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.”
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.”
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.
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’.
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.