The topic of this research paper is Italian American communication styles and patterns in social linguistics. The first section of the paper provides the basic information about the image of Italian American in the American film industry and talks about the developed stereotypes that the American films have created. The second and main section of the paper primarily focuses on Italian American movies. By analyzing the communication style of Italian American characters, the given paper identifies several patterns that concern gender division, attitudes and values in the group, and the attitude of Italian Americans towards other social groups. The films quoted in the essay are “The Godfather: Part III”, “GoodFellas”, “Saturday Night Fever”, “Casino”, and “Donnie Brasco”.
Italian American Communication Styles and Patterns in Social Linguistics
Italian Americans have been represented in a lot of American films and constitute one of the essential parts of the United State’s history of the movie industry. One of the building blocks of the stereotype of Italian Americans is the artificial language that the American filmmakers have created for these movies. Taylor (2006) calls this type of language “filmese”, and although a film language may be intended to reflect some authentic features of the language spoken by a specific social group, it is always created in a certain way to serve the particular cinematic intentions. Nevertheless, in the above mentioned films, the authors tried to make the film language as close to the real world language as possible. Unlike the cinema of previous years, where screenwriters polished the language after the fashion of theatrical plays, these movies were aimed to make their language representative of the authentic Italian American spoken language, which Parini (2013) calls “gangsterspeak”. This fact allows us to base the study of the Italian American communication styles and patterns on this film language.
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Italian immigration to the USA happened mostly at the time when the industry was growing rapidly and the moviemakers were looking for the new exciting plots and images which they could use to improve their writings (Bondanella, 2004). The Italian immigrants could offer an incredible number of stories that proved to be a perfect material for the Hollywood screenwriters. The influence of Italy on America dates back to the discovery of the continent. Even the word “America” is an adaptation of the first name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. However, there were not many Italians, who contributed to the history of the United States between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. For the most part, Italian immigration took place during the end of the 1800s and the early period of the twentieth century. This massive migration took place after the unification of Italy in 1861 because of the unsatisfying economic condition of the new European state. This wave of migration was the most active during about fifty years until the beginning of the World War I, and formed the basis of the Italian diaspora.
In his thorough study of Hollywood representation of Italians, Bondanella (2004) has singled out several different Italian American stereotypes that have been a part of Hollywood cinematography, since its early days. The most popular representation depicts Italian Americans as dagos, which is a short name for Italian immigrants, and emphasizes on their otherness in the American society. Dagos have an obvious dependence on their ethnic background and community. They have little or no education, a set of values different from the mainstream, and the majority of them are poor people from the working class. This stereotype of Italian immigrant, as someone different from other American racial and ethnic groups, appears in an incredible number of movies. Some of them are “Mean Streets” (1973), “Do The Right Thing” (1989), “Jungle Fever” (1991), “Big Night” (1996).
Another type of movies, according to Bondanella (2004), features Italian Americans as palookas, which means someone who is similar to the dagos, but also a prize-fighter, and relying on their ambition, rather than on their fists or on their brains. Some of the examples are “Raging Bull” (1980); “The Rocky” (1976 – 1990); and others. The next stereotype Bondanella distinguished was the Latin lover, and it is related to romance and women. It is an image of a strong and irresistible Romeo with sex appeal and dominant approach, appearing in films like “Saturday Night Fever” (1977); “I Love You to Death” (1990); “Summer of Sam” (1999).
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However, these stereotypes were not as influential as the ones seen in the gangster movies, like that of an Italian criminal, a mobster, whom Bondanella calls a wise guy. There is an incredibly great range of movies, since the silent era and lasting till nowadays, exploiting this popular image. Some of the classic films featuring the wise guy stereotype are “Scarface”, “The Godfather” trilogy, “Good Fellas”, “Casino”, “Donnie Brasco”. This category also includes comedy flicks about the mafia, however, the comedy genre tends to overemphasize stereotypical notions and the materials it offers is not appropriate to use in a realistic study of Italian American social patterns. All of the above mentioned stereotypes share a similar trait of otherness of not being properly integrated into the American culture. As Parini (2013) has noticed, some of the key tools that screenwriters traditionally use to create an identity of Italian Americans in a film are linguistic and extra-linguistic metonymies. Further in this research, we will focus on the linguistic metonymies and will analyze the language spoken by Italian Americans both in reality and in films.
According to a documentary research by Parini (2013), during the nineteenth century, when most of the Italian diaspora arrived in the United States, their spoken languages included a number of local dialects. It was typical for a nineteenth century Italy, where the majority of population spoke in dialects and did not know a standard Italian language. People of Italy learned standard Italian in the post-Unification era, and most of them would speak standard Italian by 1970’s. However, those who migrated to the United States did not participate in that educatory process, and their native tongues were the local dialects of various Italian districts. Therefore, Americans who were familiar with standard Italian could not fully understand Italian immigrants, and different Italian American communities which all spoke in different languages. This situation gave the rise to several varieties, spoken by Italian Americans in public, including dialect-influenced English and pigeons.
Concerning the image of Italian Americans in films, extra-linguistic tools, such as fashion, food, behavior, are distinguished and constitute an essential part of the stereotype. However, the language spoken by the characters is also very important for creating an identity. In this regard, Di Giovanni once said:
In films, the juxtaposition of signs from different systems very often follows conventional patterns, a necessary feature for media products to appeal to large audiences. As one of the codes used in making the film narrative, the interaction of verbal language with other audiovisual signs, even if conventional, is therefore all the more important in shaping cultural representations (Di Giovanni, 2003, p. 210).
Therefore, language codes, such as accents and dialects, are one of the easy and sustainable tools to identify the ethnic and social origin of a character in a film, and to relate to a particular stereotype. One of the researchers who brought attention to the importance that communication styles of Italian American characters in the American films had for understanding their social relations was Kozloff, who in his work “Overhearing Film Dialogue” said:
Gangster films set up something like a parallel universe, portraying their own kind of work, their quasi-military organization, their own brand of justice and ethics, their own type of families – and all of these are communicated to the viewer by a distinctive use of language (Kozloff, 2000, p. 205).
Speaking about social patterns expressed in the film language of the Italian Americans, it is impossible to ignore the usage of tabooed and curse words. According to Parini (2013, p. 175), the word ‘fuck’ and its variations are heard 398 times in “Casino”, 300 times in “Good Fellas”, 200 times in “A Bronx Tale”, and 172 in “Donnie Brasco”. It is worth saying that Parini noticed in her research that FBI transcripts of communications between Mafia members proved that such word usage was very intensively used and widespread among the mobsters. The mere fact of high usage of curse words can provide an idea of certain social patterns. Taboo words are often used as means of emotional expression, or as insults. It is possible to say that a person who swears hard is emotional and aggressive. The high number of curse words in communication styles of Italian American suggests that both characteristics can be related to them.
However, there are other connotations of such language in the films, except for the one mentioned above. First, curse words could serve as an expression of masculinity. The aggressiveness of their swearing, obscenity of their language, along with their violent behaviors, all reflect their intention to show off as rough and dominant men with powerful emotions. To bring some evidence in favor of these statements, here are a couple of quotes from the films:
Henry in “Good Fellas”: It’s the highest honor they can give you. It means you belong to a family and a crew. It means nobody can fuck around with you. Also, you can fuck around with anybody, as long as they aren’t also a member (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990). Nicky in “Casino”: You call yourself a man? You know you’re a lyin’, lowlife, motherfuckin’ gambling degenerate prick? (Fina & Scorsese, 1995).
Henry in “Good Fellas”: What are you, fuckin’ crazy, Karen? Are you crazy? I got enough to worry about gettin’ fuckin’ whacked on the street! I got to fuckin’ come home... I got to fuckin’ come home for this? I should fuckin’ kill you! (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990).
As can be seen from the above, taboo expressions and curse words constitute an important part of communication style between Italian Americans in Hollywood films, and such language can explain some of the characteristics of Italian American social life, attitudes and values. Another significant element of Italian American film language is slang. Although slang does not actually reveal the attitudes and social relations, and instead substitutes certain words and expressions, it can be an identification of those areas in which the speaker is personally involved. For example, police slang is usually related to the terms that reflect their professional activities, and drug dealers use slang words for different substances. Therefore, understanding the slang of Italian Americans is important in understanding their relations. There are a lot of slang words used by the characters of “Good Fellas” and “Donnie Brasco”. The majority of slang words replace the notions of their professional relationships and different positions in the hierarchy of Mafia.
Henry in “Good Fellas”: Jimmy and I could never be made, because we had Irish blood (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990).
In the quote above, “be made” stands for becoming a member of the organization. In Donnie Brasco, one of the characters, Lefty, explains Donnie the meaning of some of the slang terms, and, at the same time, instructs him about the proper behaviors. For example, he says that “A wiseguy never pays for his drink” and “All the way up the line: connected guy to wiseguy to skipper to boss” (DiGiaimo & Newell, 1997). Since such words are used often in the movies, we can say that professional hierarchy and specific codes of relationships between the members of the social group are of a very high importance to Italian Americans who are involved in criminal activities. It also tells about certain mistrust and suspicion, caused by a risk of betrayal and squealing: “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut” (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990).
Concerning the relation of Italian Americans to women, first of all, it should be said that there is a great distinction between women from the family (wives and mothers), and the temporary love-mates. We can see this in Donnie Brasco, when Joe Pistone says that “virtually all mobsters have a gumad” (DiGiaimo & Newell, 1997). ‘Gumad’ is a slang word for lover. In “Saturday Night Fever”, the main character, Tony, played by John Travolta, says that all women can be divided into two categories – “nice girls” and “cunts” (Stigwood & Badham, 1977).
This is a linguistic reflection of an actual social pattern of a typical Italian American male characters’ attitude towards young women. The mobster wants to have a sexual relationship with a girl, but as soon as she agrees, the mobster loses his respect to her because she is “sleeping around”. This character, Tony, is drawn to a girl, Stephanie, who repeatedly rejects him, which to him means that she is not easily accessible. The same pattern can be traced in other movies. For example, in “Good Fellas”, Henry says that “Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends” (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990).
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Besides the sexual relationships, there is one more pattern related to gender differences in the film language of Italian Americans. For Italian American men, it is very important to demonstrate and prove their masculinity. They oppose themselves to women, and it is often reflected in their language. For example, in “The Godfather: Part III”, there is a scene involving Johny Fontane and Don Vito, where Johny loses his temper and starts crying. Don Vito blames him in womanly behavior and says that he should “act like a man”. Then he addresses him with the following questions: “Is this how you turned out? A Hollywood finocchio that cries like a woman?” (Coppola, 1990) It is obvious that for Don Vito, and for other Italian Americans, there is a strong distinction between male and female behaviors, and it is humiliating for a man to act like a woman.
One of the foundations of Italian American social life in American films is their relationship with the family. The communication between the characters reveals that they have an extended idea of the family. The term “family” is used to address both the closest blood relatives, and the bigger social group, where all of the Mafia members belong. In “Good Fellas”, in the wedding scene, Karen says about the guests: “It was like he had two families … By the time I finished meeting everybody I thought I was drunk” (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990). Certain racial stereotypes are also evident in the film language of Italian Americans. For example, Henry from “Good Fellas” demonstrates an undisguised antipathy for African American people when he says that it would be humiliating for him to finish like a person of color: “You know who goes to jail? Nigger stickup men, that’s who. And they only get caught because they fall asleep in the getaway car” (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990). In another dialogue from the same film, Tommy is angry because his girlfriend says nice things about an African American man.
Tommy’s lover: You could see how a girl could fall for him.
Tommy’s lover: Not me. But you could see how some girls could. You know, like that Swedish girl.
Tommy: So you condone that stuff?
Henry: Take it easy, Tommy.
Tommy: Hey, I just want to make sure I won’t end up kissing fuckin’ Nat King Cole here (Winkler & Scorsese, 1990).
As can be seen from this research, the communication style of Italian Americans in the American films demonstrates a variety of social patterns. The usage of taboo expressions and curse language serves to demonstrate masculinity and power. Certain slang words reveal their devotion to hierarchy of the social group. The language used for talking about and with women shows that there is a different attitude towards women who are a part of the family and lovers. At the same time, womanly behavior is considered as a pattern that is inappropriate for men. Some elements of racial contempt are present in the communication style of Italian Americans. Summing up the above stated, we can say that analyzing film language of a social or ethnic group can shed some light on certain stereotypes and patterns that exist in the group, however, it should be taken into account that film language is artificial and reflects the preconceptions that the authors of the film have about the group that they are trying to represent.