By: Penelope Deoliveira

Dove stai andando?”  I whispered to my sister. She shrugged, and turned her gaze to our grandmother’s kitchen.
“Probably in there... sono affamata.
I looked at the kitchen door too, wondering what delicious food waited inside. My grandmother, who at the time was showing off another piece of antique furniture, made it clear that we couldn’t eat yet. Her guests were consuming every second of time she had, so she hadn’t bothered even setting the table yet.

“Yeah, I’m hungry too,” I said. “I wish these irritante, antipatico, gente would leave....think we should just go and get some food?”

We stared longingly at the kitchen, then at our grandmother. She wouldn’t stand for any nonsense, no, especially when her guest were around. We didn’t dare try; instead, we’d have to wait another hour for her to finish up her conversations.

My grandmother, or as my sister and I call her, Ema, was a black woman who took grammar and speech very seriously. I could tell it made her feel proud and important whenever she added a point in an intellectual (though, in this instance, inconvenient) conversation. She always spoke to me and my sister with fancy words like “hence” or “therefore”- even if the discussion was about potty training. One of the most annoying instances where every time I would say “Hey, that’s mines!” She’d scold me, and give me a half hour lesson on grammar. “It’s mine, not mines. You don’t work in the mines, child.”

So we sat, trying to entertain ourselves, while the adults talked about investments, politics, and everything else they thought was fancy and grown-up. Sophia and I had stopped trying to understand them ages ago...words flew into our ears, but no clear understanding appeared into our young minds. Half of the conversation we could just barely make out; we spoke the same language- standard english, but we didn’t know much. Of course, english was my first language, italian not appearing until years after. But there were words I just couldn’t make out. Maybe they talked too fast? Or maybe I was just slow?

“Mom, ho fame!” I whined. My mother sternly shushed me quiet, and I shrunk back further into my chair. My mother and my sister were the only others in the room who could speak italian. My grandmother  (on my mothers side) knew a little, and my grandfather knew none. It was my grandparents on my father’s side. They hail from italy, speak it well, and taught their grandchildren enough to understand a little.

Over time, my sister and I developed a mini-language between us. Half english, half italian became the norm, and only when we were at school or around strangers did we tuck the italian half away into our minds. When we we grew older, my cousin taught us a few curse-words that the grown-ups might not catch. Words that could have two meanings, or depended on what sentence it was used in, became our secret code. We became so accustomed to the way we spoke, between just the two of us, that eventually it sounded neither like english or italian.

In middle school, the italian part slowly faded from my speech until only a small taste was left clinging to my tongue.

“Ha-ha, and I told her to succhiare il cazzo,”
I told my sister, as we walked down the halls to our next class. Our friends were beside us; when they managed to hear the quick sprinkling of italian onto the main english course, well, they were shocked. “What? Was that english or gibberish?” One rudely asked. My cheeks always turned a crimson red when someone said something like this. I learned quickly that many didn’t like it when I spoke it, even to myself, so I reserved it for home and home only. That was the only way to spare myself from embarrassment.

For the few that didn’t care, they assumed I spoke it fluently, which is not the case. They’d point out things, and ask me to translate them to english; I’d try my best, but sometimes I could provide no answer.

“Ha, okay, okay, now...what’s that?” A boy pointed at a tree. I paused, thinking, the word on the tip of my tongue. Switching back and forth was becoming harder for me, since I had started using italian much less. I had become rusty, compared to my old speed- spitting out words faster than I could think of them.  

“uh.....albero? I think...” I stuttered. The crowd was not satisfied, and pushed further in inquiring more about my knowledge in the italian language. A girl in the group pulled out her phone, and held it close to my face. “What’s this?”

“A cell phone? I....I don’t know.” I answered. She smirked, tucked her phone back into her pocket, and started to walk away. “ I thought you knew all the words,” I heard her say.

Language is a funny thing- it’s associated with race, culture, who you are, yet it’s an entire thing in it itself. Language shows who you identify with, where your family was from, and most importantly who you think you are. English to me is like a life preserver in the vast sea of mixed words, racing through my mind. Confusion often fogs over my thoughts when I try to  think- italian and english both come to me at the same time, and sometimes I slip up. English is something to which I can cling to when I’m around others. You could say it’s my more developed language.

The italian language isn’t so much the words to me as it is the memories that come along with it-
loud meals and loose guests, delicious food, garlic and tomato scents drifting outside to the back porch. My house smells like a italian restaurant almost every day; you’d think chicken fettuccine and broccoli alfredo were all my mom knows how to cook. The stories my grandfather tells me comes to mind every time I think of italian; it’s a happy place amongst stressful situations. I often find that when I’m over-emotional, italian will leak out. I guess that makes italian my more reserved, but just as valuable language, saved for special situations.

As Gloria Anzaldua said: “We needed a language with which we could communicate with ourselves, a secret language.” Although this language...this, ‘engtalian’ is spoken by many italian americans, it’s unique. It lets one  communicate in an americanized yet somewhat traditional way, by blending both languages, and cultures. In other words, it’s a code- the small bits of italian confuses the english speakers, and the english confuses the italian speakers. Language is a way to show individuality, express feelings, and communicate with others. It’s affected by surroundings, backgrounds, and memories. In this case, it’s created my prefered language- Engtalian.


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