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  • A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945
  • Mark I. Choate
A New Language, A New World: Italian Immigrants in the United States, 1890-1945. By Nancy C. Carnevale. Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 264 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Nancy C. Carnevale begins her interesting, innovative study by narrating her own experience with immigration and language as a child, when she accompanied her immigrant parents on a return trip to their native town in south-central Italy. There she discovered that her father had not been speaking Italian all those years at home in New Jersey; he spoke a dialect from Molise, and only used standard Italian when speaking in formal situations. Carnevale's mother, however, under the pressures of the visit to her native town, forgot words in dialect and spoke a mixture of English and Italianized English words. Clearly, language was a core issue in her parents' migration experience yet so personally fraught with issues of class, culture, and displacement as to be barely verbalized. Carnevale's book, based upon her dissertation, [End Page 199] expands upon this personal experience with broad research and many other specific examples.

In A New Language, A New World, Carnevale complicates but does not challenge the classic assimilationist narrative that has dominated U.S. immigration studies for decades. Social scientists have long used language as a marker of immigrants' "progress" in becoming American, assuming they gradually abandon their native tongue as they blend into their new host society. But what if the immigrants' language itself is in flux, culturally contested, and divided into dialects? As Carnevale states, "Highlighting the single issue of language within a specific historical context allows us to see how the formation of ethnic identity occurs in the interplay between host society and immigrants/ ethnics" (p. 159). Carnevale uncovers the tension between standard, literary Italian and the dialects actually spoken by immigrant families yet reviled as uncouth and improper. This tension, mixed with racial overtones, made language education programs more politically and culturally charged as vehicles of Americanization or Italianization. An example of the paradox of Italian boosterism and American assimilation played out in the schools of New York City. High school principal Leonard Covello promoted Italian language education as a way to reach students' immigrant parents, bridging the generation gap and empowering the entire family to become more integrated into U.S. society. Covello's ambitious intercultural program to build up Italian Americans attracted Fascist allies and supporters, and they managed to discredit the entire enterprise.

Part 1 of the book establishes the linguistic context that Italian Americans faced, on both sides of the Atlantic. The strength of this book is in part 2, with its concrete examples of Italian American language issues. Carnevale analyzes with a sensitive ear the performances of stand-up comedian Eduardo "Farfariello" Migliaccio, for Italian audiences and for national radio audiences in the United States, as he portrayed and influenced the immigrants' struggle to master English. The memoirs of anthropology professor Constantine Panunzio and construction worker and poet Pascal D'Angelo offer subtle and rich perspectives on the immigrant battle to master English; Carnevale draws her book's title from D'Angelo, who overcame his own illiteracy to become a published author. She closes her book with the moving poetry of fisherman and poet Vincenzo Ancona, who struggled to learn English until his death in 2000. The novelist Pietro di Donato, a literary sensation for his English-language novel Christ in Concrete (1932), would have presented another good example of linguistic barriers. Di Donato's immigrant characters speak amongst themselves in florid [End Page 200] locutions, which are literal, word-for-word translations from Italian, but when forced to speak with American bureaucrats and bosses, they are reduced to halting English constructions.

The book's conclusion highlights the visceral emotions tied to the "English-only," anti-immigrant movement in the United States and applies Carnevale's key arguments to heated current debates. By combining social scientific methods and historical research, her work contributes across many different disciplines, including political science, sociology, linguistics, and history. This interdisciplinary approach...