“For each language you know, you are a different person.”
— Czech proverb
I was born into an Italian-speaking household.
That may not be an accurate statement depending on how you define “Italian”. Like so many immigrants, my parents brought their regional dialect to Canada with them. In their case, it was Triestine, a variant of Venetian. Some people classify Venetian as a separate language, if only in memory of the historical struggles for power between the Italian regions. Standard Italian is derived from the dialect spoken in Florence.
When I travelled to Italy in the 1970s I found Italian hard to understand, but in Venice things were different. The train pulled into the station, and suddenly everyone looked like me; they were covered in little freckles, and I could understand every word they were saying.
If I went to Venice today, I might not have that experience since languages are always changing. Dialects of Italian are dying out in the pervasive presence of television and other media. However, immigrant communities are isolated from these changes and dialects tend to be preserved. During my first visit to Italy, people were surprised and amused that I was using expressions which they said they hadn’t heard since the war.
In Toronto, in the Corso Italia neighborhood where I live, I often hear Calabrese spoken on the street. Venetian is uncommon. Two old ladies got into a hospital elevator with me once, and one asked the other what floor they wanted, speaking in the purest Triestine dialect. It was my mother’s voice.
I wanted to speak to them, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. What language would I have used? I was reluctant to speak my cradle tongue, although I could understand well enough. There is a term for people like me: unilaterally bilingual. Many children of immigrants understand, but do not speak, their parents’ language.
When I was four, my older sister started school. It was difficult for her. She wasn’t accustomed to speaking English. The teacher changed her name to a more English-sounding one and my sister decided she wanted nothing to do with our foreign tongue. One day we were in the corner store and, in Triestine, I asked my mother to buy me candy. From behind me my sister shouted, “Speak English! Speak English!” I was rattled. I stopped speaking Triestine in public. Eventually I stopped speaking it altogether.
It became the language of reprimand, the language in which my parents fought, the language of conversations furtively overheard. It was the language of chaos and shame as well as the longed for, forbidden fruit. In Triestine, I was a shy introvert, unable to speak to a stranger.
English was the language of the dominant culture, and I soon learned it with the aid of television. I remember laughing uproariously the first time I understood an English pun. The clown read from the cookbook, “put in pot and set on stove.” He left the pot on the counter and sat down on the stove. Why, he wondered, did his bottom feel so hot?
English was the language in which I learned to read. First there were wonderful children’s books. C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbitt offered gentle fantasy. Then came the ordered world of the Victorian novelists. My school produced shortened versions of Shakespeare’s plays in which I acted with enthusiasm. I spoke in iambic pentameter. Perhaps I gave myself a bit of an English accent. My speech was upscale, peppered with long words I understood but mispronounced. I had never heard them spoken. In English I was extroverted and outspoken. English was the language of self-expression, refinement, and poetry.
My father scoffed at the poetry. Italian poetry was much better, he said. He attempted to prove it by translating some into the most graceless of English. I spoke English better than my parents did. That was important.
At twenty-one, I travelled to Europe on a one-year open-return ticket. Short on cash and determined to stay as long as possible, I took a job as an au pair in Paris. Again, I entered a world in which I didn’t speak well. I learned French from the children in my care, to whom I was supposed to be teaching English.
Who was I when I spoke French? I was seeking sophistication, but I spoke poorly. I didn’t read much French; it was difficult. I was eager for experience. I walked for miles, looking at the city, pressing my nose against bakery windows, both figuratively and literally. Winter arrived, and my French experience became linked with the cold and the unheated rooms. French people were cold, were they not? Certainly, my interactions with them were superficial. I developed a collection of stock phrases, suitable for most occasions. I skimmed the surface.
In spring, I took the train over the Alps into Italy. I met my parents’ families for the first time. I had to speak with them as best I could. The words came from somewhere.
Until then, I hadn’t realized what a literary family my father came from. Visiting with them, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a poet or a journalist. My father spoke Triestine with my mother, but his family spoke an elevated Italian. I spoke to them in old-fashioned Triestine. My aunt asked me gently if I would please speak a little more politely in public. Apparently, I sounded crude. I didn’t know any other way to speak, I told her.
The difference in tongues was underlined when my uncle’s wife tried to make me feel at home. She was an educated woman from Florence, the epicenter of literary Italian. One day when I returned from sightseeing, instead of asking me, “Che cosa hai fatto?” meaning, “What did you do?” she used Triestine, saying, “Cos’ ti gha fatto?” She had to ask my uncle; why was I white-faced and speechless? He explained that the expression meant, “What have you done!” with strong connotations of wrongdoing. She had accidentally triggered my childhood feelings of shame and my old inability to speak.
My mother’s family still lived in the old house, still lived in poverty. There was running water, but it wasn’t hot. Like me they spoke hillbilly Triestine. My grandmother had dementia. She treated me as an intruder. “She’s so big and fat,” she would say. “How will we manage to feed her?”
One day she confronted me. “Why are you here?”
“I came to visit you, Nonna.”
“Why would you visit me? Why do you keep calling me Nonna?”
“You are my grandmother,” I told her in dialect. “Ti zhe la mia Nonna.”
She turned to my aunt. “Is she making fun of us? Why does she talk like that? As if she is one of us.”
“She is one of us,” my aunt said patiently. “She is Nada’s daughter.”
Finally my grandmother recognized me, a recognition that was to last only a few hours. She hugged me warmly and spoke to me as she would have to any of her girls. “Be careful. Don’t let anything happen to you. Don’t bring shame upon the family.”
My grandmother and aunt are both dead now, and the house where my mother grew up has been sold. I feel certain that Triestine is no longer spoken there, but, on that one day, my speaking it was proof of my identity.
I have recently attempted to improve my Italian through formal classes. I thought it would take me closer to my roots, but the more standard Italian I learn, the further away I get. I’ve never had the level of fluency of a friend of mine, who speaks both Calabrese and Italian and switches back and forth at will.
That would be the ideal. Then I could enjoy the Italian poetry my father loved, but still know the little person I used to be who only knew how to speak one language.
About the Author
Susette has returned to university after completing a stint as a single mother. With her studies, she is following her interests in writing and literature. Her classes have enabled her to try out different types of writing. She has received President’s Creative Writing Awards for poetry and short fiction.
Editor: Michelle Clevett