AUTHOR: Elton Prifti
TITLE: Italoamericano [Italian-American: Italian and English in Contact in the United States. A Migrational and Diachronic Analysis of Variation]
SUBTITLE: Italiano e inglese in contatto negli USA. Analisi diacronica variazionale e migrazionale
SERIES TITLE: De Gruyter Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 375
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
REVIEWER: Mauro Giuffre, (MIUR) Ministero dell’Istruzione Università e Ricerca
Review’s Editor: Anthony Aristar
At the beginning of his preface Tullio De Mauro calls attention to the phrase
with which Elton Prifti concludes his essay: “Italian American is thus to be
considered in its entirety as a set of hierarchically interrelated varieties
of contact with a particularly dynamic graduated structure.” These words
represent the concept that the author’s research intends to demonstrate and
what, in De Mauro’s view, has been demonstrated successfully. Every word of
this conclusion deserves serious attention because it is the product of
careful research and analysis, much of which was performed first -hand.
Prifti uses the term Italian -American in a way similar to the way it is used
in Italy. For Italians, Italian- American is the name that is given to the
language varieties that have arisen among people in the United States of
Italian origin. The author’s inquiry examines precisely this context and
explores in a global perspective the various phases of Italian migration and
its various territorial aggregations. As Prifti pointed out, the adjective in
question, which in Italian is commonly used as a noun (and refers to people or
language), reveals only a portion of a more complex configuration. In fact,
the flow of emigration from Italy went not only in the direction of the United
States, but also toward other countries on the American continents, especially
after 1861, the year of Italian political unity.
Compared to many other studies that are more or less based on particular
situations of contact between the Italo -Romance of immigrants and the
dominant American English, Prifti’s study is something new and motivates us to
pay attention to conserving a sense of wholeness, of completeness, across time
and space. In this perspective, Italian- American is seen not as a unique
variety, but rather as a diachronic succession and a synchronic coexistence of
different varieties, in which a set of varieties can be identified. An
analysis of this set, portions of which speakers are aware of in varying
degrees, reveals a certain internal order: it appears to be an articulated set
of varieties related to each other within a hierarchical structure. Indeed,
the entire set gives evidence of dynamism, graduality in its internal
succession and the coexistence of distinct varieties within migrant
To demonstrate the proposition quoted above, Prifti makes use of a solid
theoretical framework and a broad and profound process of acquisition and
presentation of hard facts. His theoretical framework is based on the
reconsideration of the Aristotelian -Humboldtian vision defined by Coseriu,
which relies on the distinction between linguistic knowledge, behavior and
product. It therefore analyses separately the linguistic knowledge of speakers
(their awareness and competence), their linguistic behavior (the different
manners of use) and the products of that linguistic behavior (i.e. the genesis
of variant forms, examined by identifying the most frequent prototypical
phenomena). The author’s far -reaching acquisition and presentation of data,
whose successful completion is in itself already a great merit, has produced
an imposing mass of data. It constitutes an important collection of interviews
conducted between 1999 and 2010 in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York,
San Francisco and elsewhere in the states of New Jersey and Florida, enhanced
by the addition of documental research (historical and demographic) and
research on private, literary and paraliterary texts.
With this documentation, analyzed using the theoretical framework indicated
above, Prifti defines three phases in the development of Italian- American:
1) The diglossic phase = Italo -Romance dialectal monolingualism (every
immigrant group was the bearer of an exclusive use of its native dialect) come
into contact with American English.
2) The triglossic phase = migrants bring both a single Italian dialect and a
certain degree of knowledge of Italian into contact with English.
3) The current phase = new diglossia derive from the contact between Italian
and American English.
Prifti clearly shows that the three phases have overlappings and gradual
intertwinings. These overlappings and intertwinings have become layered in the
awareness and common use of the speakers.
The analytical capacity of Prifti is reflected in the balanced internal
organization of his book: the first part briefly describes the theoretical and
methodological grounds for his research and traces a historical synthesis of
Italian emigration to the United States (pp. 1 -127); the second part,
Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 (pp. 128 -376), is focused on the impressive amount of
data that he has acquired and presented here; in the third part (Chapter 8),
the author presents an overview of the results achieved (pp. 377 -382), which
stem from his organization of the collected data; the volume concludes with
two additional chapters (pp. 383- 447), which explain the instruments used for
the field survey and provide tools to facilitate consultation of his work
(bibliography, index of names, places, and words).
The first part, of course, goes beyond the field of “Italian linguistics and
dialectology” to embrace the broader field of theoretical linguistics. With
sound doctrine, Prifti condenses the theoretical basis he refers to into a
lucid presentation of about 15 pages (pp. 58- 71). Starting from Aristotle’s
book θ and recalling the concepts of δύναμις, ἐνέργεια, and ἔργον, Prifti
establishes links with both von Humboldt and Hegel. He states that “the
distinction between synchrony and diachrony is [...] to be considered
artificial” (p. 60) and reminds us that Humboldt operates at a diachronic
level. The author then points out that Lausberg, with Aristotelian thought as
his starting point, distinguishes three perspectives of descriptive language,
which are defined by Coseriu respectively as linguistic behaviour (Tätigkeit),
linguistic knowledge (Wissen), and linguistic product (Produkt). Prifti
distinguishes the position of Coseriu from that of Lausberg: the latter,
followed by Prifti, supports the idea of a hierarchization (linguistic
knowledge -linguistic behavior -linguistic product), which corresponds to the
δύναμις-ἐνέργεια-ἔργον triad indicated by Aristotle.
Stehl 2012 developed a functional descriptive model that discriminates three
levels of variation: 1) competence of the variation; 2) pragmatics of the
variation; 3) linguistics of the variation. Stehl’s model was borrowed from
the pluridimensional linguistics of migration (PLM) elaborated by Prifti,
which puts the speaker at the center of attention and goes beyond perceptual
It is possible to adequately describe the dynamics of linguistic contacts as
ensuing from a quadruple perception of language as knowledge (δύναμις),
behavior (ἐνέργεια), product (ἔργον), and identity (οὐσία), upon which the
pluridimensional linguistics of migration (PLM) relies. The pluridimensional
linguistics of migration (PLM) works on four levels of analysis:
1) linguistic knowledge, with a distinction made between idiomatic and
2) linguistic behavior, with a distinction made between actual use of the
language and virtually possible use;
3) linguistic product, with a distinction made among three forms of analysis,
respectively called transference (interference and code switching), erosion
(the alteration component), and dialect-mixing;
4) correlation between varieties and identity, stressing that the principal
dynamics of changes in ethnic identity are reflected in language.
The method of investigation is based on the insights and indications of De
Mauro, Schlieben-Lange, Weydt, Stehl, Labov and the theoretical foundation of
the PLM lies in the recognition of the philosophy of language (especially that
of von Humboldt, Hegel, Coseriu), the study of linguistic change (especially
that of Lüdtke, Weinreich), language contact and variation (especially that of
Trudgill, Labov, Schlieben -Lange/H. Weydt), linguistic behavior (especially
that of Fishman), and in other areas of research.
The variational migrational interviews were conducted on a large sample of
informants, who were divided into five generations of immigrants and chosen on
the basis of specific sociolinguistic and migrational criteria. The large
corpus of correspondence, documents, and literature has enabled enough
empirical data to be collected to perform a systematic description of the
conceptual knowledge of Italian -Americans over the past 150 years or so, at
least. The quality of the linguistic knowledge acquired in Italy by
first -generation Italian -Americans determines the quality of their knowledge
(of English) and that of succeeding generations.
There is not any single determinant exclusively responsible for the functional
language chosen by speakers: in general, social determinants prevail over the
others, mainly because of the importance of idiomatic knowledge in English and
its increasingly frequent use for purposes related to the social mobility of
individual speakers. From the point of view of the linguistic behavior of each
single generation of Italian- Americans, individual functional languages and
their material quality are directly related. Comparing the interviews of
speakers of the same generation, Prifti notes that, due to the influence of
various extra linguistic factors, individual variants of the same functional
language may vary. The multitude of variations correspond to various forms of
contact, which have prototypical peculiarities that appear uniform during a
single given stage of contact. Italian-American contact has generated dynamics
of language convergence and code switching that can be described by tracing
the relationship between language and identity, since language is an essential
part of culture. Even in diachronic terms, the transformation of collective
identity (οὐσία) can be seen: Italian -Americanness emerges in two
chronologically sequential forms. The first is “old” and linked to the Great
Emigration and to Little Italies and is rooted in the rural dialect (1880 to
circa 1927); the second is “modern”, urbane, closer to culture and the
national language (circa 1954 to the present day). This transformation
proceeds in parallel with the evolution of linguistic contact.
On the whole, the work of Prifti is presented as a variational diachronic
analysis of this contact. The dynamics of this contact are described through
four sequential stages of investigation and the four-fold analysis is
systematically carried out for each of the three phases of contact. Within
each of these phases, the contact forms a specific constellation and the three
compositions that emerge outline the transition from dialectal monolingualism
to Italian- dialectal diglossia, then to Italian monolingualism. In the first
stage of contact, a relationship between dialect and American English is
evident. In the second phase the diglossia becomes a triglossia, as Italian,
too, enters the relationship. In the third stage, a diglossia appears once
again, this time between Italian and American English. The mesolect is
constituted by a graduated structure of distinct and hierarchically correlated
varieties which Prifti calls “archigradata”: defective Italo- Romance
(indicated by Prifti with IR -), defective American English (indicated by
Prifti with AE- ), non-defective American English (indicated by Prifti with
AE+), doubly defective Italo- Romance (indicated by Prifti with IR– ).
Generalising further, the individual mesolects can be grouped into two
categories of archigradata: ‘Itanglish’ (based on Italo- Romance) and
‘Americalian’ (based on English). The term “archigradatum” was coined by
Prifti as an analogy of archiphoneme, archimorpheme, archilexeme and
archisememe, re using the concept of “gradutum” developed by Mioni/Trumper.
The analysis of Italian -American contact using Prifti’s PLM has highlighted
that the ἐνέργεια is in constant flux, with regard to the individual, the
family, and the community. The ἐνέργεια is therefore not a static entity; its
transformation propels the linguistic change generated by migration.
In the work of Prifti, in addition to the theoretical framework, another
primary aspect is the collection of the empirical data, which follows the
principles of sociolinguistic surveys. In this context, the reference point is
the tradition of studies on language variation and change (known as secular
linguistics) inaugurated by Labov.
The empirical corpus on which the analysis is based consists of five sections:
1) interviews; 2) documents; 3) epistles; 4) (para )literature; 5) mass media.
The field survey required a considerable amount of phonetic transcription and
the use of an accredited standard. This standard is recognized by Prifti as
the method imposed on the scientific community by Ruffino 1995, which is the
basis of the system of transcription adopted for the Linguistic Atlas of
Sicily (LAS). The method of transcription used in the LAS makes it possible to
employ certain graphic conventions in regard to spontaneous speech.
First of all it must be emphasized that this monograph has been awarded the
Kurt Ringger Prize of the Academy of Sciences and Literature (Mainz, Germany)
and that a CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the
Library of Congress (http://dnb.info/102404940x/04). In fact, the method and
results of Prifti’s work constitute an exemplary contribution and indeed it is
a landmark of Italian linguistics of migration. Prifti’s research is a true
scientific masterpiece. Tullio De Mauro is the Italian linguist who, by
writing the preface, acts as the monograph’s “godfather”. No one is better
suited than De Mauro for this task. It was De Mauro in fact – as he proudly
points out in his preface (p. VIII) – who attempted to demonstrate to Italian
linguists that the linguistics of migration is an area of research worthy of
study and is of considerable importance. In Storia linguistica dell’Italia
unita, he gave ample space to the recognition of the linguistics of migration
as the linguistics of contact.
Prifti’s work, in addition to going beyond the narrow Italian national
perspective, should be attributed another merit – the last in a chronological
sense: it is a worthy addition to the array of masterpieces produced by the
German area of Romance language studies regarding the Italian language.
Though my evaluation of this monograph cannot be other than highly flattering,
some minor imperfections do appear on closer examination: since the volume has
a bibliography, and an index of names, places, and words, it would be best if
these tools were more accurately deployed. My remarks regard specifically the
The first observation regards a typo (or misprint) on p. 380, where we find
1933 instead of 1993, in reference to the work by Hermann W. Haller, Una
lingua perduta e ritrovata. L’italiano degli italo americani (Firenze, Nuova
Italia). The second is an error of a different nature, which I am not sure
whether to classify as a misprint or as a mistaken bibliographic reference: in
note 9 of p. 380 Prifti cites Menarini 1947, 167. In the bibliography there
are two works with the abbreviation Menarini 1947, denoted by (a) and (b)
respectively. Prifti, in his notes, always differentiates the various works
published in a given year with letters of the alphabet. In this case, Menarini
1947 (with no letter) ought to correspond to Menarini 1947a, that is, Appunti
d’italo americano, Lingua Nostra VIII (1947), pp. 26ff. However, this
reference is similar to Hall, Robert Jr. (1947): Appunti d’italo americano,
Lingua Nostra VIII/1, pp. 26ff., which also appears in Prifti’s bibliography.
It would appear that on page 26 of Lingua Nostra VIII begins an article by
Menarini that extends (at least) to page 167 – the page cited by Prifti –
because the article (similar to a monograph) must have been at least 142 pages
long, and it would seem, furthermore, that this article had a supplement in
Lingua Nostra VIII/1 in which Robert Hall, Jr. published Appunti
d’italo americano, precisely on page 26 forward. A strange coincidence. Is
this another mistaken bibliographic reference, because the contribution found
in Appunti d’italo americano in Lingua Nostra VIII, on pp. 26- 27, is
Menarini’s and not Hall’s (or vice versa)? The only way to solve this small
mystery (besides owning a copy of Menarini’s original text, which I do not)
would be to get hold of Crocetti, Indici di Lingua nostra (1939 1959),
Firenze, Sansoni, 1961, which contains the indexes of several years of issues
of the academic journal, including the one I am referring to here.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find this volume and I therefore leave this
task to one of my readers, perhaps more skillful than me or with a more
passionate interest in the problem. In any case, there is a misprint in note 9
of p. 380 in Prifti’s volume, because the letter (b) is missing, and since
this work by Menarini is one of the pillars on which Prifti bases his
reasoning, the error should be corrected in the second edition.
Moving from the formal aspect to the contents themselves, I would make only
two observations: the first is without a doubt positive, the second is more
aporetic. The first observation concerns Prifti’s idea to identify an overall
structure consisting of four degrees of distinct and hierarchically correlated
varieties (archigradata) — 1) defective Italo- Romance (IR- ), 2) defective
American English (AE- ) , 3) non-defective American English (AE+), 4) doubly
defective Italo- Romance (IR –) , which can be further grouped into two
archigradata units: 1) ‘Itanglish’ (based on Italo-Romance), and 2)
‘Americalian’ (based on English). It is a genuine “egg of Columbus”: a
demonstration of amazing simplicity and obviousness, yet supported in its
entirety with such a wealth of documents as to be impervious to any objection
and indisputable from all points of view.
My second observation is more aporetic, given that Prifti illustrates two
different frameworks in the space of 60 pages (though they are not equal in
length); the first is theoretical- methodological, while the second is
In the first framework, the theoretical -methodological one, the author gives
the reader proof of a thorough knowledge of theoretical linguistics and
demonstrates how Aristotle, Hegel, von Humboldt, Lausberg and Coseriu are
linked in a unanimous theoretical reflection: linguistic knowledge (Wissen),
linguistic behavior (Tätigkeit) and linguistic product (Produkt) are organized
in a hierarchy that corresponds to the Aristotelian triad
δύναμις- ἐνέργεια- ἔργον. This first point is clear, but in my opinion, it is
not sufficiently proven. I shall suspend judgement on this: it appears too
difficult to define here, in such a reduced space, relationships that would
require a well-articulated monograph to sustain. A more detailed analysis
would be necessary to determine whether this parallelism can really be made.
Not even Prifti 2014 (pp. 1 -6) appears adequate for affirmations of this
scope. It could be maintained that it is an inspired idea, but it seems
difficult to affirm with certainty that it would be accepted by all scholars.
The second framework, the methodical- empirical one, is based on the most
authoritative scholars of dialectology, linguistics and Italian
sociolinguistics: Berruto, De Mauro, Durante, Haller, Krefeld and Pustka,
Labov, Melillo, Menarini, Migliorini, Mioni and Trumper, Ruffino, Sobrero,
Stehl, Trudgill, Turano. In this case it is easier to say that Prifti had an
amazing insight: he brilliantly made use of the work of all major scholars in
order to outline a unified perspective he called the pluridimensional
linguistics of migration (PLM). Of course, as Prifti himself warns, those
arriving late to the “festival of labels” do not fail (p. 7) to reproach
Prifti for dividing the sample of informants into five generations of
immigrants (rather than three or four), for choosing the informants on the
basis of questionable (because they were subjective) sociolinguistic and
migrational criteria, for dividing the corpus of letters, documents and
literature into the various categories unequally and for defining four
categories of archigradata rather than three or five. But these are sterile
criticisms that do not diminish one bit the inestimable value of this
In terms of content, furthermore, I would like to comment on Prifti’s general
conclusion (pp. 377 -382), in which the author attempts to explain what
Italian-American is not. It is not what the following authors saw: Menarini (a
hybrid language), Bernardy and Durante (a jargon created on purpose), Haller
(a lingua franca), Cascaito and Radcliff -Umstead (a “creolizing” language);
for Prifti it is more appropriate to define Italian- American as a reverse
creoloid, term coined by Trudgill 2002. On the basis of this, he himself
concludes — as I mentioned at the beginning – that ”Italian- American is
thus to be considered in its entirety as a set of hierarchically interrelated
varieties of contact with a particularly dynamic graduated structure.” The
work ends in ring composition and with a rigorous scientific method that seems
to echo the words “QED”.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Mauro Giuffré is a post-doc scholar in Linguistics at the University of
Palermo. He holds a PhD in General Linguistics and his dissertation was
entitled Text Linguistics and Cognitive Sciences: the proceduralism of
Dressler and De Beaugrande. His main research interests concern the
relationship between classical studies (philology and ancient western European
languages, such as Latin and Greek) and theoretical work in text linguistics;
his scientific production is devoted to connecting theoretical linguistics
with classical studies. He is the editor of Studies in Semiotic Textology in
honour of János S. Petőfi (2011), (a preview in
http://unipa.academia.edu/maurogiuffre/Papers), Supplement 1 of Sprachtheorie
und germanistische Linguistik directed by András Kertész
(http://www.sugl.eu/). He is the author of other reviews for LINGUIST List,
http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-85.html), and for Bryn Mawr Classical
Review, (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2011/2011-05-48.html and
LINGUIST List: Vol-25-3608