People the world over swoon over the Italian language. Next to French it’s the most romantic language in the world, a conversational song seemingly written for lovers and poets. Nearly every word ends softly, with a vowel, like a feather landing on a four-poster bed.
But buried under the Dolomite-high pile of frothy adjectives and illuminating nouns sits a local dialect few outside the streets of Rome know. If you heard it, you wouldn’t swoon. You might cringe, just from the sound. Then you might gasp from the meaning.
Take this phrase that is creeping more into my daily conversation: Li mortacci tua!
That loosely means, “Your entire family is dead!” It even sounds evil, doesn’t it? The word mortacci sticks in my throat, like a dagger getting ready to be flung across a room. Where does the phrase come from? No, it’s not Italian.
It’s Roman. That’s the local dialect, one I often hear as much as classic Italian. It’s distinct, often crude with a sub-dialect that’s devoted entirely to profanity. No, “Your entire family is dead” carries no dirty words. But in Italy, where the nuclear family remains as tight as layers of lasagna, it is not good to say someone’s family got hit by a Fiat.
It’s part of a street slang that I’m picking up after five years living in the heart of Rome. Classic Italian is hard enough. Blend in dialects, ranging from regional to some varying from village to village, and it’s no wonder one part of the country doesn’t know what the other is doing.
When Marina and I travel around Italy listening to locals, she often has the same blank expression as when we were in Hungary. In Naples, the dialect seems so violent, added by the Neapolitans’ nature to scream when merely asking for the parmesan, every conversation sounds ready to end in a knife fight. The Sardo language in Sardinia has more apostrophes than commas.
The Trentino dialect of Alto Adige in the north sounds like you’re in Berlin. Sicilian in the south is so different, Italian is almost considered a second language.
In Italy, you can’t tell the language without a linguist. It wasn’t until 1861 when Italy became united did Italian become the official national language. Benito Mussolini went so far to further unite the people, he banned German names for road signs in Alto Adige. Fat good that did. All signs today in Bolzano, Alto Adige’s capital, are bilingual.
Here in Rome, it’s even more complicated. People don’t even know what to call their dialect which goes in lockstep with everything else in this chaotic city. Depending on whom you talk to, it’s either called Roman, Romanesco or Romanaccio.
Its original name was Romanesco. Once considered closer to Neapolitan than Florentine, the dialect became more northern with the election of two Medici popes from Florence. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, a large immigration moved south from Tuscany, now considered home to the most classic Italian. Many Tuscans today sound like graduates of the Rai School of Broadcasting.
Poets and writers made Romanesco famous, particularly Gioachino Belli (1791-1863) whose collection of poems in “Sonetti Romaneschi” became a huge source of pride to 19th century Romans and their culture.
Still, until Rome became Italy’s capital in 1861, Romanesco was only spoken inside the walls of the city. Read Romanesco today, and it’s a mind-bending collection of doubled identical consonants, mangled nouns and weirdly placed apostrophes. One of Belli’s lines is “Io so’ io, e vvoi nun zete un cazzo.” (I am me and you’re not a fucking thing.)
You don’t see this much anymore. In fact, many scholars say it’s a dying dialect. I sometimes heard it in my old neighborhood of Testaccio, where many locals are as old as some of Rome’s monuments. But I never heard it from anyone under 60.
What you hear in its place is a modernized version I simply call Roman or, in Italian, Romano. You know those pretty little syllables that hang off Italians’ words and their tongues? In Roman, they’re gone. Romans eat their words, like they’re pizza slices and their pausa (afternoon break) is ending soon. Baristas often call my cappuccino a cappucc (pronounced ka-POOCH). Andiamo (Let’s go) becomes nnamo. Mangiamo
(Let’s eat) becomes magnamo. Che film vuoi vedere? (What film do you want to see?) becomes Che firm voi vede’?
Some call the dialect Romanaccio. However, I consider Romanaccio the sub-dialect that’s laced with dirty words. It’s what you hear when you see two cab drivers in an argument. When two lovers fight, you’ll need a Romanaccio translator. Marina, a third-generation Roman, is fluent in Romanaccio and has made me a convert. Amazingly, while my comprehension of basic Italian still lags behind my speaking ability, I seemingly understand everything she says in Romanaccio.
There is “Cazzo!” (Fuck!), “Che cazzo!” (What the fuck!) and the ubiquitous “Che cazzo fai?!” (What the fuck are you doing?) Again, the word cazzo is the perfect sound for Roman profanity as it comes from deep in your throat, like bile.
There’s also “Pezzo di merda” (Piece of shit) and “Non me rompe li cojoni” (Don’t break my balls.), both coming in handy in Rome’s post office, cell phone store and your landlady’s presence.
In lieu of a completely x-rated blog, here are a few examples of basic Roman you’ll hear on the streets. Notice I accompany them all with the appropriate hand gestures. In any Italian dialect, hand gestures are as important as the tongue. After a while, they become automatic, subconscious body reflexes, like when I clench my fist when reading about Donald Trump. I’ve seen drivers talking through their cell phone’s mike pull their motor scooter to the side so they can use both hands while talking to someone they can’t even see. (Italian and English translations follow.)
The hands are placed in praying formation as if to say, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me?” Often seen in Olympic Stadium aimed at a soccer referee.
Don’t use this as a sarcastic gesture. Italians do not get sarcasm.
In a society based more on food than politics, this gesture is common.
The hand enclosed by the thumb and four fingers, up toward the mouth, has become common all over Italy. It’s also kind of a polite way of saying, “Well, fuck you.”
“Ao” is a common greeting on the streets although this gesture is not. Who can’t hear Romans?
Dress like a typical American in Rome, you’ll be sure to have this happen behind your back.
This is what I do behind Marina’s back.
This is as bad as it gets, something you say to the person who ax murders your family or what Marina would say if she saw what I gesture behind her back.
A simple agreement goes a long way in Rome.
I find Italians the nicest people in the world so I’ve never used this. Feel free to use it when you realize a cabbie ripped you off as he drives away.