Study Guide

Alligator Bayou Language and Communication

By Donna Jo Napoli

Language and Communication

"Shhh," Cirone says, even though we weren't talking. "They hear Sicilian and they'll chase us off."

I don't get why people here don't like Sicilian. Our family supplies this town, Tallulah, with the best fruits and vegetables. You'd think the sound of Sicilian would make their mouths water. (1.8-9)

Why don't the townspeople like hearing the Italian spoken around them? Is it because the use of that language is evidence that the Sicilians are "different" from the white townspeople? Do any of the townspeople try to learn anything about the Sicilians and their language? Why or why not?

She overheard Cirone and me as we unloaded crates, and she asked what we were speaking. She said Sicilian was pretty, like music. (1.11) 

Patricia's openness to the sound of Italian, even though she grew up in Tallulah, shows how special and how different from others she is. It also helps to set her up as a good match for Calo.

"[…] You went inside and slept through most of it. Besides, he said it in English and all you speak is Sicilian. But if you had understood…"

"I didn't. That's my point. I didn't understand. Neither did Giuseppe or Rosario. So we weren't insulted. We went to bed peaceful […]." (2.15)

See no evil, hear no evil… What Carlo says is true, but does not understanding come at a price? At least Francesco bothered to try to defend himself to the man who was bashing him with insults and lies—but on the flipside, in a situation like this, it might do more harm than good to stick up for yourself.

Carlo stiffens. "We run a legitimate business. Everybody knows. Words don't change the facts."

"Words like that give them the excuse they want…" (2.23-24)

People say that words can't really hurt you, but when people tell themselves false stories about you and yours, it empowers them to treat you badly… and that, as this book shows, has the potential to do a whole lot of damage.

"What's the point of you getting all that tutoring?" Carlo shakes his head in disgust. "A fourteen-year-old who can't come up with a lie in an emergency is a sorry sight."

I touch my lips. "I've got a whole pack of lies." (2.56-57)

For Calo and his family, the ability to come up with a lie quickly just might be essential for survival. Most fourteen-year-olds are given grief for lying, but here Carlo is encouraging Calo to hone his skills, if only in certain specific contexts.

"Calo, come," Rosario calls in English. "In front of customers, we're supposed to smile and repeat English after them and not worry about anything except counting cents." (3.9) 

If the white townspeople can't understand what the Sicilians are saying to one another, they might feel threatened or in danger or insulted. So even though that's completely not the case, Calo and his family are still better off speaking English in these people's presence.

"Calo! You hurry."

Two more English words. Rosario's near his limit. He understands what customers say. It's speaking he won't do. Town people make fun of broken English. (3.12-13)

It's bad enough when kids are jerks, but when adults do it, it's extra unsavory. Why do these adults need to pick on a kid? Do they feel that threatened by him? Is he an easy target?

"Perfectly ripe," she mimics me. "How come you talk so fancy?"

"I take lessons ma'am."

"From that white Northern teacher in the colored school? The uppity
one?"

"No ma'am."

She pulls back in shock. "Ya'll ain't in the white school, surely?"

"I don't go to school, ma'am." (3.34-39)

Poor Calo—all he wants is to fit in and be accepted, but even speaking English pretty well isn't enough. This lady, though she won't say it, seems offended that Calo speaks fancier English than she does. It's her own insecurities that make her so mean to him.

"People from different places in America talk differently. […] Your pronunciation is more and more Louisiana. But at least you still make good Iowa sentences, like me."

I don't want to make good Iowa sentences. I want to talk like my friends, and Cirone. (7.37-38)

One of the things Frank teaches Calo is English. But though Calo speaks English pretty well, he still stands out from his immediate community when he talks. He wants to speak English in a way that helps him blend in.

"So, tell me, what does lynch mean?"

"I've been thinking about that since I saw you Wednesday morning. You know how I respect words. But lynch is one for the ugliest words ever…" (7.39-40)

Lynch is a terrible word, in meaning and in sound, but it's important to know the terrible words because they help us understand how dangerous the world can be sometimes.

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