These last few months I often think about my dad’s brother. He was one of the original 3 brother’s that opened up the first Coppola’s Restaurant. Zio Vincenzo just passed away in June joining my dad. I thought I would dedicate this blog entry to him. I close my eyes and try to envision my uncle. I’ll start with his name – I grew up calling him Zio Vincenzo as did all of my American born cousins, but I was always perplexed because everyone else in the family called him Viiishhie!!! And it was always long and drawn out like an exclamation. Viiiiiischie!!!!! Kind of like – the chorus of a song. But, as I think about it now… Zio always seemed to talk in poetic verses, and maybe people were inclined to respond with a chorus. I used to think that all Italians have conversations using rhymes and little jingles. But I realized that it was only Zio Vincenzo that talked that way and it became contagious. One of my favorites of his was his morning greeting when he would find us kids still laying in bed. It was common for his family and ours to be spending the summer months in Italy. Amidst those happy sounds in the morning with the roosters crowing and the venders yelling out their wares, Zio would belt out a greeting “A sera varca varc e a matina non si trovano i barch… (If the boats rock all night and you won’t be able to find them in the morning) and my father would joyously greet him back with a Viiiishieee!!!!!!
Now for all of you that don’t understand Italian or should I say Napolitan or could I narrow it down even more and say Montese. It’s an Italian lingo that has evolved in this little mountain town in Italy called Monte di Procida which overlooks the bay of Naples. The Montese cadence is rhythmic and the words are comedic but the meanings are profound. Zio always spoke in Montese, in a sing song sort of way with a big smile on his face. He would sing all his words, all his greetings…his jingles made us all feel so warm and special. Let me tell you about another one of his sayings. I was very shy when I was little and I didn’t talk much in company. Zio Vincenzo would whisper in my ear “chi tenn’ a lingua va in Sardegn.’ The literal meaning of this in English makes no sense – If you have a tongue you can get to Sardenia. What he was telling me was that” if you speak up anything is possible.” Grazie Zio, I have put in action your words of wisdom on a regular basis and have likewise encouraged my children.
And of course he couldn’t drive through Pozzuolli without saying “Pozzouli puzzelent pur l’erba e feting.” And I loved watching him stand his ground with my dad at his side while making a point to some “paisano” who took his parking spot. “Ma com`e stu faat” (What’s the story)… as they both sing songed the poor guy into moving the car. No one had a chance with Zio’s fast tongue and wit. And then my Dad with a big broad smile would look at his brother and they both laughed.
I can only imagine what my father is saying to Zio Vincenzo as they both see each other in heaven, “Viiiischiieee, I fatto buon che mi si venuto a trova! ( I am glad you came to find me).” And Zio Vincenzo would say….. “a facia e sta pizz’ Peppi non mi faceva fa sape che ca si mangia boun! (Why didn’t you let me know that the food here is good!!)”
As I remember Zio Vincenzo I decided to really dig deep in trying to understand this dialect and what exactly it is. I would like to get to the bottom of the Montese /Napolitana lingo. Is it like here in the United States where each part of the country has different accents? But in dialect the words really vary. As I was trying to write down my uncle’s expressions in dialect I found it really hard. As I tried to spell them out according to sound, I found that they didn’t really look like Italian!
I have to say that traveling through Italy during summer vacations when I was a young girl not only did I get introduced to wonderful food, but I learned so much of the Neopolitan language. My parents are both from Campagnia, the mid through southern part of Italy. My dad and his brothers were born in Monte di Procida while my mom and her family were born on the island of Ischia, a 45 minute ferry ride from Monte di Procida. I will have to write more about Ischia later. That’s a whole other fascinating story!
Napolitana is just one of several dialects in Italy. Napolitana ( Neapolitan) along with the other dialects though out Italy is not a variant of Italian but rather has its own grammar, orthography, proununciation, and vocabulary. So the Napolitana dialect is not at all like the regional accents here in the US. Dialects are actually separate languages of their own. The base of Napolitana language is from Latin but is also mixed with the languages of the people who inhabited and dominated the city of Naples: The Greeks, Normans, French and the Spanish. In modern Italy, dialects are still the primary spoken idiom, although the standard Italian is virtually the only written language.
No wonder it didn’t look like Italian as I tried to write down my Uncle’s expressions! But I am proud to say that the Neapolitan dialect,or Napoletano as they say in Italian, is the best known dialect aside from the standard language. It is mostly due to its heavy use in popular Italian songs!
Napolitana has a long history being not only an official language of the kingdom of Naples in the 1400s but also has a vast collection of literature between poems, books and plays written through out the centuries. Along with the long and prestigious literary tradition, it’s the famous musical tradition that most people are aware of. Even Rosemary Clooney sang the famous Mambo Italiano! It is still heard often in our American musical history even in the current pop music of Lady Gaga which “ Mambo Italiano” was featured in the beginning of her hit song ‘Born this Way.” Another recent song that was turned into techno is “Tu vuò fà l’americano” (English: “You pretend to be American”, or more idiomatically, “You’re an American wannabe”). It is a Neapolitan song by Italian singer Renato Carasone. The lyrics are about an Italian who imitates the contemporary American lifestyle and acts like a Yankee, drinking whisky and soda, dancing to rock ‘n roll, playing baseball and smoking Camel cigarettes, but still depends on his parents for money. The song is generally considered a satire on the process of Americanization that occurred in the early post-war years, when southern Italy was still a rural, traditional society. You know now that I think back – maybe that’s why the villagers in Monte di Procida would ridicule me by singing that song to me! But I didn’t take it as an insult. I realized I knew enough Montese that they didn’t know I was really an American born Yankee! I am sure if you have ever eaten at our restaurant on any given day these two songs were played quite often. I never got sick of listening to them!
Sadly this infamous dialect was also considered the language of the ignorant because after the Italian unification most Neapolitans did not understand standard Italian. The newspapers in Napoli wrote in Napolitana so they could understand the laws of Kingdom of Italy. This dialect remained the common language of the populace until the 1950’s as literacy increased and standard Italian became more generally accepted as the national language. I became fully aware of this myself growing up. My parents and their brothers and sisters came to America in the ’50s. I was the first born American in a household that the only language spoken was Napolitana. So through the years as we visited Italy I became increasingly embarrassed that I could only speak the dialect. I found that for most Italians their first contact with the standard language comes in primary school and then it becomes natural for them to go back and forth between dialect and standard Italian. So when I went to college I made sure I minored in Italian to learn the standard Italian language. I was so surprised to find such differences in grammar and vocabulary. Believe you me! I turned a bright red many times as I would raise my hand to answer a question in Mrs. Gioelli’s class at Marist. I found out that “io sacho!”is dialect for “Io so!” in standard Italian. I learned quickly that my typical Meridional dialect (Central to Southern part of Italy), has so many deviations from standard Italian. A couple of examples is that chi in napolitana- takes the place of pi in standard Italian-; thus chiù is (più in Italian), and chiove is (piove in Italian). Also I found that unaccented vowels are often pronounced as an undifferentiated vowel, similar to the English schwa. The articles (excepting il’) in Napoletano are clipped to bare vowels: ‘o libbro (in Italian it’s il libro), ‘a casa (la casa), ‘e piatte (i piatti). Overcome by so much to remember I would inadvertently blurt out something in dialect in class and my professor (this little old white haired Italian woman) would double up in laughter. I can still hear her cackling in my head. I learned very quickly that my dialect was not Italian!
I am now able to switch back and forth depending on where I go in Italy. I always speak Napolitana in my father’s village of Monte di Procida but know enough to switch to the standard Italian when I go elsewhere. When I first get to Italy I am quite rusty. But after a few days my tongue loosens up and I become one of the natives! Hahaha…I wish!
I thought I would share with you some more of the comedic expressions that I grew up with!! If you could all permit me to be so bold……some of the phraseology is a little racy! J
Una cape squatrate che devo fare rotundo!
A square head that needs to be made round
I had to laugh when I heard my Aunt use it to describe getting my cousin tutored!
Chi ten’ a lingua va in Sardegna!
Who has a tongue can find their way to Sardegna!
By speaking up you can get anywhere!
Buono buono, la terza volta buono si fesso!
Good once , twice , the third time good you are an idiot!
My mom would tell the story of her teacher in ischia who happened to be a Franciscan monk. Whenever he lost his patience in class he would often use this expression. He always gave the class 2 chnaces and then he would blow up that he wasnt going to be an idiot and give them a third chance!
Che si dic….
What do you say?
This is a typical greeting in Monte di Procida. Sort of like the way we use “what’s new?”
Ta gia fa a cape con cipolle!
I am going to fry your head with onions!
My Nonno (grandfather) on my mom’s side,an Ischitano ,would say this all the time when I was being a bratty kid
Mi fa sci ra denti gl’occhi!
You are making it come out of my eyes.
When I was little I took this expression literally when the grownups would say this to each other in raised voices. I used to watch their eyes to see if anything really did come out of them!
Va fa il paese di policinella!
Go relieve yourself in the town of clowns.
My dad would use this expression when he was trying to be descreet around us kids)( You want to hear how naive I am? I always this expression was vulgar but I didnt realize that it meant go to hell
Va fa Napoli!
Go relieve yourself in Naples! (It actually means go to hell)
For some reason this expression was considered way worse than the above expression. I can’t figure out why because they really mean the same thing!) I really am surprised that the a Napolitan would use this expression because it originated in Sicily describing that the worst place to send someone besides hell is to wish them to go to Napoli!
A putanna di mammete!
Your mother’s whore.
Now this is one of the worst of the worst expressions. To this day my mom denies ever saying it to me. I tease her by telling her that she said this so many times to me that I used to think it was my name! She throws a fit when I tell her this! Hahaha…….