Monday, November 17, 2008

Dropped Vowels and Local Cultural Literacy . . .

Today's OD had a good editorial that I generally agree with: Dropping vowels can be funny, but negativity is nothing to laugh about. (Is it just me, or has the OD started to put a bit more meat in its articles since Mr. Kieta took over as editor?) After poking fun at some of our regional quirks, Joe told us what we needed to hear -- all the more credible by the fact that it was coming from a non-local.
Quirks aside, there’s a lot to love about this part of Upstate New York. . . .
Joe then ticks off a long list of things that all to many of us take for granted. He then concludes,
Sure, the winters are bitterly cold and snowy, the economy is moribund and the politicians too often are inept. But despite all of the bad, there’s a quality of life here that can’t be denied.

I just wish more of you would realize it. The negative attitude is a big turn-off to newcomers, and it damages the area’s future.
Great editorial! . . I could not agree more . . . but the comments about the dropped vowels nagged at the back of my mind for some reason . . . I read them again . . .
I always snicker when servers at the area’s excellent Italian-American restaurants drop the endings of the names of key ingredients, as if there’s a phonetic butcher wielding a razor-sharp cleaver in the kitchen.
Prosciutto ham morphs into “prishoot.” Did the “-to” get sliced into the trash?
"Snicker?" Since when is Joe Kieta an expert on Italian pronunciation? He would be right if he were speaking Bolognese, Roman, or Milanese Italian . . . but dropped final vowels are perfectly acceptable when speaking Neopolitan, Foggian or Barese Italian. Dropped vowels are normal in the Mezzogiorno, the formerly poor part of Italy where most Utica Italian-American families originated -- as normal as the drawl in the southern USA speech. Snickering at dropped vowels in Italy would be construed as a put down, reflective of class differences between the north and south.

Snickering at dropped vowels in Utica is construed the same way ... reflective of a long simmering class schism between Utica and New Hartford (not to mention ethnic bias) that seems to be taking far too long to go away. Was the snickering a put down?

In the end, I'm giving Mr. Kieta the benefit of the doubt. His remark about snickering is probably the result of local cultural illiteracy, intended in jest as a way to fit in. After all, he told us that he is from Cleveland, via California (so what would he know about local sensitivities) and is of Polish and Sicilian ancestry (so what would he know about Italian?)(nudge nudge wink wink).

Joe, your main point is well taken . . . Hopefully the other remarks were truly well intended, and not an indication that you have adopted the attitude of some of the people you work with. That attitude is the root of much of the negativity you complain of.


Greens and Beans said...

Great post! Joe Kieta is obviously kidding.

At first I thought he was goofy. I grew up hearing mozzarel, antipast and rigoht. I never heard any words like mozzarella, antipasto or ricotta. Heck my father’s family thought my mother (who was from the deep South) talked funny. It was no wonder that I found it difficult to spell some common English words for I simply wasn’t hearing their proper pronunciation. Utica was Udaca, something was somethin, or nutin, or boad-di-yas, or nun-e-yas, or sum-a-yas, or all-e-yas. And everything was a “thing.” Get that thing over dare (there). Ya/No or No/Ya that thing over dare. How about the generic term of “hud-da-ya call it?” I can’t remember how many times I was requested to get hud-di-ya call-it on the horn for my father. And don’t think about questioning it or you were in for it. Oh yes, we were expected to be clairvoyant too.

My goodness, even the ultra disciplinarian Sisters of Saint Joseph, who taught us English at St Francis DeSales School, didn’t have the GUTS to challenge or correct our cherished Italia/East Utican English dialect. The “East Utica” dialect was first brought to light when I attended Utica Free Academy (UFA). Until then, I thought that the East Utican dialect was totally acceptable. At UFA I was exposed to all of the City’s speech dialects besides East Utican. There was Ghetto (commonly renamed to Ebonics), West Utican (Polish), Central East Utican Puerto Rican and South Utican (Jewish).

At first, I was a bit offended while reading Joe Kieta’s piece. Because I feel that he was singling out my very protected “Udican” heritage. But, like when our Black friends called each other niggers on the basketball court, I would internally chuckle and shake my head. My brother and I oftentimes affectionately call each other a couple of dagos from Cornhill. I would never fathom calling a black friend a nigger, but on the same token, I would kick the hell out of anybody who called us dagos or wops. I must admit, when I have been challenged cognitively, I placed some of the blame on my having an Italian surname. But then again, this assumption was dispelled whenever I was psychologically challenged by fellow Italians. I am blessed that I have not stagnated in my cognitive ability like others in my age group. This is why in the end I believe that Joe Kieta’s article did not offend me.

I once dated a girl who moved to Utica from Boston. I thought she talked funny. She made me aware of our eclectic abomination of the English language. The Utica language barrier made it difficult for her and her family to function here in Utica. Depending where they found themselves lost in the City, when they attempted to ask for simple street directions, they thought that they were going to see Rod Serling come out from behind a tree to announce that “they were about to enter the Twilight Zone.” The Utica dialect of the English language was too difficult for the aliens (particularly those from Boston, Massachusetts) to decipher.

Heck my father would NEVER fathom purchasing a home without a large backyard.
A substantial sized backyard could provide the family with a plethora of the delicacy of scrumptious dandelions. They were sautéed in virgin olive oil with fresh garlic from the garden for a delectable meal. We even nicknamed our backyard’s grape arbor (Hold it . . . Didn’t every family have a backyard garden and grapevine?) the “pavilion of the dagos.” Holy cow, God forbid if a baseball accidently found its way into the garden. Break one tomato plant or puncture one zucchini and/or eggplant and you were TOAST! We also could expect the “BOOT” if we were merely perceived to disrespect any elder. Regardless if that elder were wrong or right! Respect for God, family, Country, neighbors and others were unquestionably paramount. Times were different.

I feel that Joe Kieta vindicated himself when he mentioned that, for the most part, we are well educated, have great culture, awesome natural resources, low crime rate, friendly, and generous. I have always said that we are living in the best area in the entire United States. Moreover, I would never trade my upbringing here in Utica for all the tea in China. I only hope that our youth can also enjoy the Utica experience. If only we could regain the good jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that we had when we were young, they too could enjoying the benefits of this awesome country’s best kept secret . . . Utica, NY.

clipper said...

Whether the vowels were dropped or not, all those items are delicious, and in my childhood, could be seen or smelled all over the east end. You could walk down the street and smell sausage and peppers cooking at one house, and smell garlic in front of another, while fresh baked bread could be smelled near the little markets on the street corners., along with the smell of the salami's and provolones hanging from the ceilings in nets of sisal twine.

The majority of Italians in Utica may have originated in a poorer part of Italy, but they were rich in heritage and culture. They were, and still are, a proud and family oriented group. Nobody grew tomatoes like the italians. We used to have an Italian produce guy that came around the neighborhood with an open truck, shouting "taters, sweetcorn" and everyone would go out to the road to buy the days veggies fresh from the gardens.We used to chase him down and buy one banana for 10 a nickel or a dime.

That heritage and ability to grow great produce still lives on with Joey Juliano, and others on Rt 5 in Schuyler who still grow great produce and sell it from their own roadside stands.

You speak of those Italians calling each other wops and dagos. I was president of the firefighters local at Griffiss for a while. We had a secretary named Joe Cimo from Floyd. He was called the "top wop" and a little guy named Lennie Sorrentino was the "mini-ginny".Lennie was president before I was.

I am very happy to see that someone from the outside can see the beauty of the area, while many who were born and brought up in Utica have given up on the city and the area.It is a breath of fresh air to read something positive about the area in the OD for a change. Welcome to our hometown Joe Kieta. I hope you can hold on to that enthusiasm and become one of us that truly loves the area, and has faith in it's future.

Thomas said...

Nice posts! Good to see folks taking Joe's comments with good humor. Here's the email I sent him:

RE: "Dropping vowels can be funny, but negativity is nothing to laugh
about" article.

Dear Mr. Kieta:

While I imagine your intentions were good, I'm sure you've already
been criticized for the apparent condescension of your "snickering" ,
in the your November 15th article, at the "mispronunciations" of menu
items in local Italian restaurants. I give you the benefit of the
doubt that your behavior has its roots in (innocent) linguistic
ignorance, rather than snobbery, and I will explain a bit, in case no
one else has.

The reason why these Italian restaurants in Utica appear to be
"dropping" the vowels from the "correct" Italian term, is because the
owners are, in most cases, using the correct original word. They are
descended from Southern Italians who spoke a different language from
what we know today as "Standard Italian" and are serving food that
originated from the region of their forefathers. (Though now popular
in all of Italy today, any variant in the pasta-with-tomato-sauce
genre, originates from Southern Italy, and was probably not at first
called by any of the Standard Italian terms generally used today.
Northerners found the use of tomatoes to be "foreign" and usually used
rice (risotto) in place of "pasta." )

Standard Italian is a recently created language-construct, drawing
heavily from the Tuscan language of Dante and other literary figures,
and, in a sense, put together via committee. Before Italy was unified
in 1861, little more than 2% of the populace spoke it. It was
constructed, as we known it today (and as spoken on Italian TV, Radio,
and in official contexts) to fill the need for a national unified
language to help solidify Italy as a nation-state. (I do love the flow
and rhythm of modern (standard) Italian; those who constructed the
language from its original sources made it sound even more beautiful
by selecting, occasionally inventing, and finally standardizing, the
most euphonious linguistic usages. )

At the time most Italian-Americans immigrated to the US, in the early
part of the last century, Standard Italian was not yet established on
the Italian peninsula, so they carried with them the rich languages
that they grew up speaking (ones that are still spoken today in
Southern Italy, though now parallel with Standard Italian.)

What you are hearing in the local restaurants are most often from the
Napoletano-Calabrese language, not Standard Italian. Though Napoletano
is called a "dialetto" in Italian, it does not mean the same as its
English cognate: "Dialect." Napoletano is not a variant of Standard
Italian, but is a language which (like Spanish and French) evolved
directly and independently from Latin and has " enjoyed a rich
literary, musical and theatrical history (notably Giambattista Basile,
Eduardo de Filippo, Salvatore di Giacomo and Totò)."
(see wiki

Even while they heartily agreed with your good points about
negativity, I'm sure many Italian-American were offended by your

(You might feel a similar glimmer of offense when reading this famous
quote of Tolkien:

"American English is essentially English after having been wiped off
with a dirty sponge."

You might also try snickering and telling a French person with "excuse
me the correct word is "beef" not "boeuf," and see what happens. (Our
word "beef" comes directly from the French, "boeuf" when they ruled
England after the Norman Conquest, just as "mozzarella" comes from the
original Napoletano word "muzzarell." And thank heaven they didn't
change the Napoletano word "pizza" for the more Italianate "pinsa")

Of course, having been offended, and speaking one's mind about it ,
it's best to give your well wishes and move to more important
matters--which I now do. I appreciate your love of your adopted city,
and hope you continue to inspire others to do so as well.

I close with the suggestion you take a trip to Naples where you will
feel right at home hearing: "muzzarell."
"antipast", "rigott" and a host of other words in the Napoletano
language, and--hopefully--be proud that you know and respect sons and
daughters of Campania and Calabria who have contributed much to
Utica's culture.

Warm Regards,


NAPOLETANO-CALABRESE: a language of Italy

The following is the entry for this language as it appeared in the
14th edition (2000).
It has been superseded by the corresponding entry in the 15th edition (2005).

SIL code: NPL

ISO 639-2: roa
Population 7,047,399 (1976).
Region Campania and Calabria provinces, southern Italy.
Classification Indo-European, Italic, Romance, Italo-Western, Italo-Dalmatian.
Comments Limited inherent intelligibility with Standard Italian.
Neapolitan and Calabrese are reported to be very different from each
other. Southern Calabrian is reported to be a dialect of Sicilian.
Bilingualism in Italian. Vigorous. Not endangered. A large literature.
It might be in Southern Romance instead of Italo-Western.


Neapolitan (autonym: napulitano; Italian: napoletano) is the name
given to the varied Italo-Western group of dialects of southern Italy
or, more specifically, the language of the city and region of Naples,
Campania (Neapolitan: Nàpule, Italian: Napoli). According to
Ethnologue, the Neapolitan dialects are grouped as a separate Romance
language called Napoletano-Calabrese[5], and are spoken throughout
most of southern continental Italy, including the Gaeta and Sora
districts of southern Lazio, the southern part of Marche and Abruzzo,
Molise, Basilicata, northern Calabria, and northern and central
Apulia. As of 1976, there were 7,047,399 theoretical native speakers
of this group of dialects.[6] On October 14, 2008 the Neapolitan
language was accepted by a decree by the Region of Campania. [7]

* 1 Distribution
* 2 The Language
* 3 See also
* 4 External links
* 5 References

[edit] Distribution

Neapolitan, as the varied Italo-Western group of dialects, is
distributed throughout most of continental southern Italy,
historically united during the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of
the Two Sicilies. The many dialects of this language group include
Neapolitan proper (as spoken in and around Naples, in the Caserta
area, Salerno, and in southern Latium), Irpino, Cilentano, Ascolano,
Teramano, Abruzzese Orientale Adriatico, Abruzzese Occidentale,
Molisano, Dauno-Appenninico, Garganico, Apulo-Barese, Lucano, and
Cosentino. The dialects are part of a strong and varied continuum, so
the various dialects in Marche, Abruzzo, Molise, Apulia, Lucania and
Calabria can typically be recognizable as regional dialects. Many
would argue that the term "Neapolitan" should only be used for the
dialect of Naples and its vicinity. In eastern Abruzzo and Lazio the
dialects give way to Italian dialects such as Romanesco. In central
Calabria and southern Puglia, the dialects give way to Sicilian
dialects. Neapolitan has also had a significant influence on the
intonation of Rioplatense Spanish, spoken mainly in the Buenos Aires
region of Argentina.[8]

[edit] The Language

Neapolitan is generally considered an Italo-Dalmatian, although some
postulate a southern Romance classification. There are notable
differences among the various dialects, but they are all generally
mutually intelligible. The language as a whole has often fallen victim
of its status as a "language without prestige".

Standard Italian and Neapolitan are generally mutually comprehensible,
though with notable grammatical differences such as nouns in the
neuter form and unique plural formation. Its evolution has been
similar to that of Italian and other Romance languages from their
roots in Vulgar Latin. It has also developed with a pre-Latin Oscan
influence, which is noticeable in the pronunciation of the d sound as
an r sound (rhotacism), but only when "d" is at the beginning of a
word, or between two vowels (e.g.- "doje" or "duje" (two, respectively
feminine and masculine form), pronounced, and often spelled, as
"roje"/"ruje", vedé (to see), pronounced as "veré", and often spelled
so, same for cadé/caré (to fall), and Madonna/Maronna). Some think
that the rhotacism is a more recent phenomenon, though. Other Oscan
influence (more likely than the previous one) is considered the
pronunciation of the group of consonants "nd" (of Latin) as "nn" (this
generally is reflected in spelling more consistently) (e.g.- "munno"
(world, compare to Italian "mondo"), "quanno" (when, compare to
Italian "quando"), etc.), and the pronunciation of the group of
consonants "mb" (of Latin) as "mm" (e.g.- tammuro (drum), cfr. Italian
tamburo), also consistently reflected in spelling. Other effects of
the Oscan substratum are postulated too. In addition, the language was
also affected by the Greek language. Naples was largely Greek-speaking
prior to the Eighth Century, and the Greek language remained dominant
in much of Southern Italy for many further centuries before finally
being fully supplanted by Italian dialects (see: Griko language for
remnant traces of Greek on the Italian peninsula). There have never
been any successful attempts to standardize the language (eg.-
consulting three different dictionaries, one finds three different
spellings for the word for tree, arbero, arvero and àvaro).

Neapolitan has enjoyed a rich literary, musical and theatrical history
(notably Giambattista Basile, Eduardo de Filippo, Salvatore di Giacomo
and Totò).


Strikeslip said...

"Bravissimo," Thomas, for such an informative post! I also wrote to Mr. Kieta to point out the North-South differences, but you put it into an historical context which is really interesting.

Thank you!

Greens and Beans said...

Excellent! Thank you for the education.

Greens and Beans

Anonymous said...

The "dropped vowels" comment is tongue planted firmly within cheek. Regarding the negativity commentary, I STRONGLY AGREE with it. We need to lose the "poor, poor pitiful me" attitude around here before we can grow and flourish. However, the OD also needs to do its part, because they are somewhat responsible for the negativity with some (not all) of their stories and reporting.