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Notes and Documents

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and

Its Dialects as Heritage Language


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Despiteor some might argue because ofItalys relative lack of political

power during the period from the sixteenth century to the second half of
the nineteenth century, the Italian language during this period was prestigious and thriving in the Levant and North Africa, spoken and written
by colonial communities, and employed in diplomatic and bureaucratic
affairs (Bruni 2000, 230). After going through major cultural and politicaleconomic changes, these regions continued to be home to Italian speakers,
though the language they spoke was a submerged Italian (Bruni 2000,
219); today, the future of this language as a spoken tongue depends on
institutional education, media outlets, and the linguistic proficiency of
emigrants who return to their motherlands from Italy.
This article will examine preliminary results from linguistic fieldwork
carried out in 2012 among the last remaining descendants of the historic
Italian community in Tunis, although this topic will no doubt be the subject
of continued investigation and documentation. During the study, particular
attention was paid to Sephardic Jewish groups from Livorno, the Tuscan
free port city redeveloped by the Medici family at the end of the sixteenth
century.1 Over the course of more than four centuries, Jewish groups
from Livorno settled in Tunis, Djerba, and Soussa in Tunisia; Alexandria
and Cairo in Egypt; Tripoli in Libya; Aleppo in Syria; Beirut in Lebanon;
Thessaloniki in Greece; and Istanbul and Izmir in Turkey.

The Trail of the Grana of Tunis

While scholars have noted that merchants, sailors, doctors, laborers, as well
as Italian and Corsican slaves lived in Tunis from at least the tenth century,
the first significant interactions of the city with Livorno date back to the
beginning of the seventeenth century (Frattarelli Fisher 2008, 143, 179;
Zlitni 2006, 349371). Tunis was the first North African port where Jews
from Livorno and other Tuscan cities, as well as from Ancona and Genoa,

2014 John D. Calandra Italian American Institute

126 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

managed commerce between the Muslim Maghreb and the Christian

world. These Livorno natives, known by the Arabic name Grana,2 are characterized by a high level of mobility, as demonstrated by the existence of a
permanent population of 300 Livornese in Tunis as early as 1685 (Frattarelli
Fisher, 2008, 179).
After more than three centuries, the fieldwork findings on the last
descendants of the Grana and their linguistic particularities will be well
illustrated by the example3 of an italophone Tunisian merchant of ArabJewish origins, here designated by the initials JM:4

JM: So, here we hosted . . . right?5

I: Yes.
JM: We hosted Giuseppe Garibaldi.
This is a wonderful memory
because . . .
I: Sure.
JM: We were the first to come here,
I think, no? [. . .]
JM: Its called the Medina, in Arabic.
Here we are in front of a door
that dates back to the twentieth,
nineteenth century [. . .]
JM: See those other houses. There
was a time in which Jews and
Arabians lived . . .
I: Together!
JM: Together, peacefully, without
conflicts. Every one used to
display their origins, everyone
was proud of their own
belonging. At that time they
did not have xenophobic or
ethnic issues.

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JM: Allora, qui eh qui stato oosp

ospitato, no?
I: S.
JM: Ospitato Giuseppe Garibaldi. E
un ricordo magnifico perch . . .
I: Certo.
JM: Siamo i primi ad entrare qua,
penso, no? [. . .]
JM: Si chiama in arabo la Medina.
Qui siamo davanti a una porta
che esiste eh nel millenovecento,
mille, ottocento [. . .]
JM: Vedi le altre case. Perch eh a un
momento eh li ebrei e le arabi
vivevano eeh . . .
I: Insieme!
JM: Insieme tranquillamente, senza,
senza problemi. E ognuno faceva
vedere le sue origine e ognuno
stato fiero del sua appartenenza; e in questepoca non non
avevano problemi di xenofobia
o problemi di etnia.

This interview was conducted inside the Tunis Medina, one of the
largest in the Arab world. In this place, site of the principal and oldest
mosque and the heart of trade, the old Grana community gained such
importance that it was given its own souk, called Suk-el-Grana, that is,
the Market of Livornesi.

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 127

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The first migrants from Livorno were mainly Spanish and Portuguese
Jews, members of highly placed Sephardic families; these newcomers
mostly worked as autonomous professionals and were very proud of their
origins and their language. These people called themselves the Portuguese
Nation; having held a powerful grip on the government of the Jewish
community in Livorno, when they eventually came to Tunis (where there
was already an established Jewish community, the Twansa), the settlement took the official name of the Portuguese community as a result of
this privileged status. From early on the bey, or lord of Tunis, selected his
personal counselors and doctors from among this community.
The arrival of these new Jews caused friction with the North African
Twansa Jews, mainly due to differences in social status: With few exceptions, the majority of indigenous Jews lived in poverty in the ghetto of
Hara, where they practiced traditional crafts (Petrucci 2008, 174), whereas
the Jews from Livorno who settled nearby had more economic clout thanks
to their close relations with their home port city (174). They represented
the precursors of an international banking system founded on paper-based
financial transactions (Sebag, 1998, 163) and were generally better-educated,
enjoying privileges including permission to dress according to contemporary European style (Petrucci 2008, 175). In 1710, the two communities split
and founded autonomous administrative and religious institutions, each
with its own cemetery (175).
Eminent scholar Lionel Levy dates the abandonment of the Spanish
language to the end of the eighteenth century, taking as evidence several
contracts from 1780 between Tunisians and Livorno Jews written in Spanish
(Levy 1996, 1999). The first Grana of Tunis continued to speak Spanish or
Portuguese at home, but they probably chose to speak Italian with fellow
Jews of Livorno and Arabic or Judeo-Arabic with other Tunisians (Boccara,
2000, 4043).

Memories from the Nineteenth Century:

The Second Wave of Migrants from Livorno
Starting around 1820 and continuing sporadically throughout the nineteenth century, a second wave of migration from Livorno significantly
changed the old community. The new migrants from Livorno had
Iberian origins, as we understand by their surnames (Moreno, Soria,
Cardoso, etc.), but they were complete italophones, and their culture and
customs were wholly European. Compared to the local Arabic-Jewish
community, they considered themselves an elite group because of their
Hispanic or Portuguese lineage, and they had such a strong social and

128 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

cultural influence that even the wealthy Tunisian Jews began to speak and
write Italian correctly.
Piero Gozlan (PG in interview below), notwithstanding his Arabic-Jewish
surname, is a Sephardic Italo-Tunisian whose family hailed originally from
Livorno, and he speaks a clear Italian. His forefathers migration to Tunisia
offers evidence of the cultural and political traits of subsequent generations of Livornese Tunisians.6

PG: My great grandfather was an

Italian captain, his name was
Tulipano Cesare Giuseppe
Disegni [. . .] So, they arrived
here on a boat, a dinghy, as
Tunisians do now, but in
the opposite direction. [. . .]
So, they were part of a
Carbonara. I dont remember
if it was . . .
I: Ah!
PG: If this happened before 1861
or after 1861.
I: In the Carboneria, right?
PG: Not the Carboneria exactly,
but there was lets call it
a political issue arising from
the struggle against the
Austrians, who ruled Tuscany,
you know?
I: Exactly.
PG: So, persecuted by Austrian
soldiers, they arrived
in Naples and in Naples
the Jewish community
there told them, No, its not
good here because there
are Austrian spies all over!
So they went down to
Trapani, and at Trapani the
Sicilians told them, No! Yes!

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PG: Il eeh nonno di mio padre, che

era capitano deel italiano, si
chiamava mmh Tulipano Cesare
Giuseppe Disegni. [. . .] Quindi
loro sono arrivati qui, su una
barca, su un gommone, come
stanno facendo i tunisini in
senso opposto. [. . .] Eeh dunque
loro avevano partecipato a una
carbonara; non so se era . . .
I: Ah!
PG: Prima del milleottocentosessantuno o dopo il
I: Alla Carboneria, eh?
PG: No alla carboneria proprio
detto, per era mmh diciamo, un
problema che politico co di lotta
contro gli austriaci che erano,
che avevano il dominio l a, in
Toscana, no?
I: Esatto.
PG: E qui, quindi, perseguitati
dai dai soldati austriaci, sono
arrivati a Napoli e a Napoli
l la comunit ebraica dice:
No! Qui non va bene perch ci
sono delle spie dellAustria un
po dappertutto! Quindi sono
scesi a Trapani, a Trapani i
siciliani hanno detto: No! S!

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 129

Its fine here because the

Austrian soldiers wont be
able to catch up with you, but
here theres no work. So they
asked the Sicilians, How do
you support yourselves? [They
answered:] In the summer we
go to Tunisia on the dinghies,
and we arrive there, and there
seems to be a neighborhood,
the catholic Italian . . . well,
Sicilian, ghetto . . . that was in
Rue de lEglise, which today
is Rue Jamaa Ezzitouna, right?
Right. We go there and we look
for work. We also look in other
places, like Sousse, for example,
which at that time it was only
a big village, not a city yet, and
I dont know if they landed in
Klibia, or something like that.

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Qui va bene perch eeh lAust

eeh i sol soldati austriaci non
hanno possibilit di raggiungervi, per qui non c
lavoro. E dunque loro dicono ai
siciliani: Ma come fate voi per
mantenervi? Et donc ha eh noi
andiamo in Tunisia sui gommoni
destate e andiamo arriviamo l,
e a quanto pare c un quartiere,
il ghetto cattolico italiano eeh
siciliano che era la Rue de
lEglise adesso Rue moaa Jamaa
Ezzitouna, no? Ecco. E andiamo
l e cerchiamo di lavorare,
magari anche in altri posti come
Sousse, che era un grosso
villaggio, non era neanche un
citt in quel momento, e non
so se sono sbarcati a Klibia o
qualcosa del genere.

Recent studies of anti-Semitism in the literary works of Giovanni

Guarducci have focused on the political and cultural interrelationships
between the Jews of Livorno and some of the greatest figures of the
Risorgimento (Franceschini 2013). The nineteenth century was a crucial
time for the fate of the Nazione Ebrea di Livorno (Livornos Jews) and
for the evolution (or perhaps something more like the involution) of the
Bagtto,7 their local dialect. Starting in the second half of the century,
emerging sectors of the enlightened Jewish bourgeoisie were given access
to freemason lodges, the revolutionary societies of the Carboneria, and
other democratic and progressive organizations that eventually opened to
non-Christians. These Jews soon came to occupy leadership roles and to
express radical political positions similar to those espoused by Giuseppe
Mazzini and that clashed with the political ideas of the Risorgimentos
Livornese leaders such as Domenico Guerrazzi and Giovanni Guarducci
(Franceschini 2013, 212216). Many politically active Jews from Livorno
were subject to repression (by the House of Bourbon andto a lesser
extentby Lorena of Austria), forcing them to leave the peninsula and

130 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

move to North Africa, especially to Tunisia, where they had long-standing

bonds. These Livorno natives considered themselves Italian even before
the birth of the Kingdom of Italy, and they all assumed Italian nationality
with the unification of the country (Audenino, 2005, 265).

Italianness and Civil Commitment: The Finzis and Il Corriere di Tunisi

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These new Italians were among the founders of the first Italian school in
Tunis; they also helped establish hospitals. During the course of this research
I met the patriarch of one of the most important of these notable Italian
Jewish families, the Finzi. The following excerpt is from a long interview
with Elia Finzi (EF), recorded a few months before his death in 2012. He
talks about his cultural roots and the linguistic practices of his family.8
EF: Mah, io sono Elia Finzi, sono
nato a Tunisi il ventitr dicembre
millenovecentoventitr. La
nostra famiglia qui da dal
milleottocentoventinove, mio
bisnonno venuto qui come
profugo da Livorno come
carbonaro, stato accolto
qui e faceva parte dei gruppi
mazziniani, e hanno fatto part
seguito tutte le le vicende della
del Risorgimento [. . .] e poi qui
la nostra famiglia qui sempre
rimasta eh e ha sempre lavorato
nellambito della nella le
legatoria una una una un primo
hanno creato la prima tipografia
privata in Tunisia con prima
ancora del protettorato francese
[. . .] eh stato eh mio padre e
mio no hanno fondato il primo
quotidiano italiano di Tunisiae
c stato un intenso lavoro eh
abbiamo, poi nel cinquanta, nel
cinquantasei con lindipendenza

EF: Im Elia Finzi and I was born

in Tunis the 23rd of December,
1923. My family has been
here since 1829. My greatgrandfather came here from
Livorno as a political refugee.
He was a member of the
Carboneria and Mazzinis
groups, and he was welcomed
here. My family participated
in all the principal events
of the Risorgimento [. . .]
They have lived here ever since
then and have always worked
in book binding, and we
founded the first private
typography business in
Tunisia before the French
protectorate period [. . .] My
father and my grandfather
founded the first Italian
daily newspaper in Tunisia.
After years of intensive
activity, in 1956, the year
of national independence,

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 131

the newspaper Il Corriere di

Tunisi came out and it still
continues to be published
regularly now [. . .] Generally,
my father spoke excellent
Italian. But actually to tell the
truth I spoke French with my
mother and Italian with my
father. I attended Italian and
French schools, so my family
and I are completely bilingual
and we have two mother
tongues: Italian and French.
My father and my grandfather spoke and wrote Arabic
perfectly, but I belong to the
generation that suffered
the total assimilation imposed
by French, and so I speak
Arabic pretty badly [. . .]
They spoke a common dialect
among relatives and university
classmates [. . .] Im sure
that my father knew other
different dialects; maybe
he used them so others couldnt
understand him, too [. . .]
The only expression I remember
is ai hamorim non piacciono
i confetti [donkeys dont
like candies] [. . .] My father
in particular didnt allow
us to speak dialects, especially
here in Tunis where Sicilian
dialects were really marked
and people spoke Calabrese
dialect, etc. Everyone spoke
his own very marked dialect
and my dad absolutely wanted

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abbiamo uscito Il Corriere di

Tunisi e ancora continua aad
oggi a essere pubblicato regular
regolarmente [. . .] in genere mio
padre parlava un ottimo italiano
ed era a dir la verit che con mia
madre parlavo francese, con
mio padre parlavo italiano. Io
sono, poi ho fatto scuole italiane
e scuole francesi, dunque siamo
totalmente bilingui e abbiamo
due madrilingui, di fatto litaliano
e il francese. Larabo mio padre
lo parlava perfettamente, mio
nonno eccetera, e lo scriveva,
ma io, come facevo parte de
della generazione che nata nel
periodo in cui i francesi imponevano lassimilazione totale,
dunque, praticamente, larabo lo
parlo piuttosto maluccio
[. . .] E e in famiglia parlavano
un dialetto eeh quando andavano
alluniversit perch vo per
capirsi [. . .] So che mio padre
conosceva parecchi dialetti for e
forse anche [. . .] per non essere
capiti dagli altri [. . .] glielho
detto la sola la sola locuzione
che mi ricordo ai [hamorim]
non piacciono i confetti [. . .]
Noi non, soprattutto mio padre
non accettava che si parlasse i
dialetti, soprattutto qui in Tunisia
dove i dialetti siciliani erano
molto stretti e ognuno parlava il
calabrese ecetera ognuno parlava
il proprio dialetto molto stretto
e pap non voleva assolutamente

132 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

to keep us from falling into

these traps. Also because he
absolutely wanted that, us being
deeply agnostic, he didnt want,
well the family rule imposed by
my father and my grandfather
was: If you are talking to an
anti-Semite you must become
a Jew; if you are talking to an
anti-Islamic, you must become
Muslim; if you are talking to an
anti-Christian, you must become
a Christian; if you are talking
to an anti-atheist, you must
become an atheist. Therefore you
always had to take the position
of those who were under attack.

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che noi cadessimo in queste

trappole, anche perch
voleva assolutamente che,
essendo noi profondamente
agnostici, eh non voleva
eh la regola che avevamo come
mio padre mio nonno che
avevano imposto in famiglia,
se hai da fare con un un
antisemita, un antiebreo diventi
ebreo, un antimusulmano
diventi musulmano, un anticristiano diventi cristiano, un
antiateo diventi ateo, dunque
dovevi sempre prendere la
posizione di quello contro il
quale si agiva.

Elia Finzi was the editor of Il Corriere di Tunisi, the only magazine on the
entire continent of Africa written exclusively in Italian (Finzi was probably
the most eminent figure in the old Livornese community and in the traditional Italo-Tunisian community as a whole).9 His father, Giulio Finzi, who
was affiliated with the Carboneria, founded the first typography business
in Tunis (which is still in existence to this day) in 1829. For people like the
Finzi family, speaking and teaching the Italian language held both ideological and political significance. The national language of the motherland was
associated with the ideas of progress and civilization, whereas dialects and
even Hebrew were considered signs of backwardness that represented the
clumsy and shameful past, an era riddled with internal strife and saturated
with superstition.

The Bagto of Tunis: The Last Traces

Nevertheless, in some situations Tuscan dialect was also an integral part of
the language of the Grana (Lakhdar 2006, 381). Giacomo Nunez (GN), born
in Tunis but currently living in Washington, D.C., is one of the few descendants of this ancient Sephardic group who retains as part of his linguistic
memory Jewish-Italian expressions and terms from the vernacular variety
Bagtto, which was widespread in Livorno until World War II. The following

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 133

interview selections10 illustrate his Judeo-Italian repertoire, with many terms

and expressions derived from the original Jewish dialect of Livorno.11
GN: We said bajo for baho, so
Bagto is a language to be spoken
softly [. . .] We spoke Bagto at
home. In fact I still remember
3040 idiomatic expressions
[. . .] It wasnt really a secret
language, but a language we
used to recognize each other:
In Tunis we had to know if
someone was Tunisian, French,
etc., and therefore all you needed
to say was: Dont be hafasciio
and we knew immediately who
the interlocutor was [. . .] And
then it was also a language for
pleasure, among the family.
The language of living with the
family [. . .]
GN: Words from Bagto were
included in our Italian [. . .]
It has remained, but over time
my Italian and my childhood
pronunciation have changed,
because I studied Italian at
school. I studied Italian at school
for seven years. These are the
main words from Livorno [. . .]
When I acted silly, they called
me bobo or [. . .] Dont flatter
me so much, dont be pedantic
or Ill tell you something
unpleasant [. . .] dont stand
on ceremony! Calm down!
Hola fre hola behor si frusta
l hamor: When the school
starts, we whip the donkey.

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GN: [Bajo] si chiamava bagio,

dunque il bagto la lingua
che si parla a voce bassa [. . .]
Noi parlavamo bagto, a casa.
Tant vero, veda un po ehm mi
ricordo trenta quaranta espressioni [. . .] Erano, non era una
lingua veramente segreta, ma
almeno era la lingua per riconoscersi: bisogna sapere a Tunisi
se eravamo tunisini, francesi e
quindi bastava dire: ma non
fare lhafasciaio e immediatamente si sapeva chi chi era fron
di fronte [. . .] E poi anche una
lingua di di piacere, la famiglia si
era in famiglia [. . .]
GN: Nel nostro italiano erano
inserite parole di bagto [. . .]
rimasta, io io il mio italiano
cambiato anche, la mia pronunzia
da bambino cambiata, perch
col tempo son ho studiato
litaliano a scuola, quindi. Ho
studiato sette anni litaliano a
scuola. Questo son le parole che
credo son pi son pi livornesi
[. . .] Quando beevo quando
facevo lo stupido mi chiamavan
bbo o [. . .] non fare tante
hanifut, non fare hafasciaio,
senn ti mando una hizzata [. . .]
non fare tante hacaranze! Stai
tranquillo! Hola fre hola behor si
frusta l hamor: quando la scuola
comincia si frusta lasinello.

134 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

And donkeys dont like

candies [. . .] Referring to
food gone bad [. . .] its very
inhighidto! It means: Its very
limp [. . .] Inhalamponto
[. . .] It means: to become very
small [. . .] There are casar
donelas [. . .] and maritar
donzelas with a z and the
other with a [. . .]
GN: The Nunez were the Jewish
community leaders of Livorno
[. . .] Manzer means illegitimate child, a bastard . . .
I: Bastard child . . .
GN: But we use it to refer to a
misbehaving boy or a smart,
resourceful person [. . .]
GN: You are afraid, you are
pahado. We use it for a
mild fear: What a paharlla!
[. . .]
GN: To do the nescio: act like
you dont know anything about
it [. . .]
GN: Youre a child, but dont be a
baby! [. . .]
GN: Yesterday I ate cous cous,
cooked with tomato sauce [. . .]
Our specialty, the little donuts,
sweet and salty! [. . .] They are
from Livorno. There are the
little bowls [. . .] Next time you
come, Ill prepare cupcake for
you [. . .] The red berries that
we eat for Kippur: jujubes [. . .]
Just do like this, look: Thats
how you make Amans ears
and then you have to fry them.

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Poi ci sono ai hamorim non

piacciono i confetti [. . .] E la l
mangiare che andato a male [. . .]
tutto inhighidito, tutto andato
moscio [. . .] inhalamponito [. . .]
che diventato piccino [. . .] poi
c anche cazar ee donzellas [. . .]
anche maritar donzellas con la
zeta e laltro con la c [. . .]
GN: I Nunez erano i massari di
Livorno [. . .] manzr vol diree
figliastro insomma eem
bastardo . . .
I: Figlio bastardo . . .
GN: Ma da noi si, era utilizato per
dire a un ragazzo un birichino
e per un adulto era utilizato
per dire che sa fare, che sa
sbrogliarsi [. . .]
GN: Hai paura: sei pahato. Un
piccolo un piccola paura, mi
viene la paharella eh eh! [. . .]
GN: Quelle come fare il nescio: far
quello che non sa, ecco no sa.
Fare finta di non sapere [. . .]
GN: Eh te sei picino ma non fare il
chetanello [. . .]
GN: Ieri labbiamo mangiato il
cuscus, fatto con salsa di
pomodoro [. . .] la nostra
specialit! Le roschette, dolci
salate! [. . .] che son di Livorno.
C c le scodelline [. . .] La
prossima volta che viene le
faccio il bollo [. . .] bacche
rosse che si mangiano a kippr:
giuleppe [. . .] basta far cos,
guardi: le orecchi dAman basta
far cos, e poi si fanno friggere.

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 135

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The Nunez family, an ancient dynasty of Livornese Judeo-Iberian

converted Christians, remained in Tunis for 150 years, until Tunisia gained
independence in the 1950s. Following political and economic transformations in North Africa after World War II, many Italian-Tunisian groups
migrated to Europe, especially to France. Sometimes their destination was
the United States, in particular New York City and Washington, D.C., as
in the case of Nunezs family who moved to the United States after many
years of living in Paris.
Giacomo Nunez is more than merely a member of this particular
minority: He is an expert on this subject and author of two family biographies (Nunez 2011, 2013). Some years ago he came back to Livorno on the
occasion of his first book presentation, since it was published there. During
the journey, he rediscovered the Bagtto heritage, which would become
the subject of his second publication. The Judeo-Italian dialectal elements
provided by Nunez constitute a tool of comparison for studying the
language of Livorno Sephardim in Tunis. A statement from him will serve
as an introduction to a complex scenario as yet unpacked: In Tunis, until
World War II, the Jews from Livorno preserved not only Italian nationality,
but also the Italian language, their everyday language (Nunez 2011, 108).
This assertion is valid even for Tuscan dialects and Bagtto, to a certain
degree and limited to the cases of some Italo-Tunisian Sephardic families.

The Sicilian-Tunisian Group and Their Language:

A Contribution by Fausto Giudice

In addition to the Grana, another historically relevant group among the Italian
community in Tunis were the Sicilian-Tunisians. The example of Fausto
Giudice (FG), a Sicilian born in Tunis, can be taken as representative. Some
samples of the original dialect of this group surfaced during the interview:12

FG: Cio litaliano si parlava

unicamente nella mia famiglia,
famiglia siciliana [. . .]
FG: Quelli che non avevano fatto
st studi parlavano il dialetto
siculo arabo, no? Dunque io ho
creduto fino allet di quindici
anni che zbbola era una parola
italiana. Che mi zia mi diceva:

FG: Italian was only spoken

by my family, Sicilian family
[. . .]
FG: Sicilian-Arabic was the dialect
of those who lacked formal
education, right? Until I was 15
years old I thought that zibbola
was an Italian word, because
my aunt used to say to me:

136 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

Faustino, take out the zibbola!

Zibbola means garbage can,
from the Arabic word zebla.
The French expelled 15,000
Italians during the postwar
period [. . .]
FG: My father and one of his
brothers were expelled, and
they took shelter in Rome. They
studied in Rome, so they knew
the real national official Italian
language, right? There was a
joke about Sicilian-Tunisian
people: One of them steps into
a tobacco shop to buy some
matches and he asks, Attnni
una butta di fiammiferi!
FG: As far as I know, Ive never
seen any Sicilian-Arabic written
documents here. But in the
United States I discovered a
magazine called Sicula, I think,
that publishes texts in SicilianAmerican dialect, right? Academic
and non-academic. But Im not
aware of anything similar here.

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dai Faustino scendi la zbbola.

La zbbola la pattumiera e
larabo [zebla] e ehm i francesi
hanno espulso quindici milioni
di italiani nel dopoguerra [. . .]
FG: Dunque mio padre, uno dei
suoi fratelli si son ritrovati
espulsi e sono arrivati a Roma
eeh loro due avevano studiato
a scuola italiana, dunque
sapevano litaliano nazionale
ufficiale bene, no? Ma cera uno
scherzo su sul siciliano di Tunisi
che entrava da un tabaccaio
per comprare i fiamiferi che
diceva: attinni una butta de
FG: ma da quel che sappia, eh
cio non ho mai visto trace
di di di di scritti in siculo
arabo. Ho scoperto negli Stati
Uniti una rivista che si chiama
Sicula, credo, che pubblica
testi in siculo americano, no?
Universitari o altro. Ma qui
non non saprei.

After Italys unification, serious social and economic difficulties led

many southern Italians to leave the country to find work. Coming mainly
from Calabria, Sardinia, and Sicily, these poor and illiterate migrants
swelled the ranks of the North African Italian community, which grew to
10,000 in 1860. By the end of the 1930s, there were almost 100,000 Italians
there. In contrast to their earlier immigrant compatriots, the southern
Italians who made up about 75 percent of this community at the beginning
of the 1900s were a proletarian mass occupying the same socioeconomic
positions as native Tunisians, with whom they created close relations of
solidarity and sociality. The Sicilians among them, however, were mostly
illiterate and did not know the national language because they left Italy at
a time when compulsory public schooling lasted only two years. They thus

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spoke exclusively Sicilian dialects from their provinces of origin, particularly Trapani and Palermo.
The language of Tuniss Sicilians has undergone many changes
compared to the language originally spoken by Sicilians at home. This
confirms Marinette Pendolas hypothesis (2000a, 84) (repeated by Meriem
Zlitni [2006]) that le diffrents parlers locaux (de lEst et de lOust de lile)
se seraient unifis pour donner naissance une varit dialectale commune
ou koin (the different local dialects [from the east and the west of the
island] merged to create a new variant or even a common dialectal koine
[translation mine]) (Zlitni 2006, 255). Zlitni goes on to say that Tunisian
was used to standardize the language of the Sicilian community: When
two unique Sicilian terms indicated the same object, both were abandoned
in favor of a single word from the Tunisian Arabic dialect (Zlitni 2006, 355).
The Sicilian-Tunisian mixed speech, therefore, is made up of code mixing
among Sicilian, Italian, and Arabic dialects (as well as French).

The Italian-Tunisian Community through the Twentieth Century:

Lived Experiences and Historical and Demographic Elements
After the occupation of Tunis in 1881, the country passed from Ottoman rule
to French, and the two groups of Jews, the Italian and the native, supported
the colonial government that was the first to grant full citizenship to Jews.
In 1911 the Jewish community in Tunisia was estimated to number between
35,000 and 50,000 people. While the majority of the inhabitants of the Hara
neighborhood remained in poverty, the old Italian bourgeoisie was joined
by an emerging middle class that adopted a French style, as well as by an
embryonic working class.
A descendant of this middle-class group, Adolfo Disegni (AD), is currently
one of the oldest Livorno Sephardic Jews who still resides in Tunis. This
interview extract offers multiple starting points for thinking about the politicalcultural dynamics as well as the sociolinguistic traits I have described.13

AD: Io sono nato in gennaio

A Tunisi, la quarta generazione
[. . .] Il bisnonno si chiamava
Lieto Disegni, il mio
nonno Adolfo Disegni, mio
padre Giorgio Disegni [. . .]

AD: I was born in January 1926

in Tunis. Im from the fourth
generation of my family in the
city [. . .] Lieto Disegni was my
great-grandfather, Adolfo Disegni
was my grandfather, and Giorgio
Disegni was my father [. . .]

138 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

I: And Italian? Did you learn it at

AD: I learned it at school, then
at home, I learned with my
family [. . .]
AD: At my fathers house we
spoke French, but at my
grandfathers when we were
with family we spoke only
Italian [. . .] My cousins
attended the Italian kindergarten
and the Italian school, while
I went to the French school
instead because my mother
was French [. . .]
AD: People from Livorno for
their homeland they had a
strong . . .
I: Sense of belonging?
AD: Yes. At that time my family
was even fascist! [. . .] They
only changed their minds when
the Italian government issued
the racial laws against the Jews
during the war [. . .]
AD: Here in Tunisia we had
Arabic Muslim friends and
clients with whom we
spoke a bit of Arabic so we
could understand one
another. This was a French
protectorate, so we had to
speak French [. . .] Sometimes
we mixed Italian, Arabic,
Tunisian, and French
words in a single sentence,
but I really dont remember
us having a special language
or dialect [. . .]

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I: E litaliano? Lha imparato a

AD: Lho imparato a scuola, poi
in famiglia, lho imparato in
famiglia [. . .]
AD: A casa di mio padre parlavamo
francese, ma da mio nonno,
quando eravamo in famiglia
parlavamo soltanto in italiano
[. . .] miei cugini hanno fatto gli
studi a la allasilo italiano poi
alla scuola italiana, invece io lho
fatto alla scuola francese perch
la mia madre era francese [. . .]
AD: I livornesi per la patria avevano
una grande . . .
I: Senso di appartenenza?
AD S. A lepoca mia famiglia era
anche fascista! [. . .] quando
stata la guerra [. . .] il governo
italiano [. . .] ha fatto le le leggi
antiebraiche, in quel momento
eeh c stata una rottura [. . .]
AD: Qui in Tunisia avevamo, come
avevamo eeh de degli amici o
delle dei clienti arabomusulmani con loro parlavamo un
po ooh larabo per farci capire
ee con quelli chee parlavano
francese [. . .] [protetorat]
francese qua dunque bisognava
parlare il francese [. . .] talvolta
in una frase eeh parole italiane
mescolate con le paro parole
arabe o pa parole tunisine o le
parole eeh francesi ma non mi
ricordo propio dun, che ci sia
stato un una lingua speciale, una
un dialetto speciale [. . .]

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 139

AD: Chi aveva aa attorno gli

amici ciciliani o altri
ogni tanto buttavano una
paroletta in siciliana ma no,
non propio nel nella nel nel
parlare, propio una de la
una conversazione in famiglia
o o tra amici.

AD: The people whose friends

included some Sicilians,
sometimes they tried to say
a few words in the Sicilian
dialect. This never happened
during public conversations,
though, only among relatives
or friends.

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In 1941, the Italian Jews of Tunisia numbered slightly more than

3,000, almost all of whom lived in the capital city. They were employed
in commerce, navigation, and as independent professionals, and many
sent their children to study in Italy. A large number had fought in World
War I, and some even enrolled in the National Fascist Party in an effort to
reaffirm their Italianness, as Adolfo Disegni mentioned. However, sincere
patriots saw the racial laws as an unthinkable betrayal. Tunis was one of
the most active centers of anti-Fascism outside of Italy and was home to a
large group of Communist Jews from Livorno who supported the struggle
against Fascism, including Maurizio Valenzi, who became a senator (1953
1968) and later the mayor of Naples (19751983).
The Fascist regime, though officially anti-Semitic, for reasons of convenience implemented a policy of light protection regarding Italian Jews in
Tunisia. Paradoxically, the situation worsened after the capitulation of the
German-Italian front, when many Jews, who were citizens of a country
that was still an enemy of France, were constrained to do forced labor and
were even interned.
In 1944, this difficult situation effectively resulted in the dissolution
of the Portuguese Jewish community. Within a few years, the number
of remaining Italians was drastically reduced also, primarily by a rise
in French naturalization. By the time Tunisia gained national independence in 1956, there were 66,500 Italians living in the country, although
subsequently a major exodus to France and Italy occurred, due mostly
to increased measures against foreign workers and the nationalization of
agricultural land. By 1962, the community had been halved.
It is perhaps no surprise that the director of the La Fayette Synagogue,
a Twansa, stated that, in his opinion, there are no more Grana living in
Tunis today:14

140 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

SF: There arent Italian Jews.

I: Do you know any Jews of Italian
SF: The Jews of Italian origin, the
Livornese, yes . . .
I: The Grana, Jews from Livorno . . .
SF: Yes, but Ive never met
I: Ah!
SF: They lived in Tunisia for
a long time, but nobody lives
here now, there are none
of them now.

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SF: Le juifs italiens cst pas.

I: Des juifs italiens dorigine italienne
SF: Dorigine italienne oui, les
livournais . . .
I: Les Grana, les livournes . . .
SF: Oui, je les ai pas connus . . .
I: Ah!
SF: a fait longtemps qui qui setait
en Tunisie a fait longtemps,
mais dans ce moment il ny a
plus personne. Il y plus personne
en ce moment.

According to data from 2004, about 3,000 Italians currently live in

Tunisia, 900 of whom live in the historical Jewish district. During the
postwar period of migration, most Sicilian-Tunisians chose to move
to France because of its greater employment opportunities; also their
knowledge of Arabic and French put them in a privileged position to direct
Algerian laborers. As a result, even the dialect of mixed Sicilian-Tunisian
suddenly stopped evolving: Pendola considers it at this point a language
of memory (Pendola 2000b, 16). In this regard, Lakhdar affirms: Le
ultime testimonianze di questa variet mista cos complessa [. . .] sopravvivono ancora nella parlata degli anziani (soprattutto in quelli residenti in
Francia). Un lavoro di rilevazione e dinventario simpone urgentemente
per questa parlata condannata a scomparire (The last evidence of this very
complex mixed variety [. . .] still survives in the speech of the elderly people
[especially those residing in France]. A program of survey and inventory
becomes urgently necessary for this speech that is doomed to disappear
[translation mine]) (Lakhdar 2006, 380).
However, spoken Italian is not associated just with minorities of Italian
origins. Schools, newspapers, and associations founded and directed by
Jewish Italians have had a great influence in Tunis. An example of this can
be observed in notes from a conversation with this middle-aged Tunisian
Arabic Jew from La Fayette. He reveals some partial skills in Italian, gained
during his childhood in school, probably in the 1950s:15

Submerged Italian in Tunis: Italian and Its Dialects as Heritage Language 141

T1: Im Tunisian, Im not

Livornese, so I dont know
if I can be of any use to
you [. . .]
T1: Ahh . . .
I: How do you . . .
T1: Learn it? At school.
I: Did you learn Italian at school?
T1: Yes.

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T1: Io non sono, sono tunisino.

Ehm non sono livornese. [Donc]
non so [quelle reinsegnments]
posso darti [. . .]
T1: Ahh . . .
I: Ma come ha eeh . . .
T1: Imparato? A a scuola . . .
I: A scuola? Litaliano?
T1: Ji . . .

Temporary Conclusions

By way of conclusion, I would like to break down the complicated linguistic

repertoire of the traditional Italian community in Tunisia as follows: It
consisted of two principal groups, the descendants of Italian Sephardic
Jews, Grana, hailing mainly from Livorno, and the descendants of southern
Italian migrant laborers, mainly from Sicily, known as Sicilian-Tunisians.
The Sicilian-Tunisians speak (with varying levels of skill) French, Tunisian
Arabic, Italian, and the Sicilian-Tunisian dialect formed out of their own
original dialects combined with other Sicilian dialects and Tunisian Arabic.
The Grana group speaks standard Italian (with a perceptible French
accent) and standard French. The majority of them show some skills in Arabic
and Tunisian dialects and, in rare cases, some lexical remnants of a JudeoItalian vernacular from Livorno. This is particularly significant because the
examined sources never mention Bagtto or Judeo-Italian as a linguistic
variety of the repertoire of Italian-Tunisian from Livorno.16 It is linguistic
fieldwork that has thus far made it possible to record original oral data that
testify to the trajectory of this particular Judaic Italo-Romance dialect.
This collection of life stories comes directly from the last living
witnesses of this peculiar linguistic circumstance and exceeds the boundaries of linguistics. Without filter or mediation, this firsthand evidence
expresses the will to preserve and continue the historical and cultural
memory of this ancient cross-cultural Italian community.

Glossary of Giacomo Nunezs Interview

During the interview Giacomo Nunez used twenty-four Judeo-Italian words
and expressions, which are listed in the Glossary at the end of this article.17
A comparison of lexical sources shows that thirteen of them have been

142 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

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found exclusively in the Judeo-Livornese dialect and two in Judeo-Tuscan

dialects only. Nine of them originate in Iberian etymology, consistent with
the principal distinctive of the lexicon of the Judeo-Italian dialect featured in
Livorno (Franceschini 2008, 198). All the definitions in the Glossary express
the meaning personally given by Nunez. In respect to common meanings
in Judeo-Livornese speech, Nunezs dialectal lexicon underwent significative semantic alterations in at least three cases, following dynamics already
observed in some varieties of Judeo-Italian (Aprile 2012, 7480). The first
instance is the word h. acarnza: According to Nunez it means ceremony,
warm welcome, in the sense of showing delight and pleasure at the
arrival of someone. However, according to other documentary sources,
in Judeo-Livornese and Judeo-Florentine speech the same lexeme means
strong friendship, intimacy or clique, clan. In the Judeo-Venetian dialect
hacarnsa means exclusive clique, or putting on airs or getting haughty,
while in the Judeo-Roman dialect fare chakkeranza means to bond, become
acquainted (Aprile 2012, 209). Comparing the semantic evolution of this
term with other Judeo-Livornese attestations, Nunez seems to keep in mind
an acceptation that expresses a greater semantic movement from abstract
to concrete (Aprile 2012, 77), and a strong intention (Aprile 2012, 7879)
with respect to the original meaning.
The second case is inhighidto: According to Nunez this word expresses
the condition of a person or a thing having become flabby, limp, or
shriveled. The etymology of this term is uncertain, although many
scholars propose the Spanish hgado (liver) (Aprile 2012, 26). Nunez
supplies an unusual form composed by the Italian prefix in and the
Italian suffix -ito applied to this supposed Iberian basis. The JudeoLivornese sources report only the first-conjugation verb higadeare with the
meaning of to bore; the adjective hgedo, hghedo, or chghedo (boring,
annoying, fussy person); and the abstract noun hghedanza (excessive
meticulousness) (Aprile 2012, 203). If the proposed etymology is correct,
all these Bagtto meanings are evidently metaphorical, referring to psychosomatic disorders caused by bilious secretions of a person who overthinks
and ponders too much, according to the model of Spanish locutions such as
echar los higados (to urge somebody nervously with fussiness). However,
Nunez seems to get close to the etymological meaning with a semantic
extension based on the material attributes of the liver as physical object
and biological organ. Nevertheless, we cannot exclude the possibility of
an error due to lack of familiarity with the spoken language, which may
have led to a mistaken memory that was influenced by the model of other
Judeo-Italian terms, such as the Judeo-Roman ntisito (shriveled and stiff
food; numb person).

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We find a similar case in the last term: inhalamponto. Again, the

etymology is controversial: The Spanish hampon (braggart) seems logical
for semantic and phonetic reasons, but we cannot exclude the Hebrew
halam (dream), from which comes the Ferrara Judeo-Italian expression
che halom! (what a stupid! what a senile!). According to Nunez, this
adjective has two different meanings: a person who becomes stupid or
something that becomes little. In Judeo-Tuscan and Judeo-Roman speech
this term means boaster (Aprile 2012, 211), with no semantic sliding of
the etymological meaning. If the Iberian etymology is correct, Nunezs first
acceptation reflects a clear semantic sliding and widening (Aprile 2012, 76,
70, 80), because in the common sense every boaster is considered stupid.
The second acceptation, become little, could be explained with an antiphrasis: If a boaster is notoriously a person who tries to make himself greater
with respect to reality, the Judeo-Livornese speakers of Tunis could be overturning this sense because of negative judgment about this behavior.18 19

bagto (nms): 1. quietly spoken language, 2. Livornese Jewish language, Sp. hablando bajito
(to speak quietly).

(nms): stupid, Sp. bobo (stupid).


(nms): typical Jewish cake of Livorno, Jud. Sp. bollo (cupcake).

(prnfs): charitable institute for orphans and unmarried girls of Jewish

community of Livorno, Jud. Port. and Jud. Sp. Hebr de casar orfas e donzelas (association for
the settlement of orphans and unmarried girls).
Casr Donslas


(nms): kid, Hebr. qatan (little).

(nms): typical Livornese Jewish cous cous, Ar. Tun. cuscuss (cous cous).

(nms): Kippurs red berries, It. giulebbe (aromatic sweet syrup).

hacarnza (nfs): ceremony, warm welcome, Hebr. hakkara (knowledge) or Sp. Jcara (highspirited band of friends playing music and singing by night).
hafasciio (nms): presumptious, pedantic person, Hebr. hfas (investigator) and It. cafaggiaio



(nfpl): flattery, pandering, Med. Hebr. h.anefut (flattery, hypocrisy).

hizzta (nfs): unpleasant thing to say, uncertain, perhaps Jud. Ven. harizada (uncertain
hla behr si frusta l hamr (idiom): when the school starts, we whip the donkey, Hebr. kol

habeh. or (every firstborn), It. si frusta il (we whip the) and Hebr. h. amor (donkey).

inhalamponto (adjms): 1. become stupid, 2. become little, uncertain, perhaps Sp. harampon,

hampon (braggart).

(adjms): become flabby, limp, shriveled (person or thing), uncertain, perhaps

Sp. hgado (liver).

manzr (adjinv): 1. mischievious, 2. smart and resourceful person, Hebr. mamzer (bastard son).

144 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

(prnfs): charitable institute for orphans and unmarried girls of Jewish

community of Livorno, It. maritare (give in marriage), Jud. Port. donzelas (unmarried girls).

Maritr Donslas

(nms): leader of the Jewish Community of Livorno, It. massaio (estate manager).

nscio (nms): ignorant, unwise, It. nscio (ignorant), Sp. necio (ignorant, imprudent, stubborn),
Port. nscio (ignoramus, stupid).

(idiom, fpl): typical Jewish cake of Livorno, It. orecchie (ears) and Hebr.
Amn (Haman, biblical character).

orcchie dAmn

(nfs): mild fear, Hebr. pahad (fear).

(adjms): fearful, Hebr. pahad (fear).

(nfs): typical little donut of Livorno, sweet or salty, Sp. rosquete (big donut) and
Port. rosquilla (spiral-shaped sweet dough).



(nfs): typical Jewish cake of Livorno, It. scodellina (little bowl).

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1. Issued in 1591 and 1593, the Medici Lettere Patenti (commonly known as Costituzioni
Livornine or Leggi Livornine) included incentives encouraging the settlement of
Spanish-Portuguese Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula from 1492 onward by
edict of the Catholic monarchs. These rules were enacted in the belief that the activities of Jewish merchants and practitioners would be useful for the development of the
city, and indeed they fully succeeded in their goal, as Livorno quickly became one of
the main ports in the Mediterranean. The Grand Ducal government had granted the
Livorno community the privileged status of free port in order to promote trading activities among the ports of the Levant, the city squares of Italy, and northern Europe. The
Jews of Livorno played a fundamental role in this system, and their community, called
the Nazione Ebrea, came to represent about 10 percent of the total population.
2. This word originates from Qurna, the Arabic name for Livorno (with the separation of
the first syllable, assimilated to the Arabic article: Livorno = Al-Qurna). The Jews of
Livorno in Tunis were therefore called Qurni or Gorni in the singular and Qrana or Grana
in the plural (Franceschini, 2013, 194).
3. The original video interview is available at:
4. The transcription of interview extracts is speech appropriated by adopting the modern
Italian alphabet complemented with some markers to indicate relevant phonetic
or lexical features. For the consonants, the occurrences of the aphonic velar fricative
depend on the sounds of the Hebrew language heyt, he, or kap (possibly aspirated in
the Judeo-Italian variety of Livorno); in all cases, this sound is always made with h,
regardless of the degree of spirantization. The frequent halving of double consonants on
Italian words due to the influence of French pronunciation has not been indicated graphically. Tonic vowels are graphically accented in all the Judeo-Italian or Sicilian-Tunisian
words. Foreign words from French, Arabic, or Hebrew are indicated by Roman font and
transcribed according to contemporary writing conventions of the foreign language. I
have also used a comma to indicate all short breaks in enunciation, thus extending the
meaning of this punctuation beyond its common use in written Italian. In all other cases
the standard conventions of written Italian have been used. The sign [. . .] indicates
sections removed from the full original interview. All interview translations are mine.
5. To better specify the meaning of the sentence, the English translation sometimes departs
from a literal rendering.
6. The original video interview is available at:

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7. Bagtto (or bagto, the form nearer to the Spanish) is the original Judeo-Italian dialect of
Livorno, which was widespread between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and
spoken in Tunis as well. This dialect was characterized by a varied lexical repertoire,
derived especially from Hebrew and the Iberic languages but also composed of loan
words from French, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages of the Mediterranean
area, including jargons.
8. The original video interview is available at:
9. The publication is presently directed by his daughter Prof. Silvia Finzi.
10. The original video interview is available at:
11. Etymology and semantics of singular words are illustrated in the Glossary.
12. The original video interview is available at:
13. The original video interview is available at:
14. The original video interview is available at: I was unable
to obtain this persons name.
15. The original video interview is available at: I met this
person casually and did not record his name.
16. Amira Lakadhar is the only one who makes a passing reference to this aspect:
Anche litaliano era presente principalmente nella variet dei dialetti siciliani,
ma anche nella variet toscana degli Ebrei livornesi, i cosiddetti Grana (Italian,
too, was present principally in the variety of Sicilian dialects, but also in the
Tuscan variety of the Livornese Jews, the so-called Grana [editors translation])
(Lakhdar 2006, 381).
17. Abbreviations key:
n = noun
prn = proper noun
adj = adjective
idiom = idiomatic expression
m = masculine
f = feminine
s = singular
pl = plural
inv = invariable
Hebr = Hebrew
Med. Hebr. = Medieval Hebrew
Sp. = Spanish
Jud. Sp. = Judeo-Spanish
Port. = Portuguese
Jud. Port. = Judeo-Portuguese
It. = Italian
Ar. Tun. = Arabic Tunisian dialect
18. This unprecedented meaning is explained by Nunez with a wrong etymological root in
the Italian word lampone (raspberry), that is to say little as a raspberry.
19. The examined lexicographic sources are Bedarida (1956), Fortis (2006), Del Monte
(2007), Orfano (2010), Aprile (2012), and Franceschini (2013).

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Audenino, Patrizia. 2005. Rotta verso sud: dallItalia al Mediterraneo, 239267. Milano: Franco

146 Italian American Review 4.2 Summer 2014

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