Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bad Words in 2 or More Tongues

Both of my parents were born in the United States but neither of them spoke a word of English when they started school in California.  They spoke Italian.  More than 70 years later things have been reversed: it is now their grandson, our son, who has started school in Italy speaking only English.

It's not the first time he's attended school in Italy.  Last winter we lived in the Piemonte region for 3 months and he went to asilo nido (or basically, "bird's nest"), which ranges from the age of 6 to 36 months.  He's now in scuola materna (from age 3 years to 6).  His teachers, last year and this, speak only Italian in and out of the classroom.  Because of the limited Italian knowledge of my wife and I this sometimes presents teacher-parent communication challenges, but none for Sandro.  After two months his teachers now report that Sandro "capisce tutto" (understands everything), even if he is not yet speaking much Italian.

Alas, when Sandro does speak Italian to us at home neither Jen nor I can claim to capisce tutto.

Combine a 3 year old's developing pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical skills in what at any given moment may or may not be two different languages with parents who are comfortable in only one of those languages and things get rather confusing.

Last year when Sandro suddenly addressed the three syllables non si fa to his mother we didn't catch his meaning, though he'd accompanied them appropriately enough with a shake of his forefinger.  Italian friends had to tell us that what he was saying was "One does not do that"--a phrase that I'm sure gets a lot of air time in asilo nido.

Last night just before bed he told us that his classmate Giovanni "is NOT nice, really not nice."

"Why?" we asked.  "Does he hit or take toys away from kids?"

"He says bad things, bad words," Sandro replied.


Last year in Piemonte, Sandro had learned the mother of all bad words--no, worse, the mother of all bad two-word phrases--and exactly the tone in which to say it--in English--from a pair of 9-year-old Italian boys.  He wandered into the living room of the house we were sharing with an Italian family while the boys were locked in an extremely frustrating round of Super Mario Brothers.

Later that night he struck a pose in front of the full-length mirror on a large armoire and, like some livid toddler version of Travis Bickle, let his reflection know in no uncertain terms what he could do with himself.

"What kind of bad words?" we asked last night.

"Um, I don't know...  ka-ka....  And... bombalone."

Bombalone?  Or bambolone?  We weren't sure how he meant to pronounce it.  Nor could he tell us what the word meant.  Our Italian/English dictionary didn't help.  Bambola means "doll".  With mammone ("mama's boy") on our mind, we wondered if bambolone was some sexist pre-school insult suggesting that one played with dolls?   

Today I asked an Italian friend, the mother of one of his classmates.

Bombalone is a kind of pastry, kind of like a jelly donut, filled with chocolate or cream or marmalata.  She thought it also could conceivably have something to do with a water heater.

Bambolona is slang, she told me, laughing, and I'm not likely to find it in a dictionary.  Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita--she's a bambalona.  It's something like "big doll," in a literal sense, but it's intended to suggest, or describe, with lascivious if adolescent undertones, a big bountiful sexy woman.

But neither word, she concluded, is actually "bad" or "dirty."  

The worst that can be said about them is that each relates to the indulgence of an elemental human appetite--and Sandro is hardly ascetic enough at the age of 3 to censure his classmate for that.

Though he insisted again today that the word--with whatever the peculiar meaning or connotation it seems to have for him alone, beyond both Italian and English--is "a bad thing to say."

At this point the only thing I can do is, as they say, take his word for it.

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