Bensonhurst Spelling Bee (Video of the Week)

One of the joys of YouTube is the wealth of linguistic data a linguist has at her fingertips. A smart linguistic instructor can even ask students to bring data to her, and the following video is a perfect example of that.

The Bensonhurst Spelling Bee comes courtesy of a student research project into Italian in America and is a parody spelling bee held in Bensonhurst (a Brooklyn neighborhood and traditional Italian-American stronghold). This spelling bee asks children to spell authentic Italian-American words like mutzadel and brahjzhoot. Check out how judge Lorraine Bracco helps with etymology and usage!

In addition to being funny, this video highlights the difference between “Italian-American” as spoken by Italian immigrants from southern Italy and educated Standard Italian based on the northern Tuscan dialect. When Mark Consuelos starts to argue that mutzadel is in fact mozzarella, you can see how much wife Kelly Ripa, a native New Jerseyan, fears for his life.

By the way, a less hostile version of this can be seen on the Food Network. Watch some episodes of different shows and compaire how Giada DeLaurentis and Mario Batali says provolone (/ with final /e/) pronounced) vs. the more home grown Rachael Ray who always drops the final vowel (i.e. /pro.vo.lon/). My Italian-American student informant told me that Giada’s authentic standard Italian is considered a great source of amusement in his family.

Mistaking an /r/ for a [d]

Speaking of mutzadel, I was interested to see that the /r/ was spelled as a “d”. That may be because Italian [r] is being mistaken for the English flap ([ɾ] also transcribed as [D]), which is the articulation of English /d/ between vowels. It’s hard for English native speakers to accept that the “d” in a word like Yoda is actual a form of “r”, but sometimes these perception mistakes happen in foreign languages.

And before I hit the Publish button, I did a quick check on Southern Italian to see if there was a change of /r/ to [l]. Neither Sicilian or Calabrese seem to preserve Italian [r].

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