It was this afternoon, while placing an order at the panificio, that I discovered I had been mispronouncing the Italian word for “onion” for the past five months.
Cipolla. It’s a simple enough word – short, no tricky “r” sounds to roll around on the tongue – but I had learned it wrong from day one, read it wrong straight out of the textbook and burned that incorrect pronunciation directly into my brain before putting it to almost daily use at markets all across the city. Five months’ worth of onions. Five months’ worth of awkward mispronunciation. Even now, as I type all this, I’m still saying it wrong inside my head. CI-polla? No, Ci-POL-la.
The correct pronunciation was revealed to me by a woman wearing gigantic, dark sunglasses. We were crowded up against the counter of Panificio Bonci and it was my turn to order; I had been eyeing a slab of pizza bianca topped with copious amounts of onion. The word had barely left my mouth before the lady in the sunglasses turned sharply towards me, and I could sense that behind those dark lenses, her eyes were narrowing.
“Ci-POL-la”, she hissed, her lips twisting into an expression of distaste as though it physically pained her to hear me butchering her beautiful language.
“Ci-POL-la”, I repeated dutifully, feeling disconcerted. How was it possible that nobody had corrected me before now? Not the guy at the farmer’s market this morning, who had cheerfully dropped a handful of onions into my shopping bag, not the lady at the fruit and vegetable stand that I frequent at Mercato Trionfale… no one. Were it not for the lady in the sunglasses, I would have continued my mispronunciation, driving the wrong sounds deeper and deeper into my brain every time an onion popped up on my grocery list.
And this, of course, begs the question: How many more Italian words am I habitually butchering, all the while blissfully unaware of the way I’m mangling the Italian language?