March 29, 2004

The perils of degemination

In response to my recent post on conservation of gemination, Stefano Taschini has sent a stunning message that weaves together the themes of phonology, art, religion and female genitalia.

The point of my original piece was that English speakers sometimes seem to remember that a word like Attila has a double consonant in it somewhere, but get confused about just where it is. Stefano gives several other examples of the same sort, observing for example that "the differential equation studied by Jacopo Francesco Riccati registers about a thousand Google hits as 'Ricatti equation' (which is particularly disturbing, considered that 'ricatti' is the Italian for 'blackmail')". He also brings up some unexpected intrusions of (orthographic) gemination, asking how it happened that "the italian word 'regata' entered English as 'regatta'", and noting that there are 12,900 Google hits for "Gallileo."

The truly shocking news (for those of us who don't know Venetian slang) is at the end of his note:

A case of its own is the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, allegedly portraying a certain Monna Lisa (where Monna is the contraction of Madonna, i.e. My Lady) and known in the English-speaking world as Mona Lisa. Now, in the whole north-east of Italy, including Venice, "mona" is a rather obscene word denoting female pudenda, and, not unlike similar words in English, can be used by synecdoche to denote a woman. Referring to "Mona Lisa" in Venice can attract rather amused (or shocked) looks.

The Italian Wikipedia page for Monna Lisa includes the geminate, but the Dutch, German, Swedish and Hebrew Wikipedia pages on the same topic have only one N (or equivalent letter). French and Romanian of course have La Joconde and Gioconda respectively.

This merits a closer look, I can see. More later.

[Update: as for regatta, the OED blames it on the Italians, giving the etymology [It. (Venetian) regatta (and regata) 'a strife or contention or struggling for the maistrie' (Florio): hence also F. régate.] The earliest citation is late 17th century: 1652 S. S. Secretaries Studie 265 The rarest [show] that ever I saw, was a costly and ostentatious triumph, called a Regatto, presented on the Grand-Canal.

It's true that there is no regatta in contemporary Italian; was the 17th-century borrowing Regatto just a mistake?

I should also note that some northern Italian varieties don't have phonological geminate consonants at all, as I understand it. But perhaps those are the northwestern dialects. ]

[Update 3/30/2004: Des Small emailed this additional information about geminates in Venice:

I went to Venice last year for a conference (and accordingly saw approximately none of its glorious patrimony) and I took the Lonely Planet Italian phrasebook with me, so I could buy bus tickets (which is slightly non-trivial, as they are sold only in tobacconists' shops and never on buses), and I seem to remember it saying that Venetian dialect had _no_ geminates.

Given that I knew then exactly enough Italian to buy bus tickets and know less now, and I am not by any means a phonologist, that's also what I heard on the Venetian streets.

But the Internet agrees with me; says:

"Double consonants are to some extent singularized in Venetian: el galo (il
gallo), el leto (il letto); note also the use of the masculine article el

while says

"[...] Venetian (spoken in Venice, Mestre and other towns along the coast).
It has 24 phonemes, seven vowels and 17 consonants; original Latin
plosives are softened and voiced and often disappear entirely; no double
consonants can be found;"

Maybe Venetians reverentally resort to deobscenifying diglossia in cases of artistic appreciation; it can surely hardly be that the Internet is wrong!

So if Stefano is correct that "[r]eferring to 'Mona Lisa' in Venice can attract rather amused (or shocked) looks" -- and surely he must know -- then perhaps the references in question are in writing; or perhaps Des is right about facultative diglossia for aesthetic purposes; or perhaps the Venetians would be just as amused (or shocked) by references to 'Monna Lisa', if they should happen to hear any.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 29, 2004 03:19 PM