Piers Kelly scrìvi:

Ridiculing Teresa Gambaro is no fun at all. Her advice to immigrants, first on hygiene and last week on how to avoid racist slurs by learning English, are so elegantly moronic as stand on their own comic merit. It’s as if Gambaro is a kind of dead-pan performance artist, with some pundits doing their darndest to defend her as an exercise in postmodern art-crit.

All that aside, what fascinates me is that Gambaro is the child of Sicilian migrants from Syracuse, who presumably grew up speaking a wonderful regional language called Sicilianu, or specifically, a variant known as Sicialanu Orientale (Eastern Sicilian). As it happens, what is now referred to as ‘standard Italian’ was a minority language within Italy until the post-war period. This is why so many Italians who immigrated to Australia in the 1950s, speak regional Italian languages which are typically referred to as dialetti (‘dialects’) due to their considerable similarities. To this day, rare languages of Italy that have disappeared in their locations of origin, particularly in the south, are alive and well amongst elderly Italians in the suburbs of Australian cities.

Dialect map of Italy. Source: Wikipedia

Sicilians have always been Italy’s favourite outcasts. Feudal, conservative and impoverished, northerners complain about ‘paying the rent’ for a province that doesn’t pull its economic weight. The Sicilian language and its regional variants are forever being mocked in caricatures of southern peasants as criminal mafiosos and tin-pot patriarchs. To some extent Sicilian comedians have even reclaimed the stereotypes, hamming up the macho image, while gently teasing their northern compatriots.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFve0nLTZgg[/youtube]A popular comic trio (the one on the far left is Sicilian) provide a language lesson in English, Italian and Sicilianu.

And yet Sicilians are equally romanticised as representing something intrinsic and authentic about the ‘real’ Italy and genuine Italian culture – consider the parallels with central Australia as the wild but authentic heart of the continent. This exoticisation might be a little parochial but it certainly can’t be a bad thing in moderation.

I somehow doubt that Gambaro would wish to advise Sicilians to avoid cultural stigma by learning standard Italian and camouflaging their linguistic identity. As the daughter of restaurant proprietors this would be akin to abolishing regional cuisine in favour of a nationwide set menu.

Naturally, it’s in the interests of immigrants to Australia to acquire English, but the notion that newcomers resist the dominant language by retaining their mother tongues is nonsense. It takes a certain wilful stupidity to assume that diversity itself is inherently divisive, as if the very existence of cultural difference is an irritant that provokes aggression.

If a minority language makes you afraid or uneasy, there’s a straightforward solution: learn a bit of it.

Lesson one. A selection of choice words from Sicilianu, brought to you by the Gambaro School of Crosscultural Awareness.

(Too woggy for you? Pay attention to the similarities with English in these randomly selected examples.)

affruntarisi‘to be embarrassed’ (related to the English word ‘affront’)

fètiri: ‘to smell’, ‘give off an odour’ (related to the word ‘fetid’)

Mparàri: ‘to learn’ (similar to ‘impart’)

muccaturi‘handkerchief’ (related to ‘mucus’)

paraggiu: ‘equal’ (related to the English word ‘parity’)