Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I blame Naples

Dolce Far Niente, vintage postcard retrieved from http://www.annuncinapoli.it/
I can blame Naples – my home for ten years – for a lot of things. For a broken heart. For my agoraphobia. For my food snobbery. For my tendency to overgesticulate. And for my lack of confidence regarding proper Italian word endings.

You may say that blaming Naples for my poor language skills is a bit like blaming my neighbors’ trimming their bushes for my poor driving skills reversing down our shared driveway. But pruning – linguistically speaking – can be a bigger problem than you might think.

Let me explain. The spoken Neapolitan dialect tends to lop off the final vowel in most words. Well, it doesn’t exactly vanish but rather it melts – like buffalo mozzarella – into something like a schwa, that unclassifiable and typically English “uh” sound that makes its native speakers sound so very elegant. You’d think that Neapolitans, historically famous for their dolce far niente lifestyle and high unemployment, would have plenty of free time to finish off a word, especially in the Italian language where the inflections are so crucial to getting the message right. But that’s not how languages – or people – work.

In any case, the pruned pronunciation of the dialect extends to the ‘proper’ Italian spoken in Naples, meaning that Italian words like botto (thud) botte (barrel) botta (bang), said in a heavy Neapolitan accent, all sound the same. Verb conjugations can get blurred.

If you’re a learner of Italian, like I was as a sixteen-year-old in the province of Naples, this widespread grammatical fuzziness can be quite handy. It’s also handy for uneducated locals who have grown up with the Neapolitan dialect as their first language. Until, that is, they’re forced to speak standard Italian. Once I saw a news interview with a Neapolitan woman who had witnessed a building collapse in her ghetto. The strain of trying to get all those proper Italian declensions right was painfully entertaining. She didn’t sound all that different from a drunk exchange student from Germany.

After five years of university study in Naples, I could identify neither with that Neapolitan making a fool of herself on national television nor with the German making a fool of herself in the main piazza. I was well-spoken and well-read. I communicated daily with my fellow linguistics students, from all over Italy. I wrote my Masters thesis in Italian. In semiotics, for goodness sake.

But I can tell you that once I left Naples for New Zealand – in my late twenties – and lost my everyday exposure to the language, my confidence in Italian word endings was the very first thing to go. Even now I constantly have to stop and ask myself: is it fosso or fossa? Succulente or succulento?

Naples or middle age?

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