Italian Tongue Twisters

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian-American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Berkeley, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 14, 2021
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Italian

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.

Phrases

Original Text (1): Sopra la panca la capra campa, sotto la panca la capra crepa.

Transliteration: On top of the bench, the sheep/goat is singing, under the bench, the sheep/goat is dying.

Original Text (2): Apelle, figlio di Apollo, fece una palla di pelle di pollo. Tutti i pesci vennero 

a galla, per vedere la palla di pelle di pollo fatta da Apelle figlio di Apollo.

Transliteration: Apelle, son of Apollo, makes/fetches a ball of chicken meat. All of the fish came to the surface to see the ball of chicken meat that Apelle, son of Apollo, made.

Original Text (3): Trentatré Trentini entrano a Trentino, tutti e trentatré trotterellando

Transliteration: Thirty-three people from Trento enter the region of Trentino, all thirty-three of them trotting.

Context of Use

Italian tongue twisters are used for sport/entertainment among peers, often during social gatherings. Peers challenge each other to see who can speak the phrases fastest, without mistakes.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.

Interview

AG: *speaking quickly* Sopra la panca la capra campa, sotto la panca la capra crepa!

BK: *laughing* What on earth is that?

AG: *laughing* You know how here we have “how much wood could a woodstuff stuff”—  no wait, what is it— “how much… wood could a woodchuck chuck! If a woodchuck could chuck wood.” Or like “how much stuff could a stuffy stuff if a stuffy could stuff stuff,” right?

BK: Sure, “Sally sells seashells down by the seashore.”

AG: Yes, exactly! Uh, we have one of those in italian, and it’s… *enunciating* Sopra la— oh we have two! I’m think of two right now. Oh we have three! Trentatré… okay. Ok, so first one is *enunciating* Sopra la panca la capra campa,  which means on top of the bench, the sheep, or the goat, is singing. Sotto la panca la capra crepa, under the bench— it’s crepa the same word from the wolf [phrase] [See _________]— the goat is dying… or dies.

AG: And then we have, uhh, oh yeah! *AG claps and speaks to the rhythm* Apelle, figlio di Apollo, fece una palla di pelle di pollo. Tutti i pesci vennero a galla, per vedere la palla di pelle di pollo fatta da Apelle figlio di Apollo. *laughing* It’s Apelle, son of Apollo, fece, made or got, palla di pelle, a ball of… chicken meat? All the fish went to the surface to see this ball of chicken meat that Apelle, son of Apollo, made.

BK: So the tongue twisters, much like those in English, don’t make a lot of sense. When do you use these tongue twisters?

AG: I think just at parties to see who can do them fastest.

BK: So they become competitive?

AG: Sometimes, yeah. Especially the capra one because that’s really hard.

BK: How widely known are these tongue twisters?

AG: Everyone knows them. Even the trentatré… Trentini tutti trentatré trotterellando

*At this point, AG‘s father EG (52) interjects to correct her*

EG: Entrarono a Trentino

AG: What is it? I forget.

EG: Trentatré Trentini entrano a Trentino, tutti e trentatré trotterellando.

AG: Trentatré, so 33, Trentini… What is Trentini?

EG: People from Trento, where I used to live. Entrano

AG: Entrano… entrarono? Or is it entrano.

EG: I don’t know.

AG: Entrano Trentino… what’s Trentino?

EG: It’s the region that Trento’s in.

AG: Oh entro Trentino… OHH!! Tutti e trentatré trotterellando.

EG: All 33 trotting.

AG: So how do you say the full thing in English?

EG: 33 Trentini, like people from Trento, enter Trentino, which is the region around Trento, all 33 trotting.

BK: That’s almost a tongue twister in English! So when/where do you learn these?

AG: From cousins, peers, usually from cousins and among young people.

Collector’s Reflection

The culture of tongue twisters in Italian society is similar to that among Americans, particularly American school children. Nonsensical, yet difficult to articulate phrases are developed informally and shared orally by peers. These tongue twisters are used for entertainment in groups, where at least two participants will challenge each other to recite them as quickly as possible. More often than not, this will result in sputtering and laughter, as participants fail to cleanly recite the twisters. Rules or structured games associated with tongue twisters are uncommon (e.g. points system, prizes, etc.), though they may be implemented.

Another function of tongue twisters not mentioned by the informant is the improvement of pronunciation. Those learning a new language may be encouraged to practice tongue twisters to improve their command over said language’s phonetic composition, and overall fluency. Given the already quickly-spoken nature of the Italian language, tongue twisters may serve new language learners well.