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Postcards from Italy: Doppie Lettere

ItalianBooksI don’t know how to pluralize, conjugate, or spell in Italian, so mi dispiace for the title if I got it wrong. Someone please correct me.

The thing about double letters is that you have to pronounce them. Doppia. Say both those p’s. No space between them. Do not stutter the double letter. Say it out loud and you will instantly recognize the Italian lilt beloved of American audiences when watching movies about the mafia. It’s not a Brooklyn thing. It’s because double letters are pronounced in the homeland. And the only way to do that is to exaggerate vowels and rest on the double consonants. Try it. See what I mean?

Thing is, Italian may be extremely hard to understand, but it’s extremely easy to pronounce. There’s only one rule: pronounce every letter. You don’t have to guess what to take out and what to leave in. Its all in. And most letters only get one pronunciation. Yay!

With English every vowel has two possible pronunciations and some have three. Many consonants also have two pronunciations. Some letters are both consonants and vowels (y and u when it’s part of qu). We have diphthongs (ai) and digraphs (th). Some digraphs get two pronunciations (th as in three or they). And don’t  get me started on silent letters. We have letters that don’t even have much of a purpose at all like q and x. Do we really need a k? We have a hard c. Not only do we have c and k, but we also have ck and they’re all pronounced the same.

Italian has one pronunciation bugaboo: the double letter thing and do not, I repeat, do not think about cheating. If they catch you at it, they’ll pretend like they don’t understand. “Dopia? Dopia? I don’t know this word. What is it, a brand of coffee? A rock band? Oh, you mean ‘doppia.’ O sure, you mean ‘double.’ Now what was it you were trying to say?”

And they won’t help you out while you’re floundering. Best you can hope for is a long lecture if they’re in the mood. One time while visiting i cugini, I had a load of wash to do. It was out on the line all day drying and late in the afternoon la cugina asked how I was coming with the panni.

“Pane?” I asked.

“Si. Panni,” she answered.

“No thanks, I’m on a lo-carb diet,” I answered.

“No!” she said. “Panni, panni!”

“Okay,” I answered. “I’ll have some, if it means that much to you.”

“No! Doppia ene.”

I nodded in agreement having no idea what she was referring to. She then launched into a half hour discourse on the difference between panni (laundry) and pane (bread) and that if I didn’t want to get kicked out of the country I’d have to start pronouncing my double letters.

“Italiano e preciso,” she said. Italian is precise. That said with the pride of every European who knows damn well who holds the keys to the cultural baggage. How could an American possibly understand the sacred traditions of such a lofty people? You do well to just listen and learn. You,  you, American trash, you!

It wasn’t half an hour later when we were getting ready for an evening out that she said “yamo,” meaning “let’s go.” I distinctly heard it. “Yamo” instead of “andiamo.” That’s Italian precision for you. I’m telling you they change the rules at the drop of a hat and then blame you for not being able to keep up.

And if you call them on it, you know what they say? “Dialetto.” Dialect. As if that makes it okay. They come from some backwater in the mountains of Italy and that’s how they pronounce andiamo there. They’re so very sorry if you, American trash, are not up on all the 501 Italian dialects with their 501 ways to go somewhere. They’re allowed to have 501  ways to say anything, most of which are made up in the moment, but the stuttering, faltering American must be preciso.

Wouldn’t you know it the next day I went for a hot chocolate and the barrister wanted to know if I took it with “panna.” Again I heard “pane” and figured they were offering me a little cracker or something. Of course I said, “no.” I like to do as the Romans do and all that, but bread in the hot chocolate? I don’t think so. Only later when I saw somebody else with a nice fluffy blob of whipped cream on their cocciolato did I realize they hadn’t said pane. I looked it up later. Panna. With doppia ene. Cream. If I could only hear the subtleties of Italian, I’d pick up on those two letters. Of course then I would have figured they were saying “panni” and for half an hour I’d be staring at the floor wondering why they were asking about my laundry.

‘Cuz that’s what it takes: about half an hour for each strange new word. At this rate, by the end of the year I’ll have the vocabulary of a two year old.


Sue Lange


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