How to do great Italian accents – ‘Big Night’

I recently watched Big Night because I heard it was a cozy little film for food-lovers. Little did I know that I was in for a dialect treat as well! The movie’s protagonists are two Italian immigrants who run a restaurant in 1950’s New Jersey, starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub. I had no idea what to expect from this movie, really, so I was extra pleasantly surprised when it wasn’t only a FANTASTIC movie in and of itself, but the dialects in this movie were outstanding too. Often when actors are aiming for Italian accents, many go for the overly stereotyped Mario & Luigi-type (“It’s-a me, Mario”) accents but thankfully, the actors in Big Night didn’t. Instead, Stanley Tucci honoured his Italian heritage and created a film that delivered great, authentic Italian dialects, both in writing and acting.

First, I want to mention one thing done right in Big Night and that I wish was more common in movies and TV shows: The fact that we get to see Primo and Secondo actually speak English AND Italian. Primo and Secondo have been in America for a while by that point and you can see that they got accustomed to speaking English even with each other. Seeing these two immigrants also use their native tongue with each other and other Italian speakers in the movie is an accurate portrayal of bilinguals and adds authenticity and depth to the characters and the story. In many scenes the characters are using both Italian and English in the same conversation. This is called code-switching and an integral part of how bilinguals use language. You can see this type of code-switching in action in the beach scene closer to the end of the film when both Primo and Secondo speak Italian and English with each other, switching seamlessly between the two languages within the same sentence.

Secondly, I’d like to highlight a couple of things that all tie in to one bigger aspect of non-native accents: The fact that non-native English dialects are rarely completely consistent with their features.

The first feature where we can observe that inconsistency in non-native English accents is to do with verb conjugation in English. English has a remarkably simple conjugation system in the present tense. Most verbs are exactly the same for each person, with the exception of the third singular. That means that a verb like “to eat” will be conjugated as “I eat, you eat, we eat, they eat” but “she/he/it eats”. Many other languages have far more complex conjugation systems than that so non-native speakers of English are often relieved to find out that the verb rarely changes in English, and as a result that 3rd singular ‘s’ can easily slip their mind. This is why you can sometimes hear non-native speakers say things like “he eat” instead of “he eats”. I’m sure many English-speaking actors notice this feature about non-native accents and when they then try to imitate a non-native accent, the first thing they do is drop every single 3rd singular ‘s’. But while non-native speakers are prone to dropping that extra ‘s’, they don’t drop every single one. Often they will remember to add the ‘s’. Just every now and then it slips their mind. The over-generalization of features like this is always a tell-tale sign that the actor is not actually a non-native speaker. Both actors in Big Night did a fantastic job at keeping those 3rd singular suffixes inconsistent, sometimes pronouncing them, and sometimes not.

One really nice detail the actors in Big Night also did right was what’s called H-insertion. Anybody who knows a little bit Italian will know that there is no H sound in Italian. For example the word horrible translates into orribile in Italian. Hs are just not part of the Italian sound system. Additionally, the H sound in English is a very soft sound consisting of air leaving the mouth with only very little obstruction. If your articulators aren’t already used to making this soft action, it is a difficult sound to master. This is the case for many Italians so sometimes it’s just easier for them to drop the H sounds when speaking English. This way a word like here can sound like ear. But non-native speakers do know that dropping Hs is not technically correct in standard English (*it can be in other native English dialects though e.g. Cockney), so they try to pronounce them but here’s where English spelling isn’t very helpful either. Some English words have an H in spelling that is not pronounced either, such as in the words honest and hour. So not only will Italian speakers have to learn how to produce that sound with their articulators, they then also need to learn when to pronounce this sound when speaking English. As a result, Italians sometimes add an H sound in places where there actually is no H in English, so that a word like eat can sound like heat. In Big Night you can hear both Primo and Secondo insert such hyper-corrected Hs. But just like with the 3rd singular ‘s’, non-native speakers are inconsistent with their usage of Hs as well. Primo and Secondo don’t just drop every single H, sometimes they do pronounce it in the right places. They also don’t always insert an H where it shouldn’t be, only every now and then. Tucci and Shalhoub nail this in Big Night. One good example of this occurs around 15 minutes into the movie when you can hear Primo say “say hi for me!” with a clearly audible H sound in hi, immediately followed by a hyper-corrected H-insertion in “you go… hout? “.

The actors and writers of Big Night did many things so wonderfully perfect but making sure their characters’ English is inconsistent definitely deserves extra recognition. Not many movies pay that much attention to detail when it comes to non-native accents but it’s important if you want to respectfully portray a non-native accent and do it justice. It makes the characters much more authentic and believable and as such has a huge impact on the audience’s enjoyment of the film.

Finally, the writers of this movie also get some extra brownie points from me for one of my favorite phrases ever said by a non-native speaker in a movie, which is when Primo said: “Maybe I should make mashed potatoes for on the other side”, instead of saying “for the other side” clearly not fully understanding the concept of ‘side’ being short for ‘side dish’ in English in this context. Learning a new language is difficult and it is normal for non-native speakers to have learned one meaning of a word without knowing how it’s used in another context.

All in all: The dialect work we see in Big Night is just *chef’s kiss*!