another good reason to learn a second language

Another good reason to learn a second language

by Janice Nigro

My last name is a good conversation starter. Nigro, yes, to be accurate the “i” is pronounced like “e”. And you should roll the “r”. Every Friday when I arrive at the farmers market to set up my “boutique”, one of the vendors from Senegal walks by and asks, “What’s up Nigro?” We both laugh. It is almost politically incorrect. Just to clarify I do not say the same back to him-I did learn how to ask how are you in his own language (he speaks about 6 though).

My last name is Italian or perhaps more accurately Sicilian. The farther south you will go in Italy, the more common the last name is. Once I visited a friend in her hometown on the Adriatic, and I had to ask if there were any Nigros in town. She was prepared for this question. She immediately took me to a travel agency which was owned by someone with the last name of Nigro (for real, it was a travel agency).

The name seems a bit unusual. Like it sounds, it just means black. But quite a few Nigros are in the USA, and I am not even the only one with the first name of Janice. In Europe, everyone pronounced my name as it should be including rolling of the “r” but now in the States I am back to pronouncing it with an “i” (sadly in a way).

We hear Italian last names all of the time. They always sound like something delicious to eat or perhaps some kind of poetic/romantic phrase-what is the difference between hearing fusilli and Testaverde? Actually a lot, because one means a type of pasta and the other means “green head.”

I never realized that Italian last names had such diverse meanings until I started to learn the language. When I realized this, I had to wonder exactly where a name like “Testaverde” comes from. Or Nigro for that matter-who were my ancestors and what did they do? Why did they get this last name?

Many Italian last names are especially fun to translate. Most recently, I came across the name of Acquavita. It was the last name of the first author on a scientific paper. Acquavita is a beautiful sounding word, and if you translate it literally, it means life water. Sounds nice and has a nice meaning. If you are Norwegian though, the translation is something else-a very strong spirit that might permanently alter your mind. I imagine that a Viking must have brought that word home after a conquest. In German the name would be more accurate as it would be called some kind of feuerwasser (fire water), but it seems unlikely to be used as a German last name.

There are names that you believe seal a person’s fate at birth. An Italian friend of mine, her name means faithful life, and she lives up to her name in the way she treats others and her work. A German friend knew an orthopedic surgeon whose name was Gambarotta-broken leg. Your imagination can start to go wild with where the name originated and whether it was coincidence or destiny for the orthopedic surgeon.

Once you catch onto this, it is extremely interesting to ask an Italian what his or her last name is. They do not all mean something, but many do. It is different than in other countries. In Scandinavia, you are just someone else’s son or daughter-well often (a friend’s name means “priest garden”). In Spain, you come from a long line of ancestors from various places/people so everyone has the luck of sounding regal almost. In Germany, last names often refer to a profession-Schmidt, Schumacher…etc.

In some places there is no last name. In Indonesia, traditionally many only have a first name. The interesting thing about this is that names are the same for all families and dependent on the order in which you were born in Bali. It is easy if you know the names for first, second, and third son because you can take a guess that the name of the man you just met is one of about four names. That seems like a nightmare to me to sort out over a lifetime.

Italian names can have other meanings. Like for the Dutch, many people are “from somewhere”. Leonardo da Vinci was from Vinci. Medici means doctors. But the fun ones, are possibly literal physical characteristics of some ancestor.

I am curious why there might be these cultural distinctions, why so many German names focus on professions and Italian names emphasize physical characteristics? It almost seems as if in medieval times everyone got a nickname during their teenage years which happened to stick.

I quite like the sound of Dr. Acquavita. Who did he/she marry? The name sounds like that of a special character in a James Bond movie-you have to walk around in life with a smile on your face with a name like that.

I would argue though that this is true for any last name, and they should be more of a reason to discuss what we have in common  and what they may say about our different cultures and histories rather than as a way to separate us. And maybe this is how we should all look at each other around the world-as actors in a bigger movie where the theme of it is to have some fun while working hard and just trying to live.

©2015 Janice Marie Nigro/


2 thoughts on “another good reason to learn a second language

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  1. I like the sound of Acquavita too 🙂 It is interesting to find out the interpretation of European’s last name. For the Dutch last name, beside of the origin of the person, some family/last name also show the profession or the current state of their ancestor in the past. A Dutch colleague at my work has last name – Zondergeld, which if being translated in English is “Without money” 😀 Indonesia is different story, in Javanese culture, people were mostly named after positive words or subject that means positive like Lestari (sustainable nature), Bagus (good)..I do like to learn new language as well but I have to admit, I have lack of talent in learning languages 😀

    1. I have gotten some really fun responses to this post. It puts people in a different perspective when you find out what their last name really means. I was wondering about Indonesian last names because some don’t even have a last name. I haven’t “heard” you speak English but you sure write it very well. And you probably also know Dutch. Both are completely different than Indonesian. I am not really fluent in any second language and the ones I do know a bit of are related to English.

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