The stretch of 9th Street in Bella Vista known as the Italian Market has plenty of history to it. This year they’re even celebrating 100 years, making it the oldest continuously operated outdoor market in the country.
With a history of Italian immigrants in the area, you would expect to hear a lot of Italian being spoken, but that isn’t the case. Instead, other dialects are heard with words like “tublini” and “man-ih-gawt.” So what is the history of these dialects heard around South Philly?
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Academic linguists don’t like to hear these pronunciations referred to as a bastardization of proper Italian. Rather, the dialect simply represents a different history and background of the original speakers. “The idea that a pronunciation can be wrong or bad is as bizarre as saying that a species of butterfly is wrong or bad,” says Betsy Sneller, a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Saying this often carries classist undertones.”
Christopher Cieri, executive director of the Penn-based Linguistic Data Consortium, explains how language evolved among new immigrants in Philadelphia. “Even as English gradually replaces Italian, some forms remain, perhaps to label things like foods for which there is no easily recognizable equivalent in the surrounding language.”
Cieri notes that some of the difference in the pronunciation from formal Italian is certainly attributable to dialect. While the story of Italian in Italy is the gradual superimposition of Tuscan Italian over local dialects, spoken Italian is very different across the country, even more so at the time Italian immigrants were leaving for the United States. Southern dialects were more likely to shorten the vowels at the end of words. Consonants ‘p’, ’t’ and ‘k’ sound more like ‘b’, ’d’ and ‘g’.