Wednesday, June 20, 2012


We were all gathered for the 50th anniversary of the Nesci family migrating to Australia. Little did we know then that this was the last time we would hear Salvatore’s humour. He didn’t disappoint and this time wrote an Ode to Nonna (his mother of the equivalent of grandma in English) in Calabrese or Calabrian, the dialect of the region.  The written poem is all the more amusing because Calabrese is thought of as a spoken dialect.

C’era na bell chiamata Ntonuzza
Contadina, durmia cui cucuzza
ma si sposao cu Raffaele
senza luna di mele
ma po dopo disseros nindiimo di ca –che puzza

Dopo tant’ anni lavorando colu mulu
Raffele partio per luaustalia sulu sulu
Ciangendo disse addio alla famiglia
partio cu poco robba in valigia
gridando : Fabrizai vanculo

Che vitaccia ogni girono in Fattoria
e a notte chiamando “dove sei cara mia?”
In quei giorni non cera lalitalia
per portar la gnete in Australia
dop un mese viaggiando con in pesci
finalmenet si riuniro tutti in Nesci
 e oggi siamo qui per dare grazie a Antonuzza mamma mia

Loosely translated it reads as:

There was a beauty called Antonuzza
Peasant, mother and great cook,
But she married Raffaele
Didn’t have a honeymoon
And was told that she had to leave – that stank

After many years working in the mill
Raffaele went to Australia alone, alone
He said goodbye to the family
With very few things in his bags
And said “Fuck you” to Fabrizia

He worked every day in factories
And at night said where are you my darling
Not sure of the next line
To bring them to Australia
After a month of travelling with the fishes
The Nescis were finally reunited
And we’re here thanks to my mother Antonuzza.

                                  Antonuzza and her father and mother on a trip back to Calabria

After years of listening to Calabrese, I came to realise that I could follow part of the conversation with my knowledge of Italian, just by adding ‘oo’ to the end of many words. The “oo” sound is similar to the final sound in the word ‘who’, for example ‘sulu, sulu” is Calabrese for solo, solo or alone, alone.
My first encounter with trying to understand Calabrese was when my father-in-law died. Death is a time when you can really delve into another culture as death rituals are a mirror into the heart of a culture. 

Family and paesani would come around and just sit. All the chairs in the dining room were placed around the walls of the room and people would sit and in turn sigh out another a platitude. “Ahh What canna you do.” “Ahh he had a good life.” “Ahh he’s in a better place.” “Ahh he was a good man.” These were in either Calabrian, Italian or English

Someone would also be telling a story or explaining something in Calabrian and I was able to follow the main idea of the conversation because I would hear a word in English like ‘bathroom” “that’s right”, “high school”. Eventually I started to piece together some of the stories but after the obligatory introduction of platitudes they really started to talk and talk and talk.

All Italians are masters in the art of conversation, particularly those from peasant backgrounds like the paesani from Fabrizia where literacy levels are very low. Theirs was an oral culture and everything was passed on verbally. Everything was spoken. Stories are embellished and detail is important. The truth is often irrelevant. 

When my mother –in-law, Antonuzza, was staying at my brother and sister-in-law’s house in Italy, she was helping in the kitchen. Robyn, my sister-in-law is an excellent cook and her kitchen is her domain. Antonuzza vocalises every action. “Now I’m chopping the onions.” “I’m going to take out the centre of the eggplants.” “You must stir the sauce all the time.” It was driving Robyn mad as the chatter continued all through the preparation for a large family and friends dinner and of course every day while they were in Italy together.

Afterwards we could both imagine Nonna with her sisters all talking and the kitchen about rolling the pasta, baking the bread and stirring the sauce for the pasta. All the learning and information about life was passed on in this great oral tradition. This was their work and life, they didn't have anything else to do such s rush off after dinner to a show or write a blog or go down for a swim after lunch.

Professor Jo lo Bianco, Chair of Language and Literacy Education at the Melbourne School of graduate Education at Melbourne University and President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and most importantly,  a Calabrian, claims that Calabrese is a dialect of Italy not of the Italian language. 

This means that the Calabrese dialect is equal in importance to the national language which comes from the area of Tuscany.  He states that the so called dialects of Italian are all direct descendants of proto-Latin, that is  vulgar Latin and that the different influences of each area were all absorbed into the ‘dialect. 

Calabrian has a lot of Greek influence as Calabria was part of Magna Graecia in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. The language also has influences from the Byzantine period which although it was a continuation of the Roman Empire was actually quite Eastern and Spanish. Further he claims that what is commonly called ITALIAN is also a direct descendent of Latin, that is lingua Toscana in bocca romana which is Tuscan as pronounced by Romans. So this thing, which linguists call standard Italian, or Italiano standard is a sister of Calabrian, not its parent.

English: Ancient Greek colonies and their dialect groupings in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia).
   NW Greek
Date6 September 2008
  • Own work
  • Dialect areas according to: Roger D. Woodard (2008), "Greek dialects", in: The Ancient Languages of Europe, ed. Roger D. Woodard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.51. (= partial re-published version of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ancient Languages, 2004). Positions of cities after various on-wiki sources.
AuthorFuture Perfect at Sunrise

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