Think of how different people from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Louisiana, and Charleston all sound from each other. The grammar is the same (they all make plurals by adding -s and past tenses by adding -ed) but the differences in pronunciation are huge! Nonetheless, these are all dialects of English because they come from English!
'O Sole Mio is a classic of Neapolitan music written in 1898 by Giovanni Capurro and composed by Eduardo di Capua. Neapolitan music or la conzone napoletana is a stand-alone category of songs quite distinct from other Italian music, because Neapolitan is a different language from Italian. It therefore has a different pronunciation, and anyone who attempts to pronounce Neapolitan songs like «'O Sole Mio» using the Standard Italian rules of pronunciation comes off looking like an ass.
What the hell is going on here?
I know your mind is blown right now. You thought there was only one "Italian language" with lots of dialects. That's what Mussolini and the Fascists told people to consolidate their power. The reality is very different, and we will get to it in a second. First, let's talk about how people see the "Italian dialects" (properly called "the dialects of Italy", and not "dialects of Italian").
Basically, the dialects are the Ebonics of Italy. They are the language of the underdog, and most people can't stand hearing them. Nonetheless, many people speak them. Any linguist will tell you that all languages are equally capable of complex expression and that people don't hate specific languages, they hate their speakers. That's definitely the case here. For a long time, Italy was a country of conformists and hypocrites because many independent thinkers left for America, Australia, and Germany between WWI and the beginning of the post-WWII economic boom in the late 1960s. This created a glut of opportunity, and so the ones who remained suddenly enjoyed very fast economic development without having taken any risks. This created a culture where you got ahead not on merit (since there was little real work to be done in those boom years) but on likeability and social prowess. "Dare to be different" and "Just do it!" are core North American values, but in Italy that shit don't fly.
The Southerners are especially reviled for two reasons; first, they are poor because the South was basically colonized by the North during Italian unification in the late 1800s, and second, they are proud because they have a long cultural tradition of their own. In fact, the first "Italian" sonnets were written in Sicilian (from which Dante took his inspiration) and the most important "Italian" songs were written in Neapolitan (which we'll be talking about here). More prosperous Northern Italians find it incongruous that peasants should be happy or proud; it goes against their value system, in which money equals happiness. And many southerners participate in their own marginalization, being all too quick to whitewash the fact that their grandparents or even parents are functionally illiterate in the standard language (my grandmother, for example, completed the fourth grade and was considered well-educated), drop their dialect, and put on an air of sophistication and a Milanese drawl to get ahead.
Ironically, although Italian dialect speakers are hated and discriminated against in Italy today, Neapolitan music is known and loved throughout Italy and the world. Neapolitan music is so tied to Italian identity abroad that, for example, at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp they played «'O Sole Mio» when they couldn't find the sheet music to the Italian national anthem. Because everyone knew the music to «'O Sole Mio». By heart.
Ok, so how do I pronounce it? Can you get to the point already?
First, a quick bit of linguistic history. Bear with me because it's important. You have to understand that linguists don't like to distinguish between language and dialect. To them, there are as many languages as there are speakers; each individual has their own dialect or "internal" language. If pressed, they will tell you that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, indicating that languages are just dialects that "made it big" by winning official state support. That's great and all, but it's really the historical linguists (a.k.a. the philologers) who have the best insight here. For them, if language Y is a dialect of language X, that means that language Y evolved from language X!
So where does Neapolitan come from? Is it a "bastardized form of Italian"? NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! Rather, Neapolitan and Italian (and Sicilian and Spanish and Portuguese and French) are ALL "bastardized" forms of LATIN!
Latin-speaking Rome consisted of three provinces: Italia (the Italian peninsula), Gaul (France), and Iberia (Spain and Portugal). In the rest of the Empire, people spoke Greek or local indigenous languages (such as Anglo-Saxon, the ancestor to English!). The everyday colloquial spoken Latin language evolved much quicker than the standard written language, so that by the end of the Empire, Latin was a lot like English: one archaic but unified writing system and many different spoken accents or dialects. Spoken Latin was called Romance (the "language of the Romans") or Vulgar Latin ("popular Latin", since vulgus means "the people").
Each of the core regions developed a local dialect. In Italy, Italo-Romance; In Gaul, Gallo-Romance; in Iberia, Ibero-Romance. These would be akin to New York, Los Angeles, and Louisiana accents. Then the Dark Ages happened. Everyone was cut off from everyone else; kind of like if the Internet and TV and phones all stopped working. People kept to themselves and rarely left the town or region (valley, hillside, river bank, etc...) they were born in. After a thousand years, people started reaching out and talking to each other again but their local dialects had developed so differently for so long that they could no longer understand each other: they now spoke different languages or "vulgars" while still using Latin to write and keep records.
So the original three main Romance dialects had "evolved" into a number of independent languages: Ibero-Romance evolved into Castillian (Spanish), Asturian, and Gallician-Portuguese (which later split into Galician and Portuguese); Gallo-Romance split into Langue-d'Oil (French), Langue-d'Oc (which later split into Occitan and Catalan), and Gallo-Italian (which later split into the Northern Italian dialects of Rhaeto-Romansch, Lombard-Piedmontese-Romagnol, and Venetian); and Italo-Romance split into Central Italian (which later split into Corsican and Tuscan, a.k.a. the ancestor of Standard Italian) and Southern Italian (which later split into Sicilian and South Italian, a.k.a. Neapolitan!). Somewhere in the Balkans, a lost band of Romans were now talking Romanian.
So, how closely related are Italian and Neapolitan? Well, Italian comes from Tuscan, which is Central Italian, and Neapolitan is Southern Italian. So they are about as close as French and Occitan or Spanish and Portuguese. That is, not very close at all! In fact, besides their wildly different pronunciation (Italian keeps unstressed vowels, just like Spanish, whereas Neapolitan reduces them, like most dialects of Portuguese), Italian and Neapolitan have a variety of differing grammatical structures (for example, Neapolitan has three grammatical genders and declines/inflects words by metaphony whereas Italian has two grammatical genders and declines/inflects words by changing the ending)
In case you're wondering why some languages, like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, rose to prominence while others, like Occitan-Catalan, Galician, and Neapolitan, faded... Around the Renaissance, some really innovative trendsetters started trying to write in the spoken language rather than Latin. At that time it looked like Occitan would become the language of France, and Sicilian, the language of Italy. But fortunes changed and eventually Madrid (Castilian, a.k.a. Spanish), Paris (Langue-d'Oc, a.k.a. French), and Florence (Tuscan, a.k.a. Italian) became the cultural centers and their languages spread, replacing Latin as the written language. Although people continued to speak Occitan or Neapolitan or Sicilian, they gave up trying to write it.
OK BUT HOW DO I PRONOUNCE IT SO I DON'T SOUND LIKE A FOOL?!
Now that's the right question! If you want to hear what perfect Neapolitan sounds like, listen to the great native speakers like Enrico Caruso (his version is canon. It is all you need: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1QJwHWvgP8) and Mario Merola (self-taught singer-songwriter and Neapolitan lyrical genius, although he never performed 'O Sole Mio). Here is a phonetic transcription of the pronunciation of «'O Sole Mio» in correct Neapolitan in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), Neapolitan writing, and Americanized English transcription. The funny letters are IPA and their pronunciation is described below:
Remember that the /j/ is pronounced [y]! The square brackets indicate pheonetic (rather than phonemic) transcription (i.e. how it's said versus how it's structured). The underlined vowels are stressed.
Some notes for the linguistically-inclined...
The first [o] in [osolə] and the [o] in [tojɐ] are pronounced more closed (more like [u]), so that we almost hear [usolə] and [tujɐ]Voiceless consonants are voiced after a resonant, thus [stanvrond'] from /stanfront'/, although in some speakers this rule is limited to stops, so that we sometimes hear [stanfrond'] (the fricative is not part of the voicing rule but the stop is voiced as usual).
Voiceless consonants are generally voiced intervocalically, and in some dialects voiceless and voiced stops are aspirated before a stressed vowel (stops are never aspirated elsewhere).
What about the apostrophe?
You might also have wondered about the origins and correct spelling of that big "O" in «'O Sole Mio». No, it's not the vocative "O" of a poetic ode. Nor is it the exclamatory "Oh" used to get someone's attention or to express lament. No. In fact, the "o" is the masculine article "the", cognate with Italian "il", Spanish "el", French "le", and Portuguese "o". All these forms come from the Latin "illu" (demonstrative pronoun meaning "that one" [masculine]).
Jatevinne e facite 'e brave! (Go forth and prosper!)
You should now be able to pronounce the Neapolitan phrase above. What's more, you are now ready to go out into the world and do justice to the cultural legacy of the Neapolitan people who poured their heart and soul into works of great poetic beauty. Again, I encourage you to seek out authentic Neapolitan performers' versions of the song, starting with Enrico Caruso's 1917 version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1QJwHWvgP8). Thanks for your interest in my people's cultural legacy!
© Jordan Black 2013. Stituto d"a Lenga.