- Lingua/Lenga'/Language:"The Language Question" in the Life and Work of an Italian American Woman
Italian has been called "la lingua di Dante." But in the Italian immigrant community where I came of age, no one said lingua; it was lenga' or leng', and there was little mention of Dante. Italian to me was the shrill call of mothers to errant children who had wandered half a block from home; the language of lewd stories grown-ups told while gathered around the kitchen table late at night when children were supposed to be upstairs, asleep in their beds. It was the sound of accusations, many only half understood, that mothers and fathers hurled at each other, or that women made behind the backs of their enemies (often their mothers-in-law or daughters-in-law). It was the stories told about trying to make a living on the land in the old country; a number of the stories involved recalcitrant donkeys, as I recall.
"Real Italian," as we always referred to the standard, was greatly appreciated, even revered. There was, however, a good deal of ambivalence about it as well. My cousin tells the story of a family gathering years ago where she was speaking her best schoolbook Italian, soon after returning from a junior year abroad in Florence. Her father, who had emigrated from Italy as a young man, was present. He had some pretensions to speaking standard Italian, having gone to high school for a year or two in Italy. He thought of himself as something of a frustrated scholar who never got over the indignity of working as a groundskeeper for an elite prep school. Instead of beaming proudly on his daughter that day as he usually did over her fluency in Italian, without warning and with a violence I can easily imagine, he slapped her across the face and said, in the rough tones of our Molisano dialect, "Parl' com'a nu"; "Speak like we do."
In retrospect, it is not surprising that my circuitous route to a career as a historian led me to an exploration of language in Italian immigrant life. What does surprise me is how, over ten years into my project—a forthcoming book on language and Italian immigrants inspired by some oral interviews I conducted in 1995—I am still wrestling with my own questione della lingua and how it figures into my scholarship. [End Page 87]
When I interviewed Michelina Ciccone, all I knew about her was that she was my mother's eighty-four-year-old godmother, who lived with her husband on one of the more modest streets that was once largely Italian in my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. I do not remember ever meeting her before this interview, but I may have as a child. I asked my mother to broker some interviews for me as part of a project I was working on for a graduate seminar in women's history. I went to Michelina's home. We passed through the living room, where she introduced me to her semi-invalid husband who sat quietly in an armchair. He looked old and frail and small, his face lined from years of working in the sun. Only his full head of hair, although completely white, remained as a testament to the young man he once was. The contrast with Michelina, who seemed vigorous for her years and unbent by life, was stark. She made sure he was okay before we moved to her kitchen for the interview. I was immediately taken aback when she began to speak after I turned the tape recorder on. She launched into her story, speaking a fairly pure Italian. I was accustomed to hearing the people of this community use dialect or, more accurately, dialect with varying amounts of Italianized English interwoven throughout. I did not ask her outright about her choice of language, not wanting to direct the interview in any way. I just listened to her story: how in her youth she worked as a maid for a rich Princeton family, how she liked it well enough, but balked at wearing a maid's...