The Languages of Italian Americans

Authored by: Nancy C. Carnevale

The Routledge History of Italian Americans

Print publication date:  October  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9780415835831
eBook ISBN: 9780203501856
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9780203501856.ch14

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Abstract

The plural in the title of this chapter refers to the multiple languages Italian migrants have encountered and created, from their place of origin in Italy through settlement in the United States, continuing at least into the second generation. The reverberations of those languages can still be felt. This is true for postwar immigrants and their families no less than for those who arrived during the era of mass migration at the turn of the twentieth century. Whereas it is readily understood that non-English-speaking immigrants past and present face difficulties with communication in American society and that language can be a barrier to full inclusion, there are multiple dimensions to consider in any examination of immigrants or ethnics and their languages. In the Italian case, one can begin with the fact that most of those who came to the United States spoke a regional or local dialect rather than standard Italian. Their American-born children ensured that English was also spoken in the home, even if not always by the parents. The fusion of dialect with English that the immigrant generation often employed further complicated the language environment within the Italian American household. This linguistic background influenced subsequent generations, even if not conversant in Italian, a dialect or the hybrid idiom. A central issue raised by an examination of language and Italian Americans regards ethnic identity. Within the home, generational divides fostered by vast differences in lived experience could be exacerbated by and reflected in language use. Joseph Luzzi, a second generation Italian American and professor of Italian literature, whose parents emigrated from Calabria in the late 1950s, reflects on the absence of a common language between father and son. After the death of his father in 1995, Luzzi recalls:

I would hear my father’s voice but didn’t know how to respond…. English … sounded pedantic and prissy. Answering in Italian was no less stilted, either when I tried to revive my Calabrian or when I used the textbook grammar that was unnatural to both of us. I had so much to tell him but no way to say it…. Without his words, I was losing a way to describe the world. Memories suddenly mattered more than ever before, and I didn’t know if I could find the language to keep them alive. 1

As Luzzi’s experience illustrates, the divergence in language use within the Italian American family had consequences beyond those of communication in the present moment. The inability to fully transmit memories of events, people and customs experienced in dialects, many of which are dead languages no longer spoken in Italy—“frozen in time by exile” as Luzzi puts it 2 —raises the question of cultural transmission. How has Italian American identity been passed on to subsequent generations in the absence of a language to do so? To what degree is knowledge of Italian or of an Italian dialect necessary to maintain and perpetuate ethnic identity?

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