How to Talk Like a Soprano Family Member

Learn the history behind the mafia and the Sopranos

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Ever wondered how Italian stereotypes came to be? Or why the Mafioso stereotype—Italian Americans with thick accents, pinky rings, and fedora hats—seems to be the most prevalent?

Where Did the Mafia Come From?

The Mafia came to America with Italian immigrants, mostly those from Sicily and the southern part of the country. But it wasn’t always a dangerous and negatively perceived crime organization. The origins of the Mafia in Sicily were born out of necessity.

In the 19th century, Sicily was a country constantly being invaded by foreigners and the early Mafia was simply groups of Sicilians who protected their towns and cities from invading forces. These “gangs” eventually morphed into something more sinister, and they began to extort money from landowners in exchange for protection. Thus the Mafia we know today was born. If you’re curious about how the Mafia has been portrayed in the media, you can watch one of the many movies that follow the activities in the south, like The Sicilian Girl. If you’re more interested in doing some reading or watching a show, you might like Gomorrah, which is world-renowned for its story.

When Did the Mafia Come to America?

Before long, some of these mobsters arrived in America and brought their racketeering ways with them. These “bosses” dressed fashionably, in line with the amount of money they were extorting. 

The fashion of the time in the 1920’s America consisted of three-piece suits, fedora hats, and gold jewelry to display your wealth. So, the image of the classic Mob boss was born.

What About the Sopranos?

The HBO television series The Sopranos, widely regarded as one of the best television series of all time, ran for 86 episodes and greatly impacted how Italian-Americans are viewed. But its impact on our language—with its use of "mobspeak"—also is quite significant.

The show, which premiered in 1999 and closed in 2007, concerns a relentlessly foul-mouthed fictional Mafia family with the surname of Soprano. It revels in the use of mobspeak, a street language that employs bastardized Italian-American forms of Italian words.

According to William Safire in Come Heavy, the characters' dialogue consists of "one part Italian, a little real Mafia slang, and a smattering of lingo remembered or made up for the show by former residents of a blue-collar neighborhood in East Boston."

The vernacular of this famiglia has become so popular that it's been codified in the Sopranos Glossary. In fact, Tony Soprano even has his own form of currency. In "The Happy Wanderer" episode, for example, he lends his old high school buddy Davey Scatino "five boxes of ziti," or five thousand dollars, during a poker game.

Later that night, Davey borrows—and loses—an additional forty boxes of ziti.

This Is Southern Italian-American Lingo

So you wanna be a “Sopranospeak” expert?

If you sat down to dine with the Sopranos and discussed Tony's waste management business, or maybe the witness–protection program for one of New Jersey's 10 most wanted, chances are you'd soon hear words like goombah, skeevy, and agita tossed around. All of these words derive from southern Italian dialect, which tends to make the c a g, and vice versa.

Likewise, p tends to become a b and d transmutes into a t sound, and dropping the last letter is very Neapolitan. So goombah linguistically mutates from compare, agita, which means "acid indigestion," originally was spelled acidità, and skeevy comes from schifare, to disgust.

If you wanted to talk like a Soprano, you'd also need to know the correct usage of compare and comare, which respectively mean "godfather" and "godmother." Since in small Italian villages, everybody is the godparent of their friend's children when addressing someone that is a close friend but not necessarily a relative the terms compare or comare are used.

“Sopranospeak” is code for endless, unoriginal obscenities that have nothing to do with la bella lingua, with the various dialects of Italy, or (sadly) with the significant and varied contributions Italian–Americans have made throughout United States history.

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Your Citation
Filippo, Michael San. "How to Talk Like a Soprano Family Member." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Filippo, Michael San. (2020, August 27). How to Talk Like a Soprano Family Member. Retrieved from Filippo, Michael San. "How to Talk Like a Soprano Family Member." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).