My Italian husband and I share a love of language and grammar and often amuse ourselves by conjugating verbs and doing other nerdy things that help each of us learn the other’s language better.
One of the stickier points, of course, is pronunciation. Although Italian grammar is more difficult overall, one good thing about the language is that every letter in a word is pronounced, and there’s usually just one or two ways to say each letter or group of letters. That’s why people look at me funny when I say “How do you spell that?”—because the words are, indeed, spelled exactly how they sound.
That’s all well and good for the Italians, but there are still some things I just can’t get straight. In English, for example, the sound of the n in the words personnel and personal is the same. But when you see two consonants together in Italian, you’re supposed to linger over them or risk saying a whole different word. I’m always tripped up by capelli (hair) and cappelli (hats), often telling bare-headed people that I love their hats, or alerting strangers that they’ve dropped their hair on the ground. In an effort to make the distinction in pronunciation, I’ve begun to exaggerate those double consonants so much that by the time I’ve finished the word, I’ve filed my nails and had an espresso.
But just think for a moment about English pronunciation and how odd our words must look and sound to newbies—whether those newbies are from another country or our own kids just learning to speak, read, and spell. I mean, how do you coherently explain why eight and height are pronounced so differently? For Italians, the bugaboos are our short vowel sounds, which don’t really exist in the language, and vowel teams that form a long e sound. Considering that Italians pronounce the vowel teams ee and ea with a short i sound, you can imagine the giggles that ensue when we go to the sea and my husband says he’s going to lay the sheet on the beach.
And then there’s the other problem with spoken English—fast talkin’. And fast talkin’ leads to lazy talkin’. Before you know it, you’re telling people you “goddageddome” (got to get home) and asking “Wouldja mind?” and littering the floor with the unused g’s from words like goin’ and singin’ and somersaultin’.
I do it too, I cannot lie. I have a long background in theater, teaching, and public speaking, so you’d think after all these years, speaking with perfect diction would have become a habit, something I just do without thinking about it. But alas, it ain’t so. You see, clear diction and perfect pronunciation take a lot of effort and energy—and sometimes after a long day, I just don’t have any oomph left over to tack on that darn g.
And that’s when I slip into what I call “sneezin’ English.”
Comfy as a fuzzy pair of feetie pajamas, sneezin’ English just feels goooooood. It’s fun and relaxing and homey. And after a day toiling in the world of words, being all correct and proper…kenya blamee fer wantin’ to relax the noggin’?
But I recently realized I can’t relax. You see, I’m solely responsible for teaching English to a couple of pre-verbal Italian-American bambini…and yet I heard myself saying this:
Hey, babies! Wouldja like me ta make yer pasta? Ya like pasta, dontchoo? Lemme getchoo a drink while it’s cookin’. Ya wanna stop cryin’ for a sec? Whaddya say? I’m gonna getchoo!
Mmhmm. If I have any hope of teaching correct pronunciation—and therefore correct spelling—then I’ll have to practice what I preach outside of lessons, and certainly now at this crucial moment in their language development.
My pal sneezin’ English packed its bags today and hit the road. Oh, we’ll probably meet again, maybe when the boys are old enough to tell the difference between sneezin’ and speaking. Maybe it will be some special day in the future, a day when my boys are looking dapper…perhaps they’ve just finished speaking eloquently and with a gentlemanly flair. And I’ll say, “My goodness, I’m so proud of you boys.”
And they’ll say, “Right back ah-tchoo, Mamma. Right back ah-tchoo.”