Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ugly Italian words

Let’s face it, Italian is not the world’s most useful language. It’s only spoken in Italy (and even then not by many grandmas or fishermen), San Marino and parts of Switzerland. Oh, and let’s not forget the 826 people who live in the Vatican City. And yet it seems that everyone wants to learn to speak Italian.

Why? Because it’s beautiful. Italian is the top model of languages, with its unblemished vowels, lean consonants and confident catwalk rhythm. Its sound is so intoxicating that once you become half fluent, you’ll want to make love to the Italian language all day long. You’ll want to let it roll off your tongue every waking hour. You’ll want to make a running commentary of your own life. To anyone who’ll listen, you’ll want to tell stories and jokes and comment on their cooking, speculate on their love lives, dole out unsolicited advice. You’ll be loving it so much that you won’t even notice when your front door closes behind you or the line goes dead.

I’m going to tell you something that you won’t find in any Italian phrasebook – there are two basic secrets to reproducing the typical Italian pronunciation that we find so delicious.

The first one is gymnastics of the mouth. I’ll explain. In order to faithfully reproduce Italian vowels – which are considered pure and unadulterated by diphthongs or weak sounds – you need to open your mouth wide. And when I say wide, I mean over-the-top wide. Like you’re trying to catch flies with your mouth. Or get the corners of your lips to reach your earlobes. Or huff and puff and blow the house down.

The second key to beautiful Italian pronunciation is constriction of the throat. It may seem paradoxical to do so when you’re trying to catch flies with your mouth. But it works for frogs, who after all croak. Tightening your throat is absolutely necessary if your consonants are to come out without any actual air. If you say “piece of paper” in English, a sheet of A4 in front of your lips will move with the air you exhale on each “p”. But if you say “passami i peperoni” (pass me the peppers), not a single hair would be put out of place even if you whispered this into your lover’s ear. As you do.

If you can achieve these two tasks at once, your Italian will likely sound as luscious as the Pope’s (oops, he’s German). However, it may surprise you to hear that not all Italian words are beautiful. I swear it’s true. I will give you some examples of ugly Italian words:

1. Sdrucciolevole (meaning “slippery”). There is a whole series of Italian words with, frankly, too many consonants in a row. Other words that fall into this category are sberleffo (sneer) and sfregare (rub). This is gymnastics of the tongue, not the mouth. It’s so preposterous that it’s quite nearly Germanic. When I try to pronounce sdrucciolevole, my tongue is literally sent into shock. Help, quick, inject me with a vowel or I’m dead!

2. Practically any word with two many combinations of “gli”. Somewhere between a “g” and a Spanish “ll”, this is perhaps the only truly difficult sound to pronounce in the Italian language. For example, the somewhat dialectal phrase Pigliagli l’aglio (Get him the garlic). Try saying this ten times fast and you’ll see what I mean.

3. Tuorlo (yolk) has that “uo” combination that is simply too much for my poor mouth, forced to stretch into an embarrassing yoga posture. Try tuorlo d’uovo (egg yolk) and you’re practically flashing your panties to the whole class. Same goes for baule (trunk), museruola (muzzle) and even uomini (men), saved only by its oh-so-cute “mini” ending.

4. Guardingo (wary). This just sounds silly.

So you can see that “ugly Italian” is no oxymoron. Even top models have a few moles. Perhaps they are the Italian language’s way of saying “Don’t love me just because I’m beautiful.”

Don’t worry, Italian, I understand. It’s something I struggle with too.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Only a mother would understand that

Image by Sai De Silva
One day well before I became someone’s mom, my best friend showed up at our door with her two-(and-a-bit)-year-old, fresh from the Museum of Transport and Technology. I kneeled down and asked the little guy what he’d seen at the museum: the trains, the planes, the earthquake simulator?

“Choo choo ni ni,” he replied forlornly.

At my perplexed look, my friend explained, “When we left the museum we had to say goodbye to the trains.” But I still must have looked about as cognisant as a grazing water buffalo because she then added, “You know, nighty-night to the choo choo train.”

“Oh sure, choo choo ni ni, of course!” I lied casually, thinking to myself, Only a mother would understand that.

But now that I’m a mother of a two-(and-a-bit)-year-old, I too have become adept at deciphering phrases that sound a bit like Archaic Sumerian and translating them back into one of the official living languages the rest of us speak. This decoding task alone is nearly a full-time job because, at two and a bit, we get lots of talking. Lots of babbling with Italian or English intonation, punctuated with real words and accompanied by a form of sign language that he may have picked up from that orangutan documentary. We also get lots of very drawn-out and meaningful ‘umm’s and ‘eeh’s. Lots of stories, appeals, confessions, imperial decrees. We get stream of consciousness, poetic license, divine inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong: we do get a fair share of easily understood phrases such as the ever useful “I wanna go down” or the even more useful “pompa di benzina” (gas station in Italian). But for the most part I’ve discovered that communication with a two-year-old involves a great deal of interpretation on the listener’s part.

This listener is usually the mom. It’s a good thing, too, because mothers are born interpreters, or perhaps it’s the intensive backbreaking military training (complete with sleep torture) that we’re put through at the start. In any case, after a while interpreting becomes less of an acquired skill and more of a sixth sense, of the variety moms all over the world use to diagnose a mild fever solely by caressing a foot (with the sock still on it). It’s the same awesome power of divination that tells you whether it is going to be a scrambled-egg morning or a blueberry-pancake morning. Or a please-just-eat-your-toast-in-the-carseat morning. The same uncanny insight that tells you whether that disturbingly long silence from the other room is due to your child’s absorption in a game or a diaper absorption test of mass proportions.

In my case, this daily interpreting job is complicated by the bilingual nature of my son’s speech. His own dad constantly has to yell out at me as he’s bathing him to ask things like, “What does bolle mean again?” (Bubbles.) And it’s almost heartbreaking the way our toddler tries to flirt with the girls in front of the zoo’s tiger enclosure by offering them some of his “acqua”. Someone ought to tell that boy that picking up girls by speaking Italian is only going to work much much later in life. And that it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than water.

Until then, at least his mother can understand him. And to prove to you just how good I’ve become at interpreting the most impenetrable of local dialects, here are a few recent examples of my toddler’s speech:

“Tango nam-nam palle” – this means, naturally, “The big monkey is eating blueberries.” Tango is from the Italian orango tango: if a smaller species is intended, my son employs the more common term monkey. Nam-nam is onomatopoeic, although most of us primates don’t really make this sound when eating. Blueberries indeed resemble little purple balls (palle, an indispensable word in Italy). I don’t think I’m being biased when I say that Tango nam-nam palle shows incredible wisdom: according to the Discovery Channel, orangutans do in fact subsist primarily on a diet of berries and other fruit.

“Abs cats” – you’re probably thinking this is the name of a feline weight-loss program. But, in actuality, abs is English for ‘rabbits’. Cats are ‘carrots’. I forgive you if you are less impressed by this much more common tidbit of knowledge about the diet of an ordinary pet.

“Kino nanna hia” – no, this is not Maori. The phrase means: “The rabbit is going to sleep here.” Kino is an idiosyncratic short form of coniglio, ‘rabbit’ (note the double vocabulary my son possesses here: see previous entry), and must be rigorously distinguished from kina (for cannella, ‘cinnamon’) and kima (camomilla). Italian nanna can be roughly translated as ‘beddy-byes’. Hia is my phonetic rendering of the worryingly thick Kiwi accent my toddler is developing, most notable in the word ‘here’.

“Ka-a picco bovo” – depending on the context, this could mean either “The little car has a boo-boo (injury)” or “The car has a little boo-boo.” (Ka-a = Kiwi for ‘car’; picco = piccolo, ‘small’; bovo = bua, ‘boo-boo’.)

“Cacca achoo” – a ‘cacca sneeze’ or, figuratively speaking, flatulence. If this term is not divine inspiration, I don’t know what is.

But nobody’s perfect. Sometimes if I don’t correctly guess what my son is trying to say, he looks embarrassed by his failure to communicate. This breaks my heart. But most of the time he just laughs and gives me a look that speaks a thousand words. Even then I am still able to work my interpretive magic because I’m pretty sure he’s trying to tell me: “Thanks for trying, Mamma, you’re a doll. But you sure are slow.”

Monday, November 1, 2010

Shameless request from a working mom

Forgive me for not posting this week. To my usual full-time job (motherhood) plus my part-time job (teaching), I have added another part-time job (proofreading a 243-page book), which means I’m busily rewriting sentences to sound like this: Ghosts used iron instruments to beat the man and force him to climb up the heated pillar with his bare hands and feet.

That sort of describes me at the moment, a poor soul well over her head in extra-full-time (or ‘plus-sized’) employment. So something has to give. That’s why this week I’m not making any homemade pumpkinseed rye bread from scratch. Or vacuuming behind the couch. Or marking my students’ exams. Or putting my clothes away. Or sleeping.

So instead of writing a blog entry this week, I’m going to put my hand up and ask for help. I’m going to shamelessly ask those of you who enjoy reading my blog to sign up to become followers. It takes only a minute (click on the ‘Follow’ button) and will not lead to any more junk mail in your inbox than you already have.

I’d like to be able to say that by signing up as a follower you’ll be feeding Serbian orphans or shrinking the hole in the ozone. But that’s not quite accurate. Your becoming a follower of my blog only benefits me. Me, me, me. My toddler’s favorite word, after his own name.

If you’re not sure how becoming a follower is going to help me get seven hours’ sleep or bake German bread, well, it won’t. But if you do kindly choose to follow my blog, others won’t write it off as quite so lame. Instead, they’ll be waiting in line to become followers too, to the point where the Internet will be on the verge of crashing. With billions of people following me, I will not only be able to publish my book but I’ll also rule the world.

Thanks. You’re the best.