Market Talk: Exploring South Philly’s Italian Dialect

 

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The South 9th Street Italian Market celebrated 100 years in 2015, but immigrants from Milan, Genoa, Venice, and Rome had settled in what would become South Philadelphia beginning in the 1850s | Photo: Michael Bixler

If you walked through the streets of South Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood at the turn-of-the-20th-century, you’d probably smell sweet garlic frying, tomato simmering in onion and fat. You would overhear conversations all around you in what you might think was Italian, but were really in Sicilian, Neapolitan, or Calabrian–southern dialects almost as distinct as Italian is from Spanish. These immigrants went to shop on South 9th Street below Christian, still known as the Italian Market.

In the Market’s legacy shops today, one can find grocery store staples of modern Italy: the imported version of Nutella without the corn syrup sweetener, tiny bitter sodas called chinotto, fine pastas by Casale and La Fabbrica in the original Italian packaging, bags of elegant ladyfinger cookies, and glass jars of anchovies and Calabrian hot peppers. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of olive oils, infused with a range of ingredients from rosemary to truffles.

You won’t, however, overhear much Italian being spoken in line at shops like Talutto’s, Claudio’s, and Di Bruno Brothers. Instead, the remnant sounds of South Philly-Southern Italy immigrant days bubbling over the counter like the passwords to a secret club: “tublini,” “man-ih-gawt,” “galamad.”

Gaba-who?

DiBruno Bros. Philly’s holy temple of gourmet Italian imports | Photo: Michael Bixler

Francis Vellucci’s South Philly credentials go back far enough. He was baptized at Saint Paul’s church on 10th and Christian Streets and remembers when the Rite Aid on the next block was Palumbo’s night club, where Bing Crosby and Sinatra used to appear in the 1940s and 50s.

After church on Sundays, he goes shopping in the Market though he won’t order “prosciutto,” but rather the clipped and twisted “brah-zhoot” he remembers from his parents, who arrived in Philadelphia straight from Italy. He has always thought of those pronunciations as part of their broken English. “They had a very limited vocabulary,” he recalls. “Everything they’d say, you’d pick it up.”

Come for the olives, stay for the free cheese samples  | Photo: Michael Bixler

Emilio Mignucci, the third generation of his family to run the cheese and gourmet food purveyor Di Bruno Bros., first heard these words as a little kid of five or six years old visiting the store. “You repeat things you think you hear,” he says. “I didn’t know how they were spelled.”

An interesting, odd game of broken telephone happened in the transmission of language between generations. So, on the long chalkboard listing some of his store’s offerings, Mignucci wrote out the phonetic South Philly spellings of certain items. He still hears people come in and use them. “I listen to some of the old timers when come in. It’s so funny. I get a kick out of it. You don’t want to make anyone feel embarrassed. We just chuckle to ourselves,” says Mignucci. He uses these variations himself more playfully.

Skip the gabbagool and go straight for the brahzhoot | Photo: Michael Bixler

Jen Patrick (as her name suggests her family is of Irish descent), a manager of Talluto’s, says that when she first started working at the store, it took a little while to figure out what some customers had asked for but she caught on, “once I heard if a few times.”

It’s worth noting these pronunciations aren’t limited to the Italian Market, but pop up in other Italian immigrant neighborhoods and towns in the city and region. Max Botwick, a Di Bruno’s cheesemonger, heard these same pronunciations growing up in New Jersey; calling capicola “gabagool” was made popular by the television show The Sopranos.

The Linguistic Specifics

Academic linguists don’t like to hear these pronunciations referred to as a bastardization of proper Italian. Rather, the dialect simply represents a different history and background of the original speakers. “The idea that a pronunciation can be wrong or bad is as bizarre as saying that a species of butterfly is wrong or bad,” says Betsy Sneller, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Saying this often carries classist undertones.”

Christopher Cieri, executive director of the Penn-based Linguistic Data Consortium, explains how language evolved among new immigrants in Philadelphia. “Even as English gradually replaces Italian, some forms remain, perhaps to label things like foods for which there is no easily recognizable equivalent in the surrounding language.”

Cieri notes that some of the difference in the pronunciation from formal Italian is certainly attributable to dialect. While the story of Italian in Italy is the gradual superimposition of Tuscan Italian over local dialects, spoken Italian is very different across the country, even more so at the time Italian immigrants were leaving for the United States. Southern dialects were more likely to shorten the vowels at the end of words. Consonants ‘p’, ’t’ and ‘k’ sound more like ‘b’, ’d’ and ‘g’.

You won’t find galamad here, but they do have a really nice superset. Claudio Specialty Foods has been in business since the 1950s | Photo: Michael Bixler

Once in the U.S., the vowels at the end of these words completely disappeared and generally, regional pronunciations became standardized among American Italians. “Markers of in-group membership tend to persist because speakers want to communicate their identity,” Cieri explains. Of Italian descent himself, Cieri’s daughter at least knows some of the same pronunciations his grandmother used even if the shopkeepers on 9th Street say they don’t often hear them from young people.

Annette Iannuzzi, who tends the counter at Talutto’s, points out she hears different attempts at pronunciation today from people who didn’t grow up with Italian specialties. They’ll guess at how to interpret the spelling of a word like gnocchi. Often, their creative pronunciation will come out like “gah-nochi,” and at this point everyone at the counter knows what they’re looking for too.


29 Comments


  1. Cieri’s Italian may, in fact, be decent (next to last graf), but I would bet money that your reporter actually had the word “descent” in mind.

  2. We had dear friends who were immigrants themselves who said nyawk – for gnocchi. They were delicious no matter how it’s pronounced.

  3. My best friend in school was originally from South Philly. The family moved to North Philly so his father could be closer to his work. Fred and his dad took me down to this market, it was sometime in the mid 50’s. I remember the water ice his dad brought me. Wow. That was so good. I remember all those wonderful aromas too. Great article, thank you.

  4. “You won’t, however, overhear much Italian being spoken on line at shops like Talutto’s, Claudio’s, and Di Bruno Brothers.”

    You also won’t find anyone waiting “on line” anywhere outside NYC.

  5. As noted, those southern Italian dialects often did not voice the last vowel in a word, and not just with food items. My grandmother, who was born in Campania and lived there until she was 35, would say, upon hearing about a tragedy, “che peccato,” which translates as “what a pity.” Her pronunciation of “che peccato” sounded to my youthful ears exactly like “Cape Cod” said with an Italian accent — something like “Ca-pecod.”

  6. Michael Bufalino

    What I would be interested in is finding the origin of the term “gravy” for tomato sauce. Among Italian Americans it only appears to be used in the Philadelphia area. I tried explaining to my 93-year-old great Aunt in Scranton that “gravy” is used to define a meat sauce and she still had never heard of the term. As far as the pronunciations for the other terms, those aren’t just a Philadelphia thing as the majority of Italian Americans come from Southern Italy and Sicily.

    • it’s not just philly. it’s also ny (I thought it was only ny until recently). someone told me that “gravy” and “sauce” are one word in italian and that the difference might have something to do with just which english word a community picked to translate it as.

    • Sugo is sauce holmes…gravys the stuff for turkey on thanksgiving…a sauce with meat, u call that bolognese 🙂

  7. Cavatelli is pronounced “gobbadeels!”

  8. Great article for a second generation Italian. It explains a great deal of my parents and grandparents pronunciation of Italian words. So true, in fact, I could never figure out how cavatelli was spelled because everyone in my family said “gava-deal”. Or how about “mud-e-nada” for marinara? Or another “sfoy-a-tell” for the Neopolitan pastry sfogliatella?
    Thanks for writing this piece.

  9. My old-school Italian family from Brooklyn uses a lot of the same words (bro-shoot for prosciuitto, ri-guth for ricotta cheese, galamad for calimari). Also, “gaba-dost” for thickheaded. Thanks for this article, interesting to see the similarities between Philly and other immigrant communities.

  10. Loved this article. I remember my brother and I growing up and our favorite soup was (we thought) ‘scuttle soup’ since that’s what ‘escarole soup’ sounded like when spoken by my Nana who was from Abruzzi.

  11. Ackamee = Acme. :p

  12. I am 35, and third generation Italian-American. My own pronunciation of a lot of these words was learned from my mother’s side of the family in Overbrook.

    bruh-zhoot : prosciutto
    gubuh-gole : capicola
    mootza-dell : mozzarella
    rigut : ricotta
    mana-got : manicotti
    guvuh-dell : cavatelli
    britcha-dell : perciatelli
    galamad : calamari
    scuh-dole : escarole soup
    pusteen : pastina soup
    sfoya-dell : sfogliatella

    We say “macaroni” instead of “pasta”, and any tomato sauce is gravy.

  13. Phillip Schearer

    My Italian-American Aunt Mary, who married my Polish-American Uncle Al, would have loved this article, as did I. But it makes me wonder if there is enough Polish still being spoken in Port Richmond for there to be an article like this someday. Probably not. Polish food didn’t have the impact on America of Italian food, Polish culture didn’t fascinate American culture like the Italian has, and my impression is that the building of I-95 tore the Polish heart out of Richmond Street. But since we moved out to the burbs over 60 years ago and I’ve not kept in touch, I might be wrong. Hang in there, South Philly!

  14. I am second generation Italian (Abruzzese) American and grew up in Saint Donato’s neighborhood in West Philly among a melting pot of immigrants from the southern regions of Italy and their children and grandchildren.

    When my father’s first cousin, Serafino visited us in 1965, his words were,” Una mese qui con tutti voi, saro’ parlando cinese quando tornero in Italia.” The translation is; one month here with all of you and I’ll be speaking Chinese when I return to Italy.

    My mother’s parents, however demanded that all their children adhere to the rules and pronunciation of “La lingue di Dante” or proper Italian. Because of this, I often characterize my childhood home as trilingual, Italian, neighborhood mish-mash of dialects and corruptions and English.

  15. I grew up saying “mozzarell” and “prosciutt”- leaving off the last vowel. And other words like them. It’s true you say it how you think you hear it form the broken English of older relatives. However, the best story is of my Grandfather’s aunt who couldn’t say “Cinnamon Buns” because of her broken Italian-English. So she called them “Som-i-na-bitches”. Funny. We still refer to them like that today.

  16. Great article. Many years ago, at the Villa di Roma, my young son ordered manicotti, pronouncing it carefully as it is spelled. The waitress couldn’t understand him, so he repeated his order. She still was unsure, until I said, “He means the manigot.”

    • I had the reverse problem in Palm Springs, CA. I live in San Diego now, but my father lived at 8th and Christian when he got here in 1908. I’ve run into so many people from Philly out here, I wonder who is left. Every reply here has brought a flood of great memories. The one constant with all the people I have met is, “I miss the food.” I still remember Pat’s when it was just a shack with a lift up front and two grills, steak on one and onions on the other. How about ‘snowballs’, snowcones everywhere else.

  17. Loved the article. Though I was raised Jewish on the Main Line, I picked up a number of these words from friends and co-workers. How about “Pash-unk” for Passyunk?

  18. All things being said about the language of my Maternal grand mother Elisa Ciboldi,that’s(CH-for Ci) from Casoli,Chieti Abruzzo Italy,she spoke the same way. For those who still would not understand the dialect, she would have called you a “med a gon” respectfully and AMERICAN! Thank you so much for this article.

    • “Med a gon” is actually a nasty pun, used as a secret insult. It’s explained to non-Italians that it’s just how “American” is pronounced, but by an amazing coincidence, it’s also how the words “merde de canne” are pronounced.

  19. Any self respecting hoagie in South Philly would have to include
    goodageen
    sopressat
    bruzhut
    mortadella
    salami(Genoa)
    sharp pro
    Sarcones long seeded roll
    roasted long hots
    shredded lettuce
    good quality evoo,oregano and pepper!

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