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Image courtesy http://italyonmymind.com.au/
Image courtesy http://italyonmymind.com.au/

Growing up speaking North End English

In his 1975 study of the North End, “The Italian-American child: His sociolinguistic acculturation,” Fr. Lawrence Biondi stated that “The English spoken in the North End is English that is heard nowhere else in New England or Boston. North Enders have a strong tendency toward being uniquely apart — they are not quite Italian, but not quite American either” (p. 36).

Those of us who grew up in the neighborhood would not be surprised at this statement. We did have a way of speaking that was unique to the North End, though much of it was shared by Italian Americans in other parts of the country, especially in the cities. The matter has never been studied, unfortunately, but I think it is clear that North Enders did not just have slang or spoke “bad English,” but rather spoke an identifiable variety of English with distinctive features of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.

Some of our words were versions of our parents’ or grandparents’ (mis)pronunciations of English words. The famous one here is “bacouz” for bathroom — which I used to think was an old Italian word for a bathroom until I found it was a reference to “backhouse” (outhouse). And then there was “sangwich” for sandwich. This was not simply our slang word but a carry forward of the pronunciation of sandwich as “sangwicha” (my thanks to Carol {Giampaolo} Gillis for pointing this out to me).

We also had certain words which were known or used only in their Americanized Italian forms and that had no English substitutes. How do you translate “mooleta” (the soft part of the bread), moosha-moosh and schifozz (emotions, sort of), or scooch and strunz (for certain people)? Or there were Italian words for things that we may not have known the English equivalents, such as “sculabast” for pasta strainer (scola la pasta) or “scoba” for broom (scopa).

And it gets more complicated.

North End English also had many Anglicized versions of Italian grammatical forms, such as “open” and “close” the light, from “apri la luce” and “chiudi la luce” respectively. And there were direct translations of Southern Italian greetings, such as “where you going?” for “addo va?”. This expression, as Thomas Belmonte notes in his classic ethnography about Naples, “The Broken Fountain,” meant much more than the literal “where are you going.” It meant instead that your destination and that of the person you asked was “of mutual concern; that your life and their lives [were] now somehow intertwined” (p. 37). It was a sign of the destiny and intimacy all North Enders – and Neapolitans – shared.

Some of these forms and words still mark the way I speak, especially if I am around other North Enders. Others I hardly use. I never wanted to give up all of these usages. Giving them up was really a matter of adjusting to “life in America” — that is, life outside the North End or outside circles of Italian Americans who spoke the way I did. I miss those sounds and those words and those expressions. But whaddya gunno do?

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.

4 comments

  1. I didn’t read any mention of the famous “agita” which is just the word “acid” with an “a” at the end. My uncle was in a Chinese restaurant and thought the food was not fresh.. He called the waiter and yelled: “This food has agita”. The waiter kept repeating: “What is Agita?” :)

    How about “tickadoda” for tickle and “duckadoda” for a punch in the whatever. When I first went outside the North End, I was not aware that these were not English terms. :)

    • Thanks Sal. You are right. “Agita” is a classic, and there is no better way for me to describe that feeling in the stomach. I still say it all the time and still get the same uncomprehending looks from non-Italian Americans. And there are the others you mentioned too.

  2. North End Boston”speak” sounds a lot like Lower East Side/Little Italy NYC “speak”, especially for words like bacouz and agita and for describing “opening” and “closing” the light.

    I was wondering if NE speak included “gabadost” and “jadroul” (not sure how they’re spelled as I only heard them verbalized, and never saw them written out) for describing people that were hard-headed or idiotic.

    Any other word lists available? – these word bring me back about 50 years to the “old neighborhood”.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, those words were part of NE speak, and a lot of this speech was common to Italian Americans everywhere. I don’t know to what extent the NE variety differed. As for a list, I know there is one in an appendix to the book The Italian American Heritage, edited by Pellegrino D’Acierno. I have also seen lists online as well. There are also a few scholarly articles on “Italgish” and Italian American speech varieties.

      Best,

      Jim