Saturday, 26 March 2011

Mangiare una pinza?

Last Wednesday evening I was invited to dinner at a pizzeria in Rome. The restaurant was very nice and the food excellent.

One special characteristic of this pizzeria was a kind of oval pizza, crisp on the surface but soft inside, which was served there and which the waiters called pinsa ˈpinsa. This word featured on all the menus provided to me and my friends but not on the sign hanging outside on the restaurant door, where it appeared written as pinza ˈpintsa. As soon as I saw it I thought this must be a mistake: pinza in Italian means pliers or forceps and has nothing to do with food. Maybe – I observed – this is due to the fact that in the Roman accent, as is the case in some other accents in Italy, the sonorants r,l,n, when followed by s, become affricated. Thus, Roman people don’t usually pronounce pinsa as ˈpinsa but ˈpintsa. Hence the spelling mistake.

It was only when I left that I realized that the word pinza was in fact the name the owners of the restaurant attributed to their type of pizza. It was not an error but a portmanteau word, that is a term blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others. In this case the Italian words pinsa + pizza were combined so as to form the coinage pinza. How interesting!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Ecco i gnocchi!

In his blog for the 17th of March, John Maidment focussed his attention on the pronunciation and grammatical usage of Italian words like gnocco/gnocchi, gnomo/gnomi, zio/zii. Here are his linguistic musings:

“I speak Italian, but I think I am woefully ignorant of the history of the language. Masculine nouns beginning with gn, such as gnocco and gnomo (“gnome”), require a special form of the definite article. Whereas most nouns have the singular article il and the plural article i, gn words require lo and gli, so: lo gnomo and gli gnocchi. The same is true of words beginning with z, so “the uncle” is lo zio and not il zio. It is also true of words beginning with s followed by a consonant, so “the mirror” is lo specchio. The indefinite article also takes a special form before all of these words, so uno gnomo, uno specchio, uno zio. For other masculine nouns the form is un. And I don’t know why! Are there any Italian experts out there who can enlighten me?”

Well, it’s simply a matter of euphony, John. Let me explain.

For centuries, people have used either form of the article (il or lo, and consequently the plural i or gli) for no particular reason. In the past, writers and poets usually chose one form or the other depending on metre. In Foscolo’s works, for instance, it is quite common to find i stemmi (“coats of arms”) i ˈstɛmmi rather than gli stemmi ʎi ˈstɛmmi, and in one of Leopardi’s poems, Il Sabato del Villaggio, we read il zappatore (“the hoer”) il ˌdzappaˈtoɾe, il ˌtsap- instead of lo zappatore lodzˌdzappaˈtoɾe, lotsˌtsap-, which is the only form that’s possible in Standard Italian today.

In the last century, because the situation had become all too messy, Italian grammarians decided it was about time they had established rules which – they said – would simplify the use of articles before both vowel and consonant sounds. These rules were based on whether a word sounded better with il or lo. So, it was established, for example, that terms beginning with ɲ like gnocco ˈɲɔkko should take the definite article lo and the indefinite article uno: thus, lo gnocco, uno gnocco loɲˈɲɔkko unoɲˈɲɔkko. The same went for words beginning with dz-/ts- as in zero, zucchero (“zero”, “sugar”) ˈdzɛɾo ˈdzukkeɾo, ˈtsuk-, and those with initial ks- and pn-, as in xenofobo (“xenophobe”, “xenophobic”) kseˈnɔfobo (sometimes also seˈnɔfobo) and pneumatico (“tyre”) pneuˈmatiko.

The above rules were set out to essentially make it easier for Italians to pronounce words in running speech. loɲˈɲɔkko, as opposed to il ˈɲɔkko, is in fact phonetically interesting on two counts: (i) it is articulatorily ‘simpler’ to pronounce; (ii) it appears to be more natural (and more pleasing?) for native speakers, the Italian syllable structure being usually characterised by C+V sequences.

Despite prescription, in Standard Italian today there appears to be a lot of variation. Many people are now saying il xilofono (“the xylophone”) il ksiˈlɔfono rather than lo xilofono lo ksiˈlɔfono; il psicologo (“the psychologist”) il psiˈkɔloɡo rather than the traditional lo psicologo lo psiˈkɔloɡo (the form with il is now quite common in newspapers, too); il pneumatico (more frequent in the spoken language) and lo pneumatico (more common in formal written language). But what about gnocchi? Is it gli gnocchi or i gnocchi? Well, again grammar books say we should write gli gnocchi and pronounce it ʎiɲˈɲɔkki, but increasingly more and more Italians are saying i gnocchi iɲˈɲɔkki, and this form has now become accepted in newspapers and on television, too.

In support of what I’m saying, here’s a video clip of a famous Italian cooking programme, La Prova del Cuoco, broadcast every day on RAI Uno and hosted by TV presenter Antonella Clerici. In this video Mrs Clerici shows how to cook gnocchi and varies a lot between the forms gli gnocchi and i gnocchi:

a) ... dei gnocchi... (“... some gnocchi...”) 01:00

b) ... allora facciamo i gnocchi di mia mamma... (“... so, we’re going to cook gnocchi the way my Mum does them...”) 02:08

c) (Reading from her cookery book) ... gli gnocchi di mia mamma... (“... gnocchi the way my Mum cooks them...”) 02:15

d) ... stiam facendo degli gnocchi... (“... we’re cooking gnocchi...”) 06:42

e) ... dei gnocchettini piccolini... (“... some little dumplings...”) 09:26

f) ... i gnocchetti sono pronti... (“... our gnocchi are ready...”) 10:03

g) ... facciamo che sono pronti... i gnocchi... (“...let’s pretend our gnocchi are ready...”) 12:37.

As you can see, both forms are possible and equally used.

For more on this topic, you can either read here or consult the book Grammatica Italiana (2006, pp.163-165; UTET Università) by Luca Serianni.

Oh, one last thing: buon compleanno, Italia!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Variant pronunciations on BBC World News

In today’s blog I’d like to discuss the pronunciation(s) of a word I heard last week on the BBC: (‘)ndrangheta, the Italian criminal organization centred in the southern region of Calabria.

This word was pronounced in three different ways by three BBC journalists on the 8th March. Duncan Kennedy, BBC news reporter from Rome, pronounced it nəˈdræŋɡətə; Mike Embley, who I talked about in my blog for 5th of March, said something like ˌəndræŋˈɡetə; and yet another BBC newsreader, whose name I don’t seem to recall now, pronounced it nəˈɡreɪtə. Three different pronunciations in the space of just under an hour. But who was right? And who was wrong? Are all those variants acceptable in English?

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘ndrangheta is said to have come into Italian from the Greek word andragathía (ἀνδραγαθία), meaning “heroism” and “virtue” or andragathos (ἀνδράγαϑος), a blend of andròs (“man”) and agathòs (“good”), “a courageous man”. In many areas of Calabria, Wikipedia further adds, the verb 'ndranghitiari, from the Greek andragatizomai, means “to engage in a defiant and valiant attitude”.

In Italian, the word is variably pronounced anˈdraŋɡeta, n̩ˈdraŋɡeta, sometimes even inˈdraŋɡeta (listen here), although I’d say the most common pronunciation appears to me to be the first one. One reason for that could be that the word is practically always used with the definite article la and thus appears to be regarded as a chunk by native speakers rather than a sequence of two separate words: la ‘ndrangheta lanˈdraŋɡeta. (Canepàri seems to agree with me since his dictionary entry too includes the feminine article: ‘ndrangheta, la lanˈdranɡeta. l-.) Another reason lies in the fact that Italian has a phonotactic structure which tends to be characterised by C+V sequences. Following this constraint, it is easy to understand why lanˈdraŋɡeta would be more common than ln̩ˈdraŋɡeta. (For most Italians indeed this last pronunciation would seem impossible! I’d never use it myself!)

In the case of English, we have here a foreign word whose pronunciation is not recorded in any of the current pronunciation dictionaries and which violates English phonotactic norms – syllable-initial n̩- is in fact not possible or indeed very very uncommon in English. That’s why, going back to our journalists above, two of the BBC newscasters attempted a pronunciation with a schwa before and after syllabic , which in their speech became non-syllabic ən and respectively.

Both nəˈdræŋɡətə and ˌəndræŋˈɡetə are then to be regarded as possible and acceptable anglicizations. What I can’t tolerate is nəˈɡreɪtə, which to me sounds like a very bad attempt at trying to imitate an Italian-style pronunciation, but without success.

Saturday, 12 March 2011


In my last blog entry I touched upon the concept of ‘breaking’ in phonetics and I promised I would expand a little bit on that this week. So, there you go.

When the diphthongs and are followed in a word by r plus a vowel, a schwa off-glide may develop in RP before the liquid. The r sound can be in the same syllable as PRICE and MOUTH, as when we go from ˈkaɪr.əʊ to ˈkaɪər.əʊ, but it can also occur in a separate stressed syllable, as when some RP speakers pronounce irate (ˌ)aɪəˈreɪt or direction daɪəˈrekʃn̩. This process is variable, with many RP speakers only having the -aɪər- and -aɪəˈr- sequences and others only the ones without the ə. Others still fluctuate between the schwa-ful and schwa-less pronunciations.

In my idiolect, words like pirate and Irish are always pronounced with a schwa glide and are then usually smoothed and monophthongised. Thus: ˈpaɪərət → ˈpaərət → ˈpaːrət; ˈaɪərɪʃ → ˈaərɪʃ → ˈaːrɪʃ/ˈɑːrɪʃ.

But how is breaking treated in pronouncing dictionaries? Do CPD, LDP, and ODP mention it? Do they transcribe Irish as ˈaɪərɪʃ or as ˈaɪrɪʃ? Or do they include both variants?

Let’s start with LPD.

In LPD, all words with MOUTH or PRICE in RP followed by the sequence r+V are transcribed with a superscript schwa (ə), thus indicating that a certain term can optionally be pronounced with or without a schwa off-glide: pirate ˈpaɪərət, -ɪt; Maori ˈmaʊəri.

On page 103 of the dictionary, readers also find a language panel dedicated to ‘pre-r breaking’ (the kind of process we’ve been describing so far) and ‘pre-l breaking’, the insertion of ə before l in words like deal diːəl, oil ɔɪəl, and jail dʒeɪəl.

As far as CPD is concerned, here’s what Roach & Co. have to say on page ix of the introduction:

“before an /r/ consonant at the beginning of a following syllable, the distinction between /aɪə/ and /aɪ/ seems to be neutralised – it seems to make no difference whether one represents ‘Irish’, ‘irate’ as /ˈaɪə.rɪʃ/, /aɪəˈreɪt/ or as /ˈaɪ.rɪʃ/, /aɪˈreɪt/, since there is no regular distinction made in pronunciation. In general, the practice of this edition is to transcribe such cases as /aɪə-/.”

This practice, though, is not consistent, as Irish is transcribed ˈaɪə.rɪʃ but irate is aɪˈreɪt, ˌaɪ-, pirate is ˈpaɪə.rət, -rɪt but Irene is ˈaɪ.riːn, -ˈ-, -ˈriː.ni. Why is that? Also, why is Maori ˈmaʊə.ri and cowry/cowrie ˈkaʊ.ri?

Finally, let’s look at ODP. In this dictionary, the authors’ practice is to never transcribe breaking for RP. Thus, Irish is ˈʌɪrɪʃ (with Upton’s ʌɪ for ), irate is ʌɪˈreɪt, and Maori is ˈmaʊri.

As far as General American (GA) goes, though, Konopka et al. claim that diphthongisation of vowels before r is possible and they show it by an optional mid-central vowel within round brackets: so fire is GA ˈfaɪ(ə)r and four is GA fɔ(ə)r (cf. p.xvi).


maɪ ˈθɔːts ə wɪð ðə ˌdʒæpəniːz ˈpiːpl̩ əʔ ðɪs ˈveri ˈdɪfɪkəlʔ ˈtaɪm

Saturday, 5 March 2011

PM address in Cahro

On the 4th of March, thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to hear an address made by the new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The news was reported by the BBC throughout yesterday evening, but I only managed to watch the full report by Alastair Leithead in the 10 o’clock news bulletin presented by Mike Embley on BBC World News. During the programme, the presenter spoke of the new Egyptian PM addressing the crowd in ˈkaːrəʊ. Now, this is the smoothed and compressed pronunciation of ˈkaɪrəʊ. But just how do we go from ˈkaɪrəʊ to ˈkaːrəʊ?
First, we should note that when in a word a vowel sound is followed within the same syllable by r, a schwa sound may develop before the liquid. So from ˈkaɪr.əʊ we get ˈkaɪ.ər.əʊ. This phonetic process is called ‘breaking’ and it’s very common in RP.
Then, the aɪ+ə sequence is smoothed, meaning that the second element of the diphthong is lost, thus ˈka.ər.əʊ. Next, the compression process squashes the first two syllables into one: ˈkaər.əʊ. Lastly, the monophthongization process removes the second element of the resulting diphthong, with compensatory lengthening of the a element. Thus: ˈkaːr.əʊ. And that’s exactly what I heard yesterday.
During the same programme, Mike Embley also used other fully smoothed and compressed pronunciations, amongst which I remember ˈraːʔ pəˌliːs for ˈraɪət pəˌliːs (riot police) and , if not ɑː, for aʊə (hour).
The phonetic process of ‘breaking’ is acknowledged by all the three current pronunciation dictionaries (ODP, LPD, and CPD), but it’s dealt with in different ways. Next week we’ll look into that more closely.