“What-a mistake-a da make-a” was the phrase frequently used by my next-door neighbour when I was a child, which sent me and my brother into fits of giggles. Aunty Rosa added a’s and o’s, in a completely haphazard fashion, to nearly every English word in a sentence and at the time I though how strange it was that she had not mastered English better after 40+ years in the UK. Our neighbour,Uncle Reg, had met the curvaceous, vivacious Rosa Maria Pepe in her native Salerno at the end of the 2nd World War and taken her back to England as the new Mrs Smith. She was my first introduction to things Italian; Panetone at Christmas, delicious tomato and onion salads and real pasta sauces that did not come in a can. She also was a constant source of mirth, and occasionally irritation. I will never forget my father’s face when Auntie Rosa said in front of him;
“Tonia, I saw-a you on de corner-a yesterday, smoking a cigarette wit-a your friend.” It was untrue – I have never smoked, so she must have mixed me up with another girl but, oh how guilty I felt as I tried to reassure my father!
Now, after 24 years of life in Italy I understand Aunty Rosa much better. I have certainly make some big mistakes with my Italian over the years and my accent is not much better than hers was. I think I speak Italian well, until I hear my voice on our answer-machine. I start out wondering who the posh English woman, with an atrocious accent, leaving a message is and then get a shock as I realise it is my voice.
So, today I thought I would treat you to some of my classic Italian mistakes. My son and husband say they are going to put together a book of my mistakes one day!
Italian is a very confusing language for an English speaking person. Everything is either masculine or feminine and most feminine things end in an “a”, such as “donna” (woman) and masculine things in an “o”, such as “uomo” (man). Seems easy right? You think you have mastered that and suddenly there are objects like motorbikes “moto” which end in an “o” but are actually feminine – “la moto”, to come to grips with. There are also things such as tables, wood and chocolate which can be both sexes!
You have to be very careful using the most innocuous-sounding English words in Italian. Figs, peas and birds for example all have sexual connotations, which always makes me scared that I will be misinterpreted! I avoid ordering figs or peas in restaurants and try to identify birds as sparrows or robins instead of using the generic term.
My Scots friends have the advantage on me as regards to pronunciation, being able to roll their “r”s beautifully. I not only find pronouncing double letters difficult, I also cannot hear the difference in most words, much to Guido’s bewilderment. He bombards me with a word, gradually raising his voice until almost shouting it and I repeat what I hear, which is obviously wrong from the look of frustration on his face, until he eventually shrugs and gives up.
I told you in my last blog about the embarrassing incident at the book-launch party, when I muddled up the Italian words for “to rush off” with “to f**k off”. An easy mistake to make as there is only one letter different in the two words. The photo shown here is me realising what I had just said, as I put out books on the table.
Another error, that I am quite fond of, happened when I had just moved to Tuscany and Guido was driving me down some hairpin bends for an appointment at the hairdresser’s. I was practising how to ask for a trim but, when I said that I would ask for “una sputtanata ai capelli”, Guido howled with laughter and almost drove us downhill the quick way – good job the brakes worked! It seems that I had asked for the hairdresser to put something on myhair that would make me look ridiculous.
Now we are living in Germany for a while and I am having to tackle another language. Since German has 3 genders for me to get muddled up with, I know that it will be almost impossible for me to learn and that I will make a load of mistakes again. However, I will give it a go, and at least I will inevitably have some funny stories to tell you about in future blogs. Wish me luck!
To end with, here is a lovely story of Guido’s. He was flying back to Italy from New York and went to use the toilet. As he tried to open the door an old lady, dressed in black, snatched the door closed again in embarrassment and shouted out,
“Aggio, forgettato e shutar a door!”
This mixture of her native Sicilian Italian and the Brooklyn accent she had acquired in America is wonderful, isn’t it ?