Why Panther Hollow Has Its Own Dialect

Jul 31, 2015

Boundary Street runs through Panther Hollow in the shape of an inverted L. The houses cluster on the northern and western sides of the street and all face inward toward a stretch of grass and trees. They aren’t numbered chronologically, though the first few homes begin ordinarily enough: 1, then 1 ½, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9. Then 523, 525, 12, 14, 17 and 40.

Carlino Giampolo, born and raised in Panther Hollow, said the numbering explains the immigration pattern to the area: there was no master plan, no developer.

“The first immigrants just started to build a home and then they called for their relatives from Italy who came over. And then it grew, home by home,” he said.

Panther Hollow, though technically part of Central Oakland, is really its own neighborhood, said Giampolo.

“When I grew up here there [were] approximately 250 Italians on our one street. And most of the Italians came from two small towns in Italy. The two towns were Pizzoferrato and Gamberale,” he said.

Those first settlers arrived in the late 1800s from a region called the Abruzzi, about 100 miles southeast of Rome, and brought the Abruzzese dialect with them. While people from other parts of Italy eventually moved to Panther Hollow, up until World War II almost everyone came from the same place and spoke the same language.

Giampolo’s cousin Bernard Spoltore sat with him at a picnic table along Boundary Street and pointed to a fire hydrant in front of number 40.

“The fire hydrant right there — the city gave Sid the wrench for that, Sid Diulus. He was in charge of the fire hydrant. So he’d turn the fire hydrant on in the summertime, turn it off in the evenings when everybody got done,” he said.

This one fact of the fire hydrant tells you almost everything you need to know about the neighborhood, Spoltore said.

“There’s a lot of people that I talk to that lived in Oakland all their lives and never knew this neighborhood was down here.”  

It was self-sufficient, said Giampolo.

“There were six grocery stores here. Two banks. You also had hucksters in those days who would come down with their vegetable trucks. We had a gentleman we called the good-looking pie man, and a guy who was a knife-sharpener,” he said.    

Then there was the chicken coop on the corner of Boundary and Yarrow Way; a small herd of cows that wandered through the playground at the end of the street; outdoor bread ovens and winemaking. Giampolo said the Hollow’s Italian identity was insulated by geography — it’s nestled in a small valley below the University of Pittsburgh — but formed by a place an ocean away.

In 1975, as a master’s student at Pitt, Dr. James Cascaito co-authored a study about Panther Hollow called “An Italo-English Dialect.”

“This Italo-English dialect, it is the English language grammatically, syntactically, structurally. It’s the lexicon which is Italian, or dialect Italian in this case,” he said. “What we would do is use an English grammar and simply insert these words in place of English words and they had a richer meaning because we heard our parents and grandparents using them.” 

Casciato was also born and raised in Panther Hollow. He and Giampolo are first cousins. He said the dialect bridged Italian-born and American-born generations.

“It was a way for us to establish a certain identity and a certain bond of communal values,” he said. 

Spoltore talked about the neighborhood being full of people on Sunday afternoons.

“Everybody would be outside. Playing ball, playing in the street, playing on the sidewalk. And everybody got along together. They’d sit on the porches and watch the kids play,” he said. “I can’t remember a bored day down here in my life.”

While this might seem like Spoltore waxing nostalgic, Cascaito’s study bears it out.

“In the dialect we simply didn’t have a word for boredom," he said. "I think we were too busy living and enjoying our lives."

Language in Panther Hollow changed with the community. Elders passed away; people moved to the suburbs or married non-Italians. It’s mostly home to renters now, students who might wonder why the pole of the No Parking sign is painted green, white and red.

“I can still see the people,” said Spoltore. “When I sit here and I look at these houses, I can see the people that lived in these houses. I can see the kids that grew up down here.”   

But it’s not all memories. Giampolo still lives on Boundary Street; you can sometimes see his maroon-colored bicycle propped on the back steps. And under the shade of a white gazebo in what used to be the ball field stands a memorial plaque with 95 family names.

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