of Italian, do you know?

  5. I’m afraid I don’t.

  6. Stephen C. Carlson says

    sfottò is an irregular formation because it is colloquial and of regional origin
    How common is the -ò ending and in which varieties of Italian?

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