Canadian Italian: a Case in Point of How Language Adapts to Environment

By: Marcel Danesi

From: Polyphony Vol.7, 1984 ,
pp. 110-113 in Italians in Ontario
© 1985 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

The documentation of language contact phenomena has always been of special significance for linguistics. Above all else, it has contributed to our understanding if how a language that is used outside its natural psycho-communicative setting is able to respond adaptively to a new environment. A prototypical case in point for the study of how a language can become an adaptive instrument for its speakers is provided by the Italian spoken in Canada, especially in the southern Ontario region where there exists, to this day, a very large Italian-speaking community. (1) It is the language of this particular community that has come, predictably, often under the linguist's microscope, providing valuable insights into the general nature of linguistic adaptation mechanisms. (2)

The use of Italian in the ethnic community -- especially within family structures -- reveals an interesting case of how a "transplanted" language can come to fulfil a basic practical need to express a new psycholinguistic experience. The Canadian version of Italian (and its dialects) constitutes a case of what linguists commonly refer to as an "ethnic dialect" or ethnolect, of the mother tongue. This can be defined generally to be a version of the language of origin which, primarily as a consequence of the frequent borrowing and adoption of words from the culturally dominant language, has come to characterize the speech habits of the immigrant community. (3)

Wherever there exists prolonged contact between a culturally and communicatively dominant language and an ethnolect, there is bound to be an extensive borrowing of words from the dominant language (the source language) by the ethnolect (the receiving language). Thus it is that the ethnolect develops a distinctive linguistic identity as a result of its use in an environment where another language constitutes the normal vehicle for social interaction. The borrowed words, known commonly by the metaphor loanwords, reflect the adaptive process in a visible way.The speakers of the receiving language -- first generation immigrants attempting to cope with and to make use of the words which refer to the everyday objects, concepts and ways of behaving which characterize the new environment. In fact, it can be claimed, from a psycho-linguistic standpoint, that it is through these newly acquired words that the immigrant comes to understand the new reality.

As the loanwords pass into general currency among the members of the immigrant community, they are adjusted unconsciously and systematically to the pronunciation and grammatical patterns of the receiving language. This process is referred to generally asnativization. (4) Simply put,the foreign words are not accepted in their original shape, but rather restructured to conform to the articulatory and grammatical features of the receiving language whence they become indistinguishable from native words, often displacing native items with the same referents. It is the conspicuous presence of many nativized loanwords that has brought Canadian Italian repeatedly to the attention of linguists, allowing them to document and analyze etiologically the nativization process in action. Known vicariously as italiese (a blend of italiano and inglese "English") or Italo-Canadian this ethnolect can be characterized as follows. From all structural points of view it is essentially Peninsular Italian, i.e., in its phonology (sound system), morphology (system of word inflections, word formation, etc.) and Syntax (word and phrase construction), it is identical to Peninsular Italian, or to any of its regional and dialectal variants. In its lexical repertoire, however, it contains many new words which have entered the language through the nativization route. (5)

The Italo-Canadian ethnolect is used, to this day, primarily in homes which still have first-generation members and in the ethnic community at large, albeit increasingly sporadically. (6) As the historian Robert F. Harney has pointed out, the Italian language used in the many Little Italies, which characterize large urban centres, constitutes a marker of ethnicity and thus of group identification. (7) Having come primarily from small rural villages during the last forty years, it should be no surprise to find many first-generation immigrants who continue to cling to the language or dialect of their region of origin. This allegiance to the mother tongue is, paradoxically, an adaptive mechanism which allows for the attenuation of the initial feeling of unease vis-à-vis the new psychological and social reality. As the immigrant gradually settles into the new society and begins to understand the new language, the mother tongue starts to take on a new meaning: it becomes a verbal link, so to speak, to one's ethnic roots. At the same time, in its ethnolectal form, it allows the immigrants to verbalize their new experiences and perceptions. (8) It is, therefore, a marker of what may be called a "hybrid ethnicity": the mother tongue allows the immigrants to maintain a link to their heritage, while the newly acquired lexicon allows them to relate to their new environment in a direct, verbal way.

Predictably, the Italo-Canadian ethnolect does not have a monolithic form, paralleling in its diverse manifestations the heterogeneous linguistic situation that characterizes Peninsular Italian. Thus, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of a Calabrian ethnolect, a Sicilian ethnolect, a Friulian ethnolect, and so on. Nevertheless, there does exist a "generalized" ethnolect that has arisen in the course of the communicative interaction among speakers of different dialectal backgrounds. This koiné is heard commonly in Italian-speaking stores, restaurants, places of work and the like. It constitutes a language continuum, ranging from pure dialect on one end to Standard Italian on the other. The speaker's position on this continuum is determined primarily by educational background (i.e., by how much schooling the speaker had previously acquired in Italy). In addition to interactions of this type, one can mention the following factors as contributing to an ethnolectal levelling effect: the local Italian-language media in cities like Toronto, which promulgate and rein force more general forms of Italian; increasing contacts with Italy; and the popularity of Italian language courses at all school levels. These factors have also helped to foster in the community an ever-increasing awareness of the formal differences between Peninsular and ethnolectal Italian.

To get an idea of the adaptation mechanisms involved in loanword nativization, consider the common Italo Canadian words carro "car" (Standard Italian automobile or macchina) and squisare "to squeeze" (Standard Italian premere). In the case of carro the following processes have occurred: the English vowel represented by a is replaced by the Italian vowel closest to it in articulation; a final vowel is added to the word which gives it a grammatical gender (in this case masculine); and ther between vowels is doubled in conformity with a predictable phonological feature of Italian. In the case of squisare, the -are ending assigns the verb to the first conjugation, the most regular of all Italian verbal paradigms, and the remaining sounds are restructured according to native pronunciation patterns. Obviously, these processes will vary in accordance to the actual dialect or variant spoken; but they do characterize "canonical" processes in the generalized ethnolect. The following chart illustrates a few common English words that have been nativized into the most general Italo Canadian form:

Standard Borrowed Word; Nativized Form; Italian Equivalent

store; storo; negozio
sink; sinco; avandino/acquaio
cake; checca; torta
mortgage; morgheggio; ipoteca/mutuo
fence; fenza; recinto
ticket; ticchetta; biglietto
to push; pusciare; spingere
to paint; pintare; verniciare
to freeze; frisare; congelare
smart; smarto; intelligente
cheap; cippe; economico

Once a word has been nativized, it is then treated grammatically as any native item. Nouns, for instance, are pluralized in the normal fashion: carro "car"- carri "cars," ticchetta " ticket"-ticchette "tickets," etc. Verbs, all assigned to the first conjugation, are inflected and used in the normal way: e.g., puscio "I push"; ho pusciato "I have pushed"; puscerò "I will push"; etc. A statistical analysis of the loanword data collected over the last decade. (9) shows quite clearly that the majority of the borrowed words (over 80 per cent) are nouns. These are assigned to both the masculine and feminine genders. The factors which determine gender assignment are too complex to mention here. Suffice it to say that the shape of the word itself, its referent, its similarity to a native item, and the like, all influence its gender.

Occasionally, the borrowed item is reshaped by the addition of suffixes: e.g., "German" is rendered as germanese (Standard Italian tedesco), "grocer" as grossiere (Standard Italian alimentarista), "rent" as rendita (Standard Italian affitto), and so on. It is also interesting to note that some nativized loanwords coincide homophonically with native lexical items which they have no semantic connection:

Standard Borrowed Word; Nativized Form; Italian Homophone

factory; fattoria; fattoria "farm"
brick; bricco; bricco "pot"
steam; stima; stima "esteem"
shovel; sciabola; sciabola "dagger"

The question of why an ethnolect will borrow many words has a deceptively simple answer. Borrowing constitutes a psycholinguistic response to new environmental conditions. An examination of the loanwords shows quite clearly that they refer to common objects or ideas which makes up the immigrant's new world: they refer to the house and its contents, to automobiles, to places of work, to clothing etc. Rarely do the loanwords refer to abstract notions. In other words, they describe the immigrant's new environment in ways that would not be possible, or appropriate, by the lexical resources of the native language. Only those words that express a shared experience will gain general currency: a Canadian storo is something quite different than an Italian negozio: a checca is certainly not an Italian torta; and so on.

The ethnolect spoken in Canada elicits different reactions from the Italian community. Among first-generation immigrants, the degree of penetration of the loanwords is so high that they are generally no longer of their foreign origin. Italians of subsequent generations, recently arrived immigrants, teachers of Italian, and others, consciously recognize most of the features which distinguish Italo-Canadian form of Peninsular Italian. Many simply accept it as an ethnic community language. Others, however,view it negatively, considering it to be a deviant form of the standard language. But whatever reaction it might elicit, there is no doubt that the lexical peculiarities of the Italo-Canadian ethnolect give testimony to how language and environment interact. As the process of acculturation into the dominant culture gains momentum in subsequent generations, it comes as no surprise to find the ethnolect is being used less and less. As Iannucci has previously pointed out, these generations will not need the language to fulfil any communicative need.: "Some, a few, will speak Italian, thanks to a strong intellectual curiosity about their cultural heritage among third- and fourth-generation immigrants. What their investigation into the family's past leads them to is not the recovery of their ancestral language but the standard Italian taught in summer school in Perugia, Florence and Siena." (10)

1. According to some figures it is as high as 500,000. See Walburga von Raffler Engel, "The Language of Immigrant Children," in The Languages of Canada, ed. J.K. Chambers (Montréal: Didier, 1979), p. 226.

2. Among the scientific studies published on Canadian Italian, see Domenico Pietropaolo, "Aspects of English Interference on the Italian Language in Toronto," Canadian Modern Language Review, 30 (1974), pp. 234-41; Gianrenzo P. Clivio, "The Assimilation of English Loan Words in Italo-Canadian," in The Second LACUS Forum, ed. P.A. Reich, pp. 584-89 (Columbia, S.C.: Hornbeam Press, 1976); and Marcel Danesi, "L'interferenza lessicale nell-italiano parlato in Canada (Toronto)," Les Langues Néo-Latines, 241 (1982), pp. 163-67.

3. For a more detailed discussion of the concept of ethnolect, see Marcel Danesi, "Canadian Italian as a Marker of Ethnicity," NEMLA Italian Studies, 7-8 (1983-84), pp. 99-105.

4. An analysis of the nativization process in Canadian Italian, and its theoretical implications, can be found in Marcel Danesi, Loanwords and Phonological Methodology (Montreal: Didier, 1985).

5. An identical situation has been documented in other English speaking areas of the world where Italian is used as an ethnolect. For the United States see, Yole Correa-Zoli, "Language Contact in San Francisco: Lexical Interference in American Italian, "
Italica, 51 (1974), pp. 177-92; and for England, Arturo Tosi, Immigration and Bilingual Education (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1984)

6. As pointed out elsewhere-Marcel Danesi, "Ethnic Languages and Acculturation: The Case of Italo-Canadians," Canadian Ethnic Studies, 17 (1985), pp. 98-103-the use of ethnolects reveals, paradoxically, that acculturation is taking place. The degree of acculturation is reflected by a corresponding decrease in the use of the ethnolect.

7. The most comprehensive treatment of the history of Italians in Canada can be found in Robert F. Harney, Dalla frontiera alle Little Italies: Gli italiani in Canada 1800-1945 (Roma: Bonacci Editore, 1984)

8. This situation lends some support to the so-called "linguistic relativity hypothesis" which claims that all our perception of the world is shaped by language. For an overall assessment of this hypothesis, see Joshua A. Fishman, "The Whorfian Hypothesis: Varieties of Valuation, Confirmation and Disconfirmation," International Journal of the Sociology of Language, (1980), pp. 25-40.

9. A complete analysis can be found in Danesi, Loanwords.

10. Amilcare A. Innucci "The Italian Immigrant: Voyage of No Return," Canadian Forum, March 1977, p.15.

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