Dante wrote his long poem for Beatrice Portinari (that’s Bay-ah-TREE-chay)
“Rojo,” my wife says to me one morning.
We’re in the car on the way to the gym. We work out in the basement of the township senior center. Treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bicycles, a couple rowing machines—there’s always a few of these not in use. There are also number of pneumatic weight machines, for maintaining a senior citizen’s various muscle groups. You sit at these machines. They’re good for gentle sedentary social exercise.
“What about it?” I say.
“Why can’t anyone say it?” She says it again, “Rojo.”
“Rojo,” I say.
“Nope. That’s not it.”
Rojo is a Mexican restaurant in the area. When our niece comes home from Italy, we have a family gathering at Rojo. Twenty or so of us get together to eat and drink. We try to organize these get-togethers on the Tuesday dollar-a-taco night. Rojo serves acceptable tacos and cheesey beany burritos and sizzling fajitas. Also popular is the house margarita, a greenish slurry of cheap tequila and an industrial-grade margarita mix that gives the drink a long distinctly chemical finish. The cocktail is served in an over-sized chalice; sort of like a small glass bucket. I don’t think it comes with an umbrella. (It should come with an aspirin.)
“Rojo,” I say again. “What’s wrong with that?”
“You say it like an American.”
“I should. I am.”
“With an elongated first syllable. ROW-ho. ROHHH-ho. Why can’t you just say Ro-ho?”
“See what I mean?”
Later, I’m on the treadmill, my iPhone playing a random cycle of tracks: some oldies and newies, some jazz and international and soul. The device is supposed to shuffle songs on this exercise playlist I’ve made (around 400 songs), but every other day or so it returns to James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” a song my phone obviously likes. That’s okay with me.
All of James Brown’s greatness explodes in that song: the horn section, the drums, the infectious edgy funk. And, of course, his voice. At some points it sounds like a power saw cutting through nails. I could listen to “Cold Sweat” every day and never get tired of it.
Two things in particular that I love: One, I can’t quite count it. I know the song is in 4/4 time, but I can’t really count one, two, three, four the way I count in other songs. There’s a funny hitch in there, an odd rhythmic hiccup between the one and the two, like the beat is an irrational number. Thinking back to high school dances, I’m surprised people didn’t fall down trying to dance to that song.
The other thing I love is the words, a few of which I don’t understand. I just have no idea what James Brown is singing. In the fifty-odd years I’ve listened to “Cold Sweat,” I’ve always waited for the song’s exit, the first few bars after the final chorus, when he says something—I figure he’s calling the sax player by name because the song finishes with a few deft tenor sax licks—Brown says something that sounds like “Mitterzeel.” Then, so cool, “Come on now.” Mitterzeel? Obviously it’s something else. It’s English. I just can’t tell what that word is. At that point in the song, I always say it with him, “Mitterzeel! Then, so cool, “Come on now.”
On the treadmill that day, “Mitterzeel” reminds me of listening to The Beatles “Michelle” back when I was in eighth grade, and trying to make something of those sounds, the words Paul McCartney sings in French. “Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble, tres bien ensemble.” Which translates, no surprise, “These are words that go together well.” I didn’t know French. I had no idea what he was saying. You couldn’t see the words; you could only hear the sounds. I sang along anyway, in word-sounds I simply made up. Pure imitative jabberwocky. I wish I could remember that jibberish now. I’m sure it was even crazier than “Mitterzeel.”
Years later, newly married, I began to learn Italian. More sounds. A lot more.
My wife refers to the “music” of a language, by which she means intonation, pitch, cadence, rhythm. As things go in foreign language learning, the music may be among the most challenging to learn. Unlike vocabulary and the grammar, which you can study, the music is not written down. You have to listen. You have to soak in the sound, putting your faith in linguistic osmosis. You can learn some vocabulary and grammar, and still sound (and feel) like an idiot. When you get a feel for the music, when you can sort of reproduce the song, you’re on your way.
One night I was helping my wife set the table for dinner at her mom and dad’s. We’d been married a few months.
“You have to teach me,” I said. “You have to help me learn Italian.”
She thought for a minute, then held up a shiny stainless steel coaster. She said the word for it. “Sottobicchiere.”
That’s a lot of syllables. Translated, the word means “under glass.” I tried saying it and could barely manage an approximation of the sounds. And I remember thinking, When am I ever going to need that word?
Hello, how are you?
So of course vocabulary is a big deal. What words do you need to know? There are so many to choose from. To be safe, you need most of them. A few thousand, at least. You want to name the things in the world, the things and ideas inside your head. More important, you want to interact with people, be sociable. Doing that requires a lot of words.
Then there’s the grammar problem–articles and prepositions, pronouns and verbs. A native speaker doesn’t think about the verbs she conjugates; she just does it. She says what sounds right, making subtle verbal manipulations to take into account actors and actions and states of being and points in time past, present, future, and somewhere vaguely in between those cardinal points. When I started learning Italian verbs—to eat, for example, everyone’s favorite Italian verb: mangiare, mangio, mangi, mangia, mangiamo, mangiate, mangiano—something like despair crept in. How was I going to learn and remember all those conjugations?
Then there is the music: using your mouth to make the sounds.
In Italian you roll the r sound. Let’s try asparagus. As-parrr-a-go (plural: as-parrr-a-gi). In a short time I sort of figured out how to make my tongue do that little flutter. You also pronounce both consonants in an Italian word that has a double consonant. Take sottobicchiere. You pronounce both those t’s (but not, in this case both c’s) in that word. Or spaghetti. In American English we say spa-ged-i. Italians say spa-ghet-ti. Sono and sonno don’t sound the same; neither do they mean the same thing (sono: I am or they are; son-no: sleep). I still struggle with double consonants.
In 1967 The Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper album. Along with the now iconic image on the front, the cover included the words to all the songs. This was a first. You could read along as you sang along. “For the benefit of Mr. Kite there will be a show tonight on trampoline…” “Wednesday morning at five o’clock when the day begins…” Over time a few more rock bands followed suit, providing consumers and musicians with access, albeit limited, to lyrics as written.
When I started singing with a band, early to mid-70’s, the problem remained. What was that? What did he say? For most songs you lowered your ear to the stereo speaker and listened, lifted the turntable needle and moved it back, replaying the song, trying to hear the sounds as words. There was always the fallback. You could invent something word-like that sounded right, often with funny results that in the end didn’t really matter. Mitterzeel!
In “Norwegian Wood” I sang, “And when I awoke I was alone in her bedroom.” That’s what I heard. It worked. The actual line is “And when I awoke I was alone. This bird had flown.” In the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove,” my drummer friend Chris sang “They say that their father’s insane, he married Ms. Perkins again” instead of “They say that the father’s insane and dear missus Perkins a game.” In Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” Tim my bass player friend sang “When stealing stones from mouse and sparks” whereas the actual line is “Wendy’s stealing clothes from unlocked cars.”
Today we have the Internet. And Google. We can read all the words to all the songs.
Linguists classify English as a stress-timed language, Italian as syllable-timed. The two languages sound different not just because the words are different; their rhythm and intonation–their music–are also different.
To get a feel for stress-timing in English, sing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song. Or try saying ONE TWO THREE FOUR, ONE, then ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR, and then, ala Lawrence Welk, ONE and a TWO and a THREE and a FOUR. Rhythm in English is based on regular time intervals between stressed syllables. As speakers of English, we don’t really mind squeezing and squashing some syllables (even to the point of slurring), like the “and a” above (to the point of it sounding like n-duh).
Ninja Turtles notwithstanding, which is trochaic (stress on the first syllable–Nin-ja tur-tle), it is said that English is naturally iambic (stress on the second of two syllables). Remember iambic pentameter? Most people can hark back, at the very least, to their high school English (Freeland High School, 11th grade, Mrs. Schilling) when mention was made of iambic pentameter, probably in a reading of Robert Frost or Shakespeare. In iambic you remember (if you passed the test) that unstressed and stressed syllables are counted.
Something there is that does not love a wall,
Whose woods these are I think I know.
But soft! Whose light through yonder window breaks
Let not light see my black and deep desires.
Italian, in contrast, is not iambic. Rather than stress, it is syllable duration that establishes its rhythm. Maria Grazia Busé, from the University of Padova, says of Italian: “Syllables tend to have the same ‘weight’, and vowels are always fully pronounced.” I hear that now, and over time have acquired a feel for syllable weight. For a native English speaker, pronouncing all those syllables and all those vowels can be fraught. My favorite example, a principal street in Florence: Via dei Calzaiuoli. That’s Cal-za-i-u-o-li. It’s a mouthful of vowels, and you have to pronounce them all.
Thinking about stress, syllables, and duration, I wondered about Dante, The Divine Comedy, and the poetic line in that work. In much of Shakespeare, the poetic line is iambic pentameter: ten syllables, five of them stressed, da-dum da-dum da-dum. In Dante, the line is eleven syllables, all with the same weight, all vowels pronounced; stress on the tenth syllable:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
All syllables the same weight. My wife says Ro-ho. I saw ROW-ho.
I get home from the senior center with James Brown in my head: “When you kiss me/When you mess me/Hold my hand/Make me understand/I break out – in a cold sweat.” I consider Googling the lyrics, then pause, wondering, Do I really want to know what James Brown says at the end of that song? I’ve grown accustomed to Mitterzeel. In fact, I kind of like it.
What babe, I wonder, inspired him to write that song? Way back in the 14th century, Dante wrote his long poem for Beatrice Portinari (that’s Bay-ah-TREE-chay), a woman he met for the first time when they were both nine years old, a woman who grew up and married another man and then died at the age of 24. Recalling his first sight of her, and idealizing her over the years, Dante must have broke out in a divine sweat when he wrote of that encounter, “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.” In the Paradiso section of The Divine Comedy, it is she who guides Dante through the spheres of heaven.
In the end I can’t resist the temptation. It’s not Mitterzeel. It’s “Mercy on me.” And then, always so cool, “Come on now.” I’m okay with the actual words, but I think “Mitterzeel” sounds better.