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The death of the Italian language in America

The death of the Italian language in America

Tom Verso (December 26, 2007)

To speak Italian was to be identified with the very essence of evil – Hitler.


By 1920 approximately 5 million Italians mostly from areas south of Rome had immigrated to the U.S. Life in a foreign country was difficult at first, but so was life in the Mezzogiorno and Sicily. Accordingly, being conditioned by generations of hard times, hard work and self-discipline they prevailed.

By 1940 they had achieved a fair level of prosperity. When World War II began, they did not hesitate to show their appreciation by sending their sons to war and their daughters to work in defense plants.

The list of dead and wounded Italian American men and hard working women giving their all to defend American goes on and on. Nevertheless, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears they gave to the war effort, some in the American government still had doubts about the loyalty of Italian Americans.

The outstanding collection of essays and must reading for anyone interested in the reality of Italian American history “Una Storia Segreta" edited by Lawrence DiStasi documents the indignities and injustices heaped on Italian Americans during WW II. The FBI created a list of 600,000 Italian immigrants who had not yet completed their citizenship. Ten thousand were arrested and sent to an interment camp in Montana. Curfews were imposed on thousands. Milkmen and bakers lost their jobs because they could not leave their house before sunrise. Fishermen lost their jobs because they were not allowed within five miles of the sea coast. Homes were routinely searched. But, the greatest insult of all was the attack on the Italian language itself. 

Posters like the one above declaring "Don't Speak The Enemy's Language! Speak American!" appeared.  The implication of the graphic: to speak Italian was not simply to be identified with Mussolini but more importantly with the very essence of evil – Hitler. Again, Italian Americas showed there loyalty to America and willingness to comply. Clement Lanni publisher of the Rochester NY Italian language newspaper ‘La Stamp Unita’ for decades changed the name of the paper to ‘The Rochester Press’ and the language to English.  All across the country immigrants stopped using Italian in public. But, the final act of loyalty to America and the death of Italian language in America came from the children of the immigrants. Coming back from the war and out of the war factories they began rising their own families - the so called “Post War Baby Boom.” Although they were fluent speakers of Italian, they refused to teach it to their children. By the 1960’s the Italian language in America was dead. It was not spoken in the homes or taught in the schools.

Fortunately, today there is a Renaissance of the Italian language in America. Once again schools and organizations are teaching it and parents are encouraging there children to learn Italian and study Italian history. Once again, as it was before WW II, Italian Americans are proud of their heritage. They realize loving Italian culture does not mean being un-American. 


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Death of Italian Language

I come from a Sicilian home, my mother, grandmother and greatgrandmother, uncles all spoke fluent. I believe the death of Italian language in America is an entirely expected outcome...the native language of a country, in this case English, will always prevail. My father is not Italian, therefore, in our home, English was the only language. An interesting sidenote, I travelled to Sicily with my mother several years ago. She was told she spoke "an antique language" by the native Italians and Sicilians. When you think about it, she learned a language as a child from her mother, who left Sicily in 1917, and in America, the language did not evolve. Only older people in Sicily could understand her!!

The death of the Italian language in America

I have to agree with the essence of this article. It is profoundly correct. One reason the Italian Language died is because our parents didn't use it. I never knew why, but my father and mother only spoke it when they wanted to keep something they said private. The war did play a great part in stifling the primary language of our parents and grandparents. There was a stigma back then about the evils of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. It continues today, and these were terrible people. I think what we need to do now as Italian-Americans, is to take the time to learn everything we can about our rich and colorful heritage, and history, and teach it to our children and grandchildren. The Italian Language is part of it, and in my humble opinion we need to re-learn it, and pass it on to future generations, as well as all the other things we know as being Italian. We should be proud of who we are, and what we contribute to the our great country of America.

secret language

Carlo, Thanks for your comment. It is always good to hear from other Italian Americans about their experiences. I especially appreciate your comment: “…my father and mother only spoke it when they wanted to keep something they said private.” That was the case in my family; but more importantly, Italian Americans all across the country have reported the same. It is interesting how Italian as a secret language became a cultural characteristic of a whole generation. Best Tom Verso

" Although they were fluent

" Although they were fluent speakers of Italian".... This statement is a gross exageration. I would say that few were 'fluent' in their parents' dialects and an even smaller number were fluent in Italian. Yes, the first American- born generation could understand the language of their parents- it's a natural part of human language development. But when it came to speaking, the majority used English and fragmented dialect.... The writer of this article has little, if any, insight into the language of the early Italian immigrants...

language research

My personal experience, in a city with a large Italian American population currently close to 200,000, is that the children of the immigrants were fluent in ‘yes’ the dialects of their parents. It is common to say that the immigrants spoke Italian. It is understood that it was dialects that they spoke not official school Italian.

My experience is substantiated in historical research such as the book I cited “Una Storia Segreta". Further, if they did not speak the language of their parents, how could they communicate with them? You say: “when it came to speaking, the majority used English and fragmented dialect....” How do you know that? Are you familiar with studies of the language patterns of immigrant families ?

This is what philosophers call an ‘empirical issue.’ If you have facts to the contrary, please present them. I am very interested in the subject and I seek information were ever I can. I write articles, in an effort to dialogue with others and thereby expand my knowledge and understanding. This being a case in point.

You say that I “…have little, if any, insight into the language of the early Italian immigrants...” That may be true, I am an empiricist; if it is true, then please provide me some empirical data or a scholarly reference to substantiate your calm that the children of the immigrants were generally not fluent in the dialects of their parents. I would be very interested in such data or references.

Frankly, I have read a good deal of Italian American history and this is the first time that I have heard the calm that the children of the immigrants were generally (i. e. not 100%, but a significant majority) not fluent in the language of their parents. This is very interesting. Please do expand on the topic. I’m fascinated.

Thank you for your comment and hope to hear more on the subject from you. Tom Verso

Rubbish. The Italian

Rubbish. The Italian language died because it was choked by the original immigrant "nonnino" who imposed upon the whole family to ban the language, "simme ammeregani adresso, bisogna speak-ay only Ammeregano". After all, there was a buck toi be made - and, after the'd made it, who cared anytmore aboutr the language?

Giorgio Iraci Perugia, Italy

Italian Americans speaking Italian in home...

The reason the language died in my family was because of the vergogna (shame) felt during World War II. Being during that time I lived with not only my immigrant parents but both sets of grandparents, I spoke or understood their dialects and some Italian (Piemontese and Sicilian). When my parents moved out of our Italian colony in Berkeley, California to the suburbs that is when the our language and many customs disappeared, it was an imperative to get on the road to become as WASPy as our neighbors. Thankfully our kitchen didn't suffer as did our language. Most of the bi-lingual Italo-Americani I know only speak Spanish, there seems to still be a reluctance to learn about our culture, probably because of what the popular media has shown. The only remedy for this in my family has been to bring the young ones in the family to Italy to understand their roots (radici), only then do they realize that be Italian doesn't mean being an extension of The Sopranos, etc.

Italian Language

For some Americans, unless your family came over on the Mayflower you will never be a "real" American regardless of how well you speak "American" or how much blood you shed. Perhaps this is the reason why so many countless thousands of us have reclaimed our Italian citizenship. Sign me, then, born in America, but proud be an Italian citizen.

reason for dual citizenship

Thank you for your comment. I think that you may be right, that at least some of the enthusiasm for dual citizenship and Italian voting rights comes from the experience of rejection many Italian Americans feel. America, ethnically, is a very complex society and I think it may be fragmenting along ethnic lines. Hopefully, Italian Americans will stick together. This is one of the values of a web site like i-Italy. It makes possible interaction between people like you and me, for example. Ciao for now. Tom Verso