Learning from Mistakes in the Italian Language

Nov 7, 2013

Blog shrimp
Sbagliando si impara

You learn from mistakes

by Kevin Lomas

I remember it well: Easter 2003. Armed with only the basics of Italian, I found myself at a family lunch, but not just any old family lunch — lunch with the Sicilian family of my partner Gaetano. Having just recently welcomed me into its midst, the family treated me with the upmost respect and kindness.

Gaetano's mother had cooked my favorite– huge pink prawns called gamberoni. I sat there staring into my plate and daring only to utter the occasional "'per favore" and "grazie" when I realized I was in the perfect situation to say something more than "Passami il sale."

I muddled over several possible comments, when suddenly I had an epiphany. As in many Sicilian families, who had been through lean times, hardship and a world war or two, when it came to food, nothing was wasted. I was a little perturbed to see the family merrily sucking away at what I was assured was "the best part" of the prawn: its head!

Typically British, I flayed my prawn to within an inch of its life until I was left with only the succulent sweet rosy flesh. I had no intention of trying this "brain food," but that didn't mean somebody else might not like mine.

I pieced together what I thought was the correct and polite way of offering Gaetano's mother my prawn heads. I sort of knew I had to use the formal. I sort of knew the word for "suck" but was completely stumped with the word for "head." Having done French at school some 20 years before, I deduced that the root of the word must be the same in both Romance languages.

Imagine the scene: Fifteen people all trying to be heard above each other when a well-timed cough brings the entire table to a standstill. Fifteen heads turn towards me. I clear my throat, prawn head held aloft, and, turning to face Mamma Giglio. confidently blurt: "Mi scusa, signora, vuole succhiare le mie tette?"

Complete pandemonium ensued! Signor Giglio spat a well-timed olive pit, which pinged off a group of wine bottles as all the kids dived under the table howling with laughter. The adults whooped and clapped as Signor Giglio banged his gnarly fist on the table top, making the cutlery and glasses clatter and shake. And there sat Gaetano's kindly seventy-something mother, red faced, with tears streaming down her cheeks, laughing and laughing like there was no tomorrow!

I couldn't understand what was wrong until Gaetano declared, through feigned smile and gritted teeth, that I had just asked his dear sweet old mother, in front of all the family, if she would like to "suck my nipples!"

As I swiftly learned and will never forget, teste should have been the word of choice. Of course, all was forgiven, although the family never fails to remind me of that unforgettable lunch every time we sit down to a plate of frutti di mare.

[Thank you, Kevin, for this guest post. I confess to a similar embarrassing error: At a crowded restaurant, I described the wonderful view from our apartment of the roofs of Rome. But instead of the masculine tetti (pronounced tet-tee), I too used  tette (tet-tay–and slang for "tits"). If other students of Italian  have learned from linguistic mistakes, I’d love to hear from you.]  

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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