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For example, they pronounce "ricotta" as "rih-gaht", "manicotti" as "mani-gaht", and "prosciutto" as "pro-shoot".

I googled this, and according to this post from Chow.com, this is a common thing around New York and New Jersey, particularly in Italian-American restaurants.

Is this a cultural thing, or something related to the history of how the English language adopted these words, or what?

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I believe this is related to the dialect of Italian that many Italian immigrants to the U.S. spoke. –  Peter Shor Jul 4 at 19:14
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Plus, since the words are being borrowed into English, they're subject to English fast speech rules, which license frequent loss of final vowels, capish? –  John Lawler Jul 4 at 19:48
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It’s interesting that you’re thinking they are saying voiced stops like /g/ and when in fact they are really only saying unaspirated unvoiced ones like /k/. In English, you so much expect the aspiration at the start of stressed syllables that when it’s absent, you’ve mistaken them for voiced versions instead. But Italian doesn’t have aspirated consonants at all; the phonemic distinction there is based solely on voicing, while in English one obviously also cues off aspiration to sort out which phoneme is which — otherwise you wouldn’t have “misheard” these. –  tchrist Jul 4 at 20:39

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

This actually happens in Italian itself, particularly but not exclusively in the dialects spoken south of Rome, including in Sicily where such folks originate. (But see the Mark’s article below for some nuance there.)

Unlike northern Italian, which has a syllable-timed rhythm to it and so vowel reduction does not occur, southern Italian tends more toward the stress-timed end of the spectrum. This means that its vowels which are not stressed are shortened and reduced, and may even (seem to) be dropped completely. See this Language Log posting on “Italian: To vowel or not to vowel” by Mark Liberman for more.

The thing is, this is more common in Italian than English speakers may realize. To see that it happens pretty normally, just think of the familiar phrase il dolce far niente, where far is a shortened form of the normal verb fare. A less familiar phrase is a fior d’acqua, where fior is a similarly shortened version of fiore.

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"i mafiosi"? I don't know about any "i mafiosi"... just "la cosa nostra". –  Braiam Jul 5 at 0:43

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