Dianne Hales writes that the typical English dictionary has three times as many words as an Italian dictionary, but she adds that “a single Italian word can reveal more than an entire English paragraph.” This is so, she says, because “. . . with a prefix here and a suffix there, Italian words multiply like fruit flies. Fischiare (whistle) sounds merry enough, but fischiettare means ‘whistling with joy.’ A sign outside a rustic osteria (a tavern serving simple food) summarized its entire menu in three variations on a single word: pranzo (lunch)—fifteen euro, pranzetto (lighter lunch)—ten euro, and pranzettino (bite to eat)—five euro.”
Today I meet an Italian friend, Alessandro Paccagnella, at a caffetteria to share a caffé and cioccolata calda. In a demonstration of the richness of his language, Alessandro provides me with an explanation of the main Italian suffixes. Three make things smaller (diminutivi), so a small casa could be a casina, casetta or casella. You could even combine suffixes to make the house really, really small, a casettina. Another two make things larger (accrescitivi), so adding on to your casa could make it a casona or casacchiona, with the latter ending usually having an ironic connotation. You can also make your casa sound endearing by using vezzeggiativi and call it a casuccia or casetta, but if you want to insult someone’s house, use peggiorativi and call it a casaccia or casastra. Some verbs, adjectives and adverbs can also use these endings. We live in the Casolare dei Fiori when we stay in San Salvatore, and that’s a suffix that Alessandro doesn’t include in his list. He says it refers to an isolated house in the countryside or mountains. Now that I hear the definition, I realize it is probably a combination of casa and isolare, to isolate.
This linguistic multi-tasking was actually one of my first lessons in Italian. My nonno made up a filastrocca, a nursery rhyme, that he used to tell with much expression to his seven children, and they in turn passed it along to their children. Although I never heard the story first-hand from Nonno, I learned it at the knees of my dad, uncle Rudy, sister Linda and brother Roger. The reason I say Nonno made it up is that I have never heard or read anything similar in Italy, and when I told the story to my relatives here, they just gave me strange looks. Apparently, it was not a story passed down from Nonno’s parents to Nonno’s brother Enrico. Then too, the story doesn’t have much of a plot; it is mostly just an excuse to tickle, quite literally, the bambini. During the entire tale, the story teller uses his hands to creep spider-like along the legs, torso, arms and neck of the listener to illustrate the actions of the main character, the fictional filli billi macola.
Besides being amusing when told in either Italian or English, it teaches a little about Italian word endings. I have provided the words below, as they were remembered by Roger and changed by me from the dialectic inflections that he learned into standard Italian, to the best of my limited abilities. Keep in mind that this is a story best heard and felt; it loses a lot of drama in the written form, but if you learn it with expression and tell it to your 3-year-old, you might see why it was so memorable for me.
First, in Italian
C’era una volta una filli billi macola (use one hand to creep along your listener’s body), che camminava (you can also substitute filli billi macolava for camminava here) sul filli billi macoletto, (now use the other hand as well) con cento mila filli billi macolini dietro. Dice la filli billi macolona, “Filli billi macolate voi altri! Io ho filli billi macolato assai!” E i filli billi macolini filli billi macolono. At this point, the story ends with lots of tickling and repeating “filli billi macola” over and again until the listener squirms away.
Once upon a time, there was a filli billi macola, that walked (or filli billi macola-ed) along the filli billi macola trail with a hundred thousand little filli billi macolas behind. The mother filli billi macola says, “Filli billi macola yourselves! I have filli billi macola-ed enough!” And the little filli billi macolas filli billi maccola-ed . . . filli billi macola, filli billi macola, filli billi macola . . .