When you learn a new language, there's lots to learn. It can be overwhelming, so let's talk for a moment about how Italian works. What can you expect from this language?
Nouns in Italian have gender. In German, we have masculine, feminine, and neuter, but in Italian, we just have masculine and feminine. So every noun has an article that will be different according to gender and number.
Daniela talks about that in her series of video lessons here.
Marika gives some tips on figuring out the gender of a noun here, beginning with masculine nouns.
Di solito, tendono ad essere di genere maschile tutti quei nomi che terminano in "o" oppure in "e". Per esempio: orso, cavallo, armadio,
Usually, all the nouns ending in "o" or "e" tend to be of the masculine gender. For example: bear, horse, cupboard,
Captions 3-4, Marika spiega Il genere maschilePlay Caption
Personal pronouns need to be learned little by little. We need them to determine who's talking or acting or whom we're talking about.
When we learn how to conjugate a verb, we learn the personal pronouns associated with each person:
For example, when we conjugate the basic and irregular verb essere (to be) we use the personal pronouns:
io sono (I am)
tu sei (you are)
lui è (he/it is)
lei è (she/it is)
noi siamo (we are)
voi siete (you are)
loro sono (they are)
One of the trickiest things about Italian is that more often than not, the personal pronoun is left out entirely. You might be desperately trying to understand who are we talking about, but can't find the personal pronoun.
Italian comes from Latin, so the way a verb is conjugated includes information on the "hidden" or "implied" personal pronoun. Sometimes it's ambiguous, as you can see in this lesson. But let's have a quick look at what is tricky.
Let's take a simple sentence in English we might want to translate into Italian.
I see the horse.
Your natural inclination is to take the Italian for I = io.
Then you want the verb "to see." It's the verb vedere. I need to put it into the first person. I look it up on a conjugation chart: vedere
Io vedo (I see).
Then I want the object: horse. In this case, it is a direct object because the verb vedere (to see) is transitive in both Italian and English (but this isn't always the case!)
the horse = il cavallo.
We come up with:
Io vedo il cavallo (I see the horse).
But, except in certain cases where we want to emphasize who sees the horse, we can just leave out the personal pronoun. The sentence becomes:
Vedo il cavallo (I see the horse).
It's perfectly clear without the personal pronoun. I know it is there, implied. This is totally normal in Italian and takes some getting used to. Here's an example you can listen to:
Quindi, quando vedo una persona, prima la saluto: "ciao".
So, when I see a person, first I greet him: "Hi."Play Caption
*tip: When you learn a noun in Italian, try to always include the definite article. We don't worry about this in English, but in Italian, it's super important. It's impossible to get it right all the time, but getting off to a good start will pay off later.
Regular Italian verbs generally fall into 3 categories and end in -are, -ere, or -ire.
Parlare (to speak)
Vedere (to see)
Venire (to come)
Each of these groups has a specific way of getting conjugated, so little by little it's good to get a sense of how these work. It will help you conjugate verbs without having to look them up all the time.
Daniela has a series of video lessons in Italian about Italian, so check out the series here. She delves into the three types of verb conjugations, represented by three types of infinitive verb endings.
Don't feel you have to start memorizing verbs, unless you want to, but do be aware that there are basically three ways to end a verb and you will discover them as you learn. This will also help you identify verbs as you listen and read.
We use these verbs tons of times every day, so the sooner you get used to their conjugations, the easier it will be further on.
Just as in English, Italian has modal verbs. Just as in English, the modal verb gets conjugated and then you tack on the verb in the infinitive. So one trick when learning Italian is to learn the modal verb potere (to be able to [which we conjugate with "can."]).
Posso venire (Can I come)?
Daniela teaches us about modal verbs. The main ones are potere (to be able to), volere (to want to), and dovere (to have to). They are irregular, so it's a good idea to learn them early on, especially the first person, so you can express your needs!
Lots can be said about adjectives, but for now, let's remember that adjectives go with nouns, and in Italian, they have a very close relationship. The ending of an adjective has to agree with the noun it is modifying. What matters is the gender and the number.
See this lesson in English about adjectives.
Daniela goes through everything you need to know about adjectives here.
Two adjectives you will need when you begin speaking Italian are bello (beautiful, great) and buono (good). Daniela talks about these 2 adjectives here.
Sometimes Italian word order is like English but often it isn't.
Let's take the example we looked at earlier.
Vedo il cavallo (I see the horse).
In the example above, I know the pronoun io is implied because of the conjugation of the verb vedere. Vedo is the first person singular, so the hidden pronoun will be io.
When I replace cavallo with a pronoun, the word order changes!
Lo vedo (I see it).
The pronoun lo stands for il cavallo, but it comes before the verb. This is just one example of how word order changes and is different than what we might expect.
So in terms of word order, you need to expect the unexpected, and little by little you will listen and repeat, listen and repeat, and you'll get it.
This was intended to give you an overview of what to expect from the Italian language. We've tried to give you some links to Yabla videos and lessons that delve into each aspect of the language. But Yabla is primarily a library of videos you can use to hear the language spoken by native speakers. Don't be afraid to watch videos using the English subtitles, Italian subtitles, or both. Or... just let it soak in, depending on your mood and time availability. Vocabulary reviews and other exercises we've provided at the end of each video will help you learn new words, check your progress, and help you with listening comprehension and dictation. It's up to you to take advantage of them.
L’alfabeto telefonico (The telephone alphabet)
Speaking on the phone in a foreign language can be quite a challenge. As Marika spells out in a lesson for beginners about the alphabet, Italians use the names of cities (for the most part) when they need to be crystal clear in spelling a name or a word.
The Italian way is to use the name of a city directly, leaving out the letter itself completely, once it’s clear you’re using this system. Notice how Marika does it, as she makes a phone reservation for a friend. The person taking the call asks her to spell the name, or fare lo spelling (to do the spelling). Spelling is a word taken pari pari (exactly as it is) from the English, except that it’s used as a noun, with its article lo.
Claudia Rossi. -Mi può fare lo spelling?
Claudia Rossi. -Can you spell that for me?
Sì, certo! Como, Livorno, Ancona, Udine, Domodossola, Imola, Ancona.
Yes, of course! Como, Livorno, Ancona, Udine, Domodossola, Imola, Ancona.
Captions 12-16, Marika spiega - Fare lo spellingPlay Caption
The spelling for Yabla would be: ipsilon, Ancona, Bologna, Livorno, Ancona.
Here’s the complete list of the cities generally used for spelling:
• A: Ancona
• B: Bologna
• C: Como
• D: Domodossola
• E: Empoli
• F: Firenze
• G: Genova
• H: acca, or hotel
• I: Imola
• J: i lunga, or Jolly, Jersey
• K: kappa
• L: Livorno
• M: Milano
• N: Napoli
• O: Otranto
• P: Palermo
• Q: Quarto, Quadro
• R: Roma
• S: Savona
• T: Torino
• U: Udine
• V: Varese, Venezia
• W: vu doppia, doppia vu, or Washington
• X: ics, or di raggi x (x rays)
• Y: ipsilon, y greca, or di Yacht, di York
• Z: zeta or Zara
Learn to spell your name and address using the alfabeto telefonico! Some of these cities, such as Udine, Otranto, Imola, Empoli, and Napoli are pronounced with the accent on the first syllable. Domodossola is accented on the third syllable. Domodossola happens to be one of the important frontiere (border crossings) on the train line between Italy and Switzerland. Pronunciation aids along with the list (with some alternate city names) can be found here. Knowing what cities to associate with letters is especially handy if you intend to travel in Italy, so memorizing this list can be fun and useful.
This lesson is aimed at beginners, but even more advanced students might learn something they didn't know before.
English consonants are typically written out as the letters themselves (B, C, D) rather than as words approximating their pronunciation (we don't write "bee" when we mean "B"). Yet Italian consonants do have words that represent them, which you'll learn by following along with Marika.
A, bi, ci, di, e, effe, gi, acca, i, i lunga, cappa,
elle, emme, enne, o, pi, qu,
erre, esse, ti, u, vi, doppia vu, ics, ipsilon, zeta.
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J (long I), K,
L, M, N, O, P, Q,
R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.
Captions 5-9, Marika spiega L'alfabetoPlay Caption
Another distinction is that while many English words end in consonants, it's rare that an Italian word does. If you look at Marika’s list of words, those ending in consonants are “loan words” from other languages. Because it’s much more common for an Italian word to end with a vowel than a consonant, Italian consonants themselves (except for X) are all written and pronounced ending in a vowel, and sometimes they begin with a vowel, too. The word for the letter may be more than one syllable in length. Let’s take the letter “S” for example. Listen to how Marika says it: esse: two syllables. As a matter of fact, in the commercial world, Italians sometimes use this way of spelling a letter to come up with clever names of companies, stores, or products. A well-known example in Italy is the supermarket called Esselunga (Long S).
The native Italian alphabet contains 21 letters. With language becoming more and more international, Italian has adopted five new letters to spell the foreign “loan words.” These are:
• J- i lunga (“long I”)**
• K- kappa
• W- vu doppia, or doppia vu (“double V”)**
• X- ics
• Y- i-greca (Greek “I”) or ipsilon (upsilon)
**These names make more sense if you think that before semi-modern times, I and J were considered variant forms of the same letter, same as U and V.
Once you've repeated after Marika in the video, and you've done the exercise she suggests, try spelling some Italian words you know out loud, and, of course, try spelling your name.
When spelling out loud, pay careful attention to “A,” “E,” and “I” because in Italian the vowel “E” is pronounced not unlike the English “A,” and in Italian the vowel, “I” is pronounced not unlike the English pronunciation of “E,” so, to avoid confusion, it’s always important to establish what language you're spelling in! And of course when you get to “R” try rolling that “R!” In the Italian spelling of this letter (erre) there are indeed 2 of them, so they need rolling.
We’ve all heard the informal greeting ciao ("hi" or "bye") and the more formal buongiorno ("good morning" or "hello"). But when is the right—or wrong—time to use them? And what are the variations and alternatives?
In Il Commissario Manara - Un delitto perfetto, a freshly transferred Commissioner is greeting his new boss. He certainly wouldn’t say ciao. He says buongiorno. If it were after noon (technically after 12 noon, but more likely later) he would say buonasera ("good evening," "good afternoon," or "hello").
Buongiorno. -Si può sapere, di grazia, che fine ha fatto?
Good morning. -Can one know, may I ask, where you have been?Play Caption
At the market, Agata is addressing the vegetable vendor with respect. It is polite to add signora (ma’am) or signore (sir) when addressing someone you don’t know well, or when you don’t know their name. Agata’s friend just says a general buongiorno ("good morning") to everyone (a little less formal but still perfectly acceptable):
Signora buongiorno. -Buongiorno. -Volevo fare vedere alla mia amica Catena... -Buongiorno, piacere.
Madam, good morning. -Good morning. -I wanted to show my friend Catena... -Good morning, nice to meet you.
Captions 23-24, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
Agata and her friend Catena are still at the market. Catena says buongiorno since she doesn’t know anyone at all. Agata just uses her vendor’s name (Giuseppe) to greet him, and he greets her using the familiar form:
Buongiorno. -Giuseppe! -Ciao Agata.
Good morning. -Giuseppe! -Hi Agata.
Caption 8, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
Another vendor is saying goodbye to her customers: ciao to those to she knows well and arrivederci (literally, "until we see each other again") to those she doesn’t:
Grazie. Arrivederci, ciao.
Thanks. Goodbye, bye.
Captions 44-45, L'isola del gusto - Il macco di AuroraPlay Caption
One version of "hello" has a very limited application: pronto. It literally means "ready," and it's how Italians answer the phone:
Pronto, Sicily Cultural Tour. Buongiorno.
Hello, Sicily Cultural Tour. Good morning.
Caption 1, Pianificare - un viaggioPlay Caption
Still another way to greet someone is salve (hello). Less formal than buongiorno, it is still polite and you can use it all by itself. It is especially useful when you’re not sure how formal to be or whether it is morning or afternoon/evening, and when you don’t know or remember the name of the person you are addressing.
Salve, vorrei fare un viaggio alla Valle dei Templi ad Agrigento.
Hello, I'd like to take a trip to the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento.
Caption 2, Pianificare - un viaggioPlay Caption
As you go about your day, try imagining how you might greet the people you meet if you were speaking Italian. Keep in mind the hour, and how well you know the person—and, remember, when in doubt, there is always salve!
To learn more:
A detailed explanation of Forms of Address used in Italian can be found here.