When learning Italian, it is important to remember that inflection and emphasis on a particular syllable can make all the difference between getting your point across and really offending someone.
A slight turn of phrase can change the meaning of a word entirely. I believe in trying to speak the language. I try to speak the language. I butcher it regularly and generally frustrate Italians, but it is the only way to really learn and I feel that it is respectful to at least try to speak the official language of the place that I live. But Lord knows, I have really made a mess of it at times.
In the beginning, we were meeting all kinds of people and lots of new kids at school. In Italian, much like Spanish, instead of asking “how old are you?” you ask a child how many years they have. The phrase in Italian is “Quanti anni hai?” I was pronouncing the word anni (years) like “ah knee.” My friend Dena, an American who has lived in Italy for over 20 years, was kind enough to tell me “Oh, be careful how you pronounce anni.” See, I was pronouncing anni like ani. Ani means anuses. This explained the strange looks and giggles I got when I asked children at the school how many anuses they had. The correct pronunciation for anni is (ahnn knee) with an emphasis on the double n’s.
Then, at language circle one day my friend Paola was discussing the little yellow structure near the stadium. I said, Oh, you mean the casino?” She looked at me shocked. “No, it is not a casino.” “Sure it is, it says so right on the building. “aah, you mean casino’ ‘” Apparently, there is the casino where one gambles and then there is the casino’ which is a brothel. Oh and casino can also mean a big mess depending on context. In this context I made a casino of the word casino.
And then one time Paola did an entire lesson on the difference between papa’, Papa and pappa. The first, papa’ (pa·pà) is pronounced with a short emphasis on the first syllable then a hard accent on the second syllable. This is one’s father.
Next there is Papa (pà·pa) with a capital letter. This indicates the Pope and is pronounced by keeping an equal emphasis on both syllables, but with a slighter stronger emphasis on the first syllable. But only a slightly stronger emphasis. Too strong an emphasis and you’ve blown it.
And finally, there is pappa. The double consonant ‘p’ requires us mush mouthed Americans to linger for a time on the two p’s. Pappa is baby food. A small snack for babies.
To this day, I cannot hear the difference between them all.
Even Father Christmas Wasn’t Safe!
But my biggest and most famous gaffe happened right after we arrived. It was Christmas and I was determined to keep up our holiday tradition of a new ornament in the kid’s stockings. I really wanted to find ornaments that said “Buon Natale.” Unfortunately, all the ornaments that I saw said “Merry Christmas” in English.
We were out on our last Christmas shopping excursion and Joe was having a coffee. I tried one last store. Low and behold I saw exactly what I was looking for. I went up to pay. I said my few phrases in Italian and the clerk instantly recognized I was not Italian. She asked where I was from in English. I told her and complimented her English. She said she needed to practice. I told her I really needed to practice my Italian as I had only been in the country for 3 months. We decided that she would ask me questions in English and I would respond in Italian.
She asked me why I was buying the ornaments. I replied that I was buying the ornaments for my children’s stockings. She turned bright red. Her eyes opened wide. I had clearly said something wrong. I felt the need to explain further – to fix what I had said incorrectly. I told her that I was buying the ornaments for the stockings of Father Christmas. At that point the clerk emphatically said “basta basta” or “enough, stop.” She held her hand up to make sure I got the point. The little boy behind me let out a guffaw and a snicker. The clerk told the other patrons that I was new and didn’t speak Italian. The mother of the boy said, “Certamente!”
So, let me explain. I was trying to say ‘calza’ which is the word for stocking. I put the wrong ending on it and instead said ‘calzo’ which, with my bad American pronunciation, sounded like ‘cazzo’ – the slang term for the male genitalia. So, in the first instance I had told the clerk that I was buying the ornaments for my son’s willy. When I tried to explain further, I only made it worse by dragging Santa Claus’ willy into the discussion. Everyone in the store had a good laugh about it.
Then months later at the school I was introduced to a friend’s family from England. My friend said to her nephews, “This is the lady that said she was buying ornaments for Father Christmas’ willy!” They all laughed and told me that the story had gone around London. Oy!
But, hey, the mistakes are half the fun and the things that we will remember for years to come.