What Are You Gonna Do?
A guide to Sopranos English
“Men are able to assist fortune but not to thwart her. They can weave her designs, but they cannot destroy them.” — Niccolò Machiavelli, 1531
On Saturdays, Off the Clock goes out to word nerds, at the intersection of language & history.
This week’s theme concerned labor (in honor of Labor Day) and moving from organized labor to organized crime, the Premium edition dealt with The Sopranos.
I recently watched the entire series, previously having only made it partway through Season 4 before becoming a father and thus disrupting my viewing habits for the better part of a decade and a half.
What’s apparent from the very beginning is the regional dialect, combined with the unmistakable vocabulary. Not just New Jersey accents, but the Italian thrown in for flavor as well.
Italian is a beautiful language: almost melodious to the ear. When Italians immigrated to the United States, many of them settled in the northeast, bringing with them the various dialects from around their country.
But Italian-American Italian is a construction of the frozen shards left over from languages that don’t even really exist any more.
This is where it gets interesting. Atlas Obscura has the history:
The basic story is this: Italy is a very young country made up of many very old kingdoms awkwardly stapled together to make a patchwork whole. Before 1861, these different kingdoms—Sardinia, Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Sicily (they were called different things at the time, but roughly correspond to those regions now)—those were, basically, different countries. Its citizens didn’t speak the same language, didn’t identify as countrymen, sometimes were even at war with each other.
If you know anyone who has family from the southern part of Italy, they may not even identify as Italian; they’ll say they’re Sicilian.
“Ships from Palermo went to New Orleans and the ships from Genoa and Naples went to New York,” [Fred Gardaphe, a professor of Italian-American studies at Queens College] says. They spread from there, but the richest pockets of Italian-Americans aren’t far from New York City. They’re clustered in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and in and around Philadelphia.
So they brought their language and their accents. Accents that held on and carried over into their English. Typically, you’ll find that the final vowel gets dropped and an ‘r’ turns into a ‘d’.
Here then are a few choice terms heard in The Sopranos.
Capicola (see also “Mort-ah-dell” (mortadella) and “Pra-zhoot” (prosciutto))
A term of endearment. Tony referred to A.J. as “Googootz” a number of times. It’s derived from cucuzza, the Italian word for zucchini.
What are you going to do? Tony Soprano’s response when someone offers condolences about the death of a loved one.
Do you have any favorites from the show or your experience in the Northeast? Drop a comment.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
Scotty you are my favorite paisan with a post like this. Very timely on 9/11 to bring it back home and yes my grandfather was found of proclaiming "madone" which sounded like "marone" to me as a child. When my father brought me and my polish friends down to the Feast of St. Cosmo & St. Damian it was the first time I heard my grandmother call someone a "medigan"- and I knew exactly what she was saying.
This was lovely! My Italian immigrant grandfather had one which he used as an expletive: madone. Don’t know the etymology but always thought it was an abbreviation of Madonna! In moment of even more intense surprise, it would be shorted to a sharp, “Ma!!” Or “muh!”, the effect was biting off “Donna” before she escaped his mouth. Whether the use of Mardone was part of a longer expression, like “Madonna protect us !” Or “Madonna wears army boots!” I cannot say.