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Review of  Italoamericano [Italian-American: Italian and English in Contact in the United States. A Migrational and Diachronic Analysis of Variation]

Reviewer: Mauro Giuffre
Book Title: Italoamericano [Italian-American: Italian and English in Contact in the United States. A Migrational and Diachronic Analysis of Variation]
Book Author: Elton Prifti
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 25.3608

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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 communities.

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 variational linguistics.

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 reflexive knowledge;
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 extra­linguistic 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, re­using 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 ( 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 bibliographic index.

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 italo­americani (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’italo­americano, Lingua Nostra VIII (1947), pp. 26ff. However, this reference is similar to Hall, Robert Jr. (1947): Appunti d'italo­americano, 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’italo­americano, precisely on page 26 forward. A strange coincidence. Is this another mistaken bibliographic reference, because the contribution found in Appunti d’italo­americano in Lingua Nostra VIII, on pp. 26-­27, is Menarini’s and not Hall’s (or vice­versa)? 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 (1939­1959), 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 methodical­-empirical.

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 monograph.

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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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, Supplement 1 of Sprachtheorie und germanistische Linguistik directed by András Kertész ( He is the author of other reviews for LINGUIST List, ( and, and for Bryn Mawr Classical Review, ( and