I can’t speak Italian. Neither could most of my ACLE colleagues; that’s why my first camp director and her friend liked to get us to repeat various phrases we didn’t understand, falling about laughing when they heard them. One evening, they started teaching us dialect and so, in the first week of my travels, a mission was born. I was going to learn the same phrase in the dialect of every region I visited.
Here are some notes on the phrases I collected throughout my time in Italy:
• In the interests of pronunciation, I have followed each phrase with a version using British English phonemes where necessary.
• I have grouped them according to location, with those areas close to each other listed together, so it is easier to see the similarities and differences.
• For any Italian readers, apologies for the expletive in the Sicilian phrase. It couldn’t really be helped!
• Also for any Italian readers, please correct my spelling where necessary!
‘What are you doing?!’ (In sixteen different dialects, spoken with the necessary angry/confused hand shaking and in an aggressive tone).
Italiano (true Italian): ‘Cosa stai facendo?!’ (Cozza sty fachendo?!)
Padovan: Coxa sito drio fare? (Coxa seato dreeo fah-reh?)
Cavallino: Cossa sisto drio far? (Cossa sisto dreeoh far?)
Venetian: Cossa ti si drio far? (Cossa tee see dreeoh far?)
Vicentino: Cosa fetto? (Cozza fetto?)
Mantovan: Cosa set dre far? (Cozza set dreh far?)
Bergamo: Set dre a far? (Set dreh a far?)
Castel Goffredo: Cosa se de a far? (Cozza say say a far?)
Gorla Minore: Cousa te set dre fa? (Coosa ti set dreh fa?)
Milanese: Sa te dre fa cousé? (Sa teh dreh fa coosé?)
Savonese: Cose ti feh? (Cousseh ti fé?)
South Piemontese: So cet foi? (So chet foy?)
Roman: Che stai a fa? (Keh sty a fa?)
Neapolitan: Ma che stai faschen? (Ma keh sty faschen? I know there’s a problem with the way I’ve spelled ‘faschen’ in the Italian version — in the absence of knowledge I used the British phoneme to denote a ‘sh’ sound, but included the ‘c’ for stress and emphasis — it’s not an entirely soft sound).
Pugliese: Ma cesta fa? (Ma chesta fa?)
Sicilian: Ma che minchia fa? (Ma keh minkia fa?)
You can see from this how similar the dialect is in parts of the country ranging from the northern regions of Venice across to Milan. Many people from these areas can understand one another quite easily when they’re speaking in dialect. However, when you consider how close places like Milan, Gorla, Bergamo, Vicenza, Mantua and Castel Goffredo are (they’re all situated within a roughly 50 kilometre radius), you realise that their dialects are really quite different despite their proximity to one another. Move down south and the snappy shouts of the Romans, the Sicilians and the Pugliese are almost unrecognisable from the rolling syllables of the north. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that ‘Che stai a fa?’ and ‘Cosa sito drio fare?’ were completely different questions!
In the second instalment of this mini-series, I will consider some of the socio-political reasons behind why dialect still has such a presence in Italy, as well as sharing some interesting anecdotes I learned from host-families along the way.