Parlando a Napoli (Speaking in Naples)


I’m in Naples…or else I chose the wrong title for this entry.  My arrival here was smooth and highly eventful.  My contact and shipmate, Gary, was so intent on making sure I was taken care of he showed up at the airport a full 24 hours BEFORE my flight was due to arrive…indeed before I ever left the Norfolk airport on the 28th.  Hitting me up via Facebook to see if I’d landed yet, his text became an accidental wake-up call for me at my house in Suffolk, Virginia (it pulled me out of a wonderfully sound sleep 13 minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off).

I, of course, was touched by his concern and responded via Facebook: “Gary, I arrive in Naples, tomorrow, Jan. 29.”

Apparently that was only a dress rehearsal because he was on point when I did fly in.  If fact, he was so eager to get me to the Navy Lodge and settled that he bundled me into his car and got to the airport parking lot gate before he remembered he hadn’t paid for parking yet, so we had to return to the kiosk.  His back-up skills are rather impressive!  He maneuvered that car–in reverse, no less–with the all the skill of Han Solo flying the Millennium Falcon through a swarm of TIE fighters.

Don’t even get me started about the amount of laughter and silliness that ensued during Sunday dinner with him and his family (his wife is Italian).  By the way, REAL Italian food made at home is, by far, the closest to Nirvana I’ve been in a long time.

Italy was united in 1861, four score and five years after America’s own founding.  Talking with Gary’s wife, Francesca, I discovered Italian may be the official language, and if you speak Italian you’ll be able to navigate the whole country, but it is not the only language in Italy.

Neapolitan, which developed in the Campania region that contains the former Kingdom of Naples, is a separate language from Italian.   They are closely related; both are Romance languages with Latin roots, both evolved on “the boot” that is Italy.  But there are subtle differences.  Neapolitan has been significantly influenced by Spanish, French, and even Arabic (not surprising given Naples’ rich history as an international port for centuries).  Neapolitan is even recognized by UNESCO.

To give a brief example, the opening of the Lord’s Prayer is “Our Father, Who is in Heaven, hallowed be Your name…”

In Italian: “Padre Nostro, che sei nei cieli, sia santificato il tuo nome.”

And in Neapolitan: “Pate nuoste ca staje ‘ncielo, santificammo ‘o nomme tuojo.”

You can see the similarity in spelling, puncutation, and even guess at the similarity in pronunciation.  However, the differences between the two sentences are also just as obvious.

Francesca gave me a few more examples of words to demonstrate the difference.  For example, in Italian, “belt” is “cintura,” whereas in Neapolitan the word is “curreja.”  In Italian the word “city” is “citta,” and in Neapolitan it is “cita.”

Recognizing the distinct language form here in the Campania goes a long way to seeing why Naples is, well, Naples.  Not only was the Kingdom of Naples a powerful power in its own right for years, but the local culture evolved the kind of unique indentity that can only result from having a unique language.  Llanguage informs our cultural identity by providing the machinery through which ideas are conveyed and human interaction is conducted.

Campania is an integral part of modern Italy, and the Neapolitan culture proudly adds its flavor and style to Italy, but Neapolitan is more than a mere dialect.  It is the language of a uniquely colorful people who were impacted and impacted numerous other cultures around the Mediterranean.

Unfortunately, to someone like me who is rather tone-deaf when it comes to learning foreign languages, the ability to appreciate the depth of a culture from the inside-out via its language is not something that is going to happen on this trip.  However, the chance to dine with a (mostly) local family provided me unique insight into the incredibly rich culture creating this wonderful collision of humanity that is Naples.

(By the way, the title of this post was translated from Italian; I couldn’t work out a reliable translation in Neapolitan.)

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