Exploring the History of the Italian-American Language & Identity

An Exploratory Essay on Italian-American Language & Identity by Andrew Federico

Why do many Italian-Americans call capicola, gabagool? There is not one simple answer to this question, but rather a very complex history that formed and shaped an Italian-American dialect and identity. From the 1880s to the 1920s there was a massive wave of migration from southern Italy into the United States. Many southern Italians left Italy in hopes of a better life in America and many left due to economic hardship and poverty. Many families did not have running water, electricity, or even heat in their homes and the American dream seemed very promising to these individuals. Throughout history the Italian peninsula was home to dozens of different languages and dialects that differed from region to region, even village to village. There was never one unified Italian language until the Florentine dialect eventually was formed into the standard Italian language. There are twenty regions in Italy that each had their own dialect. There is the Lombardy dialect, the Venetian dialect, the Friullian dialect, the Abbruzzesse dialect, the Roman dialect, the Neapolitan dialect, the Apulia dialect, the Calabrese dialect, and the Sicilian dialect just to name a few (Haller 397). When Italy was unified as one country in 1861 there was a need to establish one common language so everyone would be able to communicate with each other. Although some dialects may only have slight differences from each other, some are almost completely different languages. Calabrese and Sicilian dialects could almost be entirely different languages from Venetian and Lombardy dialects. Thus, depending where one was from, there could be a language barrier even though Italy was technically one country. When mass waves of southern Italians left Italy for America, not only were many people illiterate but most of them only spoke and understood their region’s dialect, not standard Italian (Haller 393). When these Italians arrived in America they brought the complicated linguistic history from Italy into America, and even passed these complexities to next generations (Carnevale 21).

The chart above depicts how most Italians who immigrated to the United States came from southern Italy

The Italian-American language is what it is today because of how many dialects were spoken throughout Italy for centuries. When Italy was unified “the Florentine dialect was chosen because it was better understood than other dialects and was closer to Latin, making it comprehensible to at least the elite classes throughout Italy”(Carnevale 22). Florence was an economic powerhouse and prosperous families like the Medici and notable individuals such as Dante had an impact on why the Florence dialect became standard Italian. Northern Italy was wealthy and powerful while the southerners were looked down upon as inferior. The vast majority of southern Italians continued to speak with their dialects because it was what they knew. Gradually, over time standard Italian became more and more popular and used in the north, while generally, the southerners continued to speak with their dialects (Carnevale 24). This was due to educational opportunities and socio-economic factors, but even during “the period of unification, only between 2.5 and 12 percent of the newly established nation’s entire population knew Italian”(Carnevale 23). The population as a whole continued to speak with their dialects, but standard Italian became more necessary and popular in the north than in the south. When millions of southern Italian immigrants entered the United States, mostly all of them were dialect speakers (Haller 404). A lot of these immigrants were illiterate and had little formal schooling and were unable to speak standard Italian. Some could somewhat understand it, but many just communicated through dialect (Carnevale 34). Due to Italy’s complex linguistic history many of the Italian immigrants could not understand each other because they came from different regions with different dialects. So not only was there a problem of communicating with other fellow Italians, they also could not understand english or the other foreign languages being spoken by other people and immigrants (Carnevale 36). To help solve this language crisis in the Italian-American community many of these immigrants lived with Italians from the same region or village who spoke the same or similar dialects. It was not uncommon for tenement buildings and streets to be organized by Italian region of origin. Tight knit Italian-American communities stuck together due to language barriers which can be observed strongly in the Northeast. Little Italy in the Bronx, the North-End in Boston, and “the lake” also called “Nonantum” in Newton, MA are just a few examples of these neighborhoods. Since it was difficult for Italians from different regions to understand each other and english at the same time, “Italians resorted to a hybrid language: a creole that combined elements of English, dialect— primarily Neapolitan—and Italian”(Carnevale 36). This is how the Italian-American dialect came about, it allowed immigrants to work together as well as Americans, to an extent. This occurred throughout all Italian-American communities in the states, from New York to Massachusetts to Rhode Island to New Jersey, etc. There were “regional variations [of words between communities]… [but] it remains a feature of Italian-American life [to this day]”(Carnevale 36).

Here is a clip from the famous television series, The Sopranos that highlights the Italian-American word Gabagool (capicola).

Since southern Italian immigrants who came to America all spoke a variety of different dialects there was no uniform language that united Italian-Americans. These immigrants were aware of their linguistic inferiority and “found themselves isolated not only from Americans, but also often from their fellow Italians. They compensated by developing their own idiom, an Italo-American dialect, that enabled them to communicate with other Italians while forming and expressing a new identity”(Carnevale 22). These immigrants although from a similar background spoke different dialects in a new unfamiliar country that was not very accepting of them. Italian-Americans banded together and a new identity was in the making, the Italian-American identity. The Sopranos clip above is important to see because the Italian-American dialect is still prevalent in the Italian-American community. Although The Sopranos can exaggerate the dialect at some points, the point is the Italian-American dialect plays a key role in the Italian-American identity.

This video explains the discrimination Italians faced in America during the mass migration era (from southern Italy to the US)

Due to discrimination Italians stuck together to persevere as one. Italians built their own communities in America with some of the best restaurants and cuisine available. In the early twentieth century being Italian was looked down upon and it was seen with a negative connotation. Italians were seen as racially inferior as many Sicilians and southern Italians had olive skin tones and dark complexions. Italians did not want to pass the dialects down to their children and wanted them to assimilate into American culture. Many even went as far as to change their last name to the english version to try to fit in better. One of the fundamental building blocks of any identity, is language. Partly due to discrimination and pride for their heritage, many Italian-Americans felt different than Americans, but also not the same as Italians in Italy. There was a desire for a new identity. Language is central for the formation of a new identity and to maintain and preserve ethnic identities (De Fina 256). For Italian-Americans, language plays a huge role in their identity. Although most Italian-Americans do not speak dialect or standard Italian, many to this day still have a great pride in their heritage. To preserve the culture and the ethnic identity, the Italian-American dialect became the backbone (De Fina 258). The use of the Italian-American dialect allows “people of Italian descent to index their ‘Italianness’ just by code-switching into Italian”(258). Since language is tied very closely with one’s identity the Italian-American dialect allows Italian-Americans to express their identity amongst each other. Roughly 17 million people in America claim Italian ancestry and pledge allegiance to the Italian-American community. However, a study conducted in 2010 by the community survey statistics found that only about seven hundred thousand of these Italian-Americans actually speak their families dialect or standard Italian”(De Fina 258). Due to discrimination the dialects were never passed down to the future generations. Identity plays a big role in American society and many people in society question if second or third generation Italian-Americans are even Italian? Second generation Italian-Americans have grandparents from Italy, does this make them Italian? A third or even fourth generation American may have an Italian surname, does this make them Italian? Regardless of what perspective anyone takes the Italian-American dialect lets anyone express their heritage. Many Italian-Americans use cues, words, and phrases that demonstrate the Italian-American identity. Many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian, but often use Italian words of origin mixed with english to express their identity of being Italian-American. Words are powerful and the way people talk can represent their identity (De Fina 256).

Everyone Italian-American knows the basic slang

Words hold more power than just their literal meaning and specifically in regard to the Italian-American community. Some Italian-Americans are fluent in standard Italian, while some speak their family’s dialect, while some know some of both, while others just know the Italian-American dialect (De Fina 380). Italian dialects such as (Abruzzese, Calabrese, Molisano, Sicilian, and many more) were what many immigrants who came to America spoke. Many immigrants passed down phrases and words (although most likely not teaching their kids the dialect fluently), that every Italian-American most likely knows. The Italian-American dialect is a mixture between these southern dialects with english. For example capicola is known as gabagool to many Italian-Americans because they held onto their families native dialects. Capi-cola sounds like gabagool because the c turns into a g and instead of ca-pi it is ga-ba. There are hundreds of words and phrases that are considered Italian-American dialect for this reason (De Fina 380). Italian-American communities are still lively and the Italian-American dialect will always be the backbone of these communities (390). Some of the well-known words are cugi, gumba, capeesc, paesan’, gabagool, oofah, va fungool, mannaggia, agita, stat’a zit, disgraziat’, gavone, mamaluke, maron, mapeen, fugheddaboudit, and faccia-bruta (American Italian).

This video explains a few Italian-American slang words and their meanings

Although funny this video does a great job explains how Italian-American slang words can mean many things

The Italian-American dialect has been around for more than one hundred years and it is still used in many Italian-American households to this day. Due to Italy’s complex linguistic history, southern Italians that immigrated to America were able to establish a new identity, the Italian-American identity that will always have the Italian-American dialect as its backbone. Language plays a key role in expressing identity and this can clearly be observed in the Italian-American community.

Works Cited

American Italian, 2009. https://americanitalian.net/.

Carnevale, Nancy. “A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States,

1890-1945.” (2012): 21-247.

De Fina, Anna. “Code-switching and the construction of ethnic identity in a community of

practice.” Language in society 36.3 (2007): 371-392.

De Fina, Anna. “Language and identities in US communities of Italian origin.” Forum Italicum. 

Vol. 48. No. 2. Sage UK: London, England: SAGE Publications, 2014.

Haller, Hermann W. “Italian speech varieties in the United States and the Italian-American lingua 

franca.” Italica 64.3 (1987): 393-409.

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