The main topic of conversation in lots of places right now is "coronavirus." We hope that it won't last too long, because in addition to making people sick, with some people even dying, it's also wildly disrupting the life of many people around the world.
Italy has been hit particularly hard and is consequently in the spotlight, so let's look at some of the words people and newspapers are using to talk about it.
In English, we talk about "lockdown" to describe the measures Italy is taking to try to prevent the spread of the virus. There are a few options for an Italian translation: l'isolamento (the isolation), il blocco (the blocking, the closing off), blindare (to lock down) blindato (locked down).
Let's talk about some of the vocabulary Italians are using to talk about what's going on.
To begin with, let's look at a headline from Sunday, March 8, when new rules went into effect for the zone rosse (the red zones, or epicenters), including Lombardy, the Veneto, and other regions.
Covid-19, nuove regole: evitare ogni spostamento nelle zone colpite
(Covid -19, new rules: avoid any traveling/moving around in the affected areas).
Let's look at the words in the headline.
This is pretty self-explanatory. The two words are similar to their English counterparts: the adjective nuovo (new) and the noun la regola. In this case, it is a feminine noun in the plural — le regole. The adjective nuovo has to agree with the noun, so its "o" ending changes to "e" the feminine plural ending.
usare i pronomi relativi "quale" e "quali", per evitare possibili ambiguità,
to use the relative pronouns "quale" and "quali," to avoid possible ambiguities,
Captions 7-8, Corso di italiano con Daniela Pronomi relativi - Part 5Play Caption
This easy, common, and useful adjective never changes. it's worth looking up in your dictionary of choice because it can be used in such a variety of ways. One common expression is ogni tanto (every now and then).
E ogni tanto, però, parlavamo di cose serie.
And every now and then, though, we talked about serious things.
Caption 32, Silvana e Luciano Il nostro incontroPlay Caption
In the headline, of course, we are talking about "each and every." In other words, "Avoid unnecessary travel." "Avoid all cases of moving around the area."
This interesting noun comes from the verb spostare, also an interesting word. It's interesting because there is no specific equivalent in English, yet once you learn it in Italian, you'll wonder how you could do without it. Did you detect another word inside the verb spostare? Yes, it's posto, the noun, il posto (the place, the position, the location). So spostare, with its telltale "s" prefix, means to take something away from its place. And it can be used reflexively when you are the one moving yourself away from a place. What a wonderful verb! Usually, we use the verb "to move" to translate spostare, but sometimes it's "to shift," "to re-locate," "to transfer," "to move around." In short, if you live in the zona rossa (red zone) you should move around the area as little as possible.
Il verbo "andare" indica uno spostamento verso un luogo ed è seguito da diverse preposizioni a seconda del nome che lo segue:
The verb “andare” indicates a movement towards a place, and is followed by various prepositions, according to the noun that follows it:
Captions 31-33, Marika spiega I verbi venire e andare - Part 1Play Caption
This is an easy noun with a "friendly" English cognate. Just remember that the original noun is la zona. Zone is plural. La zona is often translated with "the area."
This past participle comes from the verb colpire (to hit, to affect, to make an impression on). Since it's a headline, all the little words that tell you it's a past participle are missing:
Le zone che sono state colpite (the zones that were hit). Colpire can have literal and figuarative meanings of different kinds.
Poi un'altra cosa che mi ha colpito molto è che io vengo da una terra dove l'acqua è un bene prezioso, non ce n'è molta.
Then, another thing that made a strong impression on me was that I come from a land where water is a precious resource, there isn't much of it.
Captions 43-45, Gianni si racconta Chi sonoPlay Caption
In the headline, the connotation of colpire is "to affect."
Let's have just a quick look at some of the other rules:
Divieto assoluto di uscire dalla propria abitazione per chi è sottoposto alla quarantena o è risultato positivo al virus.
If you have been quarantined or if you have tested positive to the virus, you must not leave your home.
Ma cos'è questo fumo? Hm. -Perché mi guarda così? Perché qui è vietato fumare.
But, what is this smoke? Uhm. -Why are you looking at me like that? Because here smoking is prohibited.
Captions 20-22, Psicovip Il fulmine - Ep 4Play Caption
Stop is pretty clear! In the explanation that follows the rule, however, the Italian word sospesi (suspended) is used.
Sono sospesi gli eventi e le competizioni sportive di ogni ordine e disciplina... (sporting events and competitions on every level and of every kind have been suspended...)
Favorire congedo ordinario o ferie (encourage leaves of absence and vacation days).
Favorire is another verb that is partly a true cognate, but often means "to encourage," "to foster."
Chiuso (closed) is pretty clear —from the verb chiudere (to close).
These same rules have been applied to museums, gyms, spas, ski resorts, and many other centers.
The list goes on, but we have covered some of the important rules here and the vocabulary associated with them.
Further vocabulary to know regarding the virus:
Things are tough for Italians (and many others!) right now. Besides the virus itself, everyday life has become complicated for lots of folks. Those of us who work remotely feel fortunati (lucky) to be able to do our jobs in a normal way, but we might have kids underfoot who would ordinarily be in school! If everyone cooperates, taking the right precautions, hopefully, we can beat this thing.
La speranza è l'ultima a morire (hope is the last to die — hope springs eternal).
If you have heard or read things in Italian about the virus that you aren't able to understand, let us know and we'll try to help. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A current episode of Provaci ancora prof brings to mind a noun that is easily mixed up with a similar one, by non-native speakers of Italian.
These are nouns Italians use a lot in day-to-day conversation. One is about money and one is about health (and money too, in a roundabout way), both very common topics of conversation. They're also hard to guess the meaning of.
This is a word you need if you want to buy a house, or just take out a loan from the bank. If you're buying a house, then people will understand you're talking about a mortgage. For any other use, it's the equivalent of a loan. We also notice that when mutuo means mortgage, we often use a definite article (il) and when we mean "loan," we'll likely use an indefinite article (un). To mean "loan," you can also use un prestito or un finanziamento.
Roberta mi ha aiutato quando ho fatto il mutuo sulla casa e sa... insomma, dovrà, dovrà riavere.
Roberta helped me when I took out a mortgage on the house and she knows... basically, she should, she should get it back.
Captions 36-37, L'Eredità -Quiz TV La sfida dei sei. Puntata 1 - Part 14Play Caption
Io ho ancora da parte millecinquecento euro, però dovrei pagare il mutuo alla banca.
I still have fifteen hundred euros put aside, but I should pay the mortgage to the bank.
Captions 54-55, Provaci Ancora Prof! S1E2 - Un amore pericoloso - Part 3Play Caption
Il parrucchiere, quello più caro, quello in fondo al paese. Una messa in piega ci vuole un mutuo, eh. E poi non solo...
The hairdresser, the most expensive one, the one at the edge of town. To get one's hair done, you need to take out a loan, huh. And not only that...
Captions 37-39, Il Commissario Manara S2EP1 - Matrimonio con delitto - Part 4Play Caption
If you hang out in Italy long enough, like many ex-pats, you will get to know another important noun, la mutua. This is the national health service. You can benefit from this service if you are a legal resident. You don't need to be an Italian citizen.
Here's a scenario.
Devo fare un intervento al femore (I have to get my hip operated on).
-Costerà caro, no? (that will be expensive won't it?)
No. Per fortuna, paga la mutua (No, fortunately national health insurance will pay for it).
Here's another scenario.
Non vado al lavoro oggi. Sono alla mutua.
I'm not going to work today. I'm on sick leave.
This is an informal noun, and may not be used all over Italy, but it the common name Italians give to this service. There are rules for different kinds of jobs (state or private) whereby your sick leave is paid for if you are an employee, but you need a certificate signed by your doctor (il medico della mutua, or il medico curante) and you have to make sure to be home during certain hours of the day, such as from 10 AM to 12 PM, and 5 PM to 7 PM. That way, the health authorities can check to see if you are really sick.
Getting sick and making mortgage or loan payments are never divertenti (fun), but at least you know the words to describe these things now!
P.S. mutuo is also an adjective corresponding to "mutual."
In a foreign country, knowing how to address people can be a challenge.
First of all, you need to know whether to be formal or informal. Italians may refer to this as dare del lei (to give the formal "you") or dare del tu (to give the informal "you"). Check out this lesson about the ins and outs of this.
During the period of Italian Fascism, there were strict rules about how to address other people. It's a fascinating story and Yabla has featured a documentary about Fascism and Italian language. Check out the relative lesson: What's the Story on Voi in the Singular?
It's interesting that Italians very often use the equivalent of "ma'am" and "sir" instead of using someone's name: signora and signore.
Sì, signora, dica. -E mio marito non è rientrato stanotte e non ha nemmeno avvertito... e... non è mai successo. Sono molto preoccupata. -Venga nel mio ufficio, signora.
Yes, ma'am, what is it? -My husband didn't come home last night and he didn't even let me know... and... it's never happened before. I'm very worried. -Come into my office, ma'am.
Captions 15-19, Il Commissario Manara S1EP6 - Reazione a Catena - Part 2Play Caption
Keep in mind that often, signora and signor are commonly used before a first name. It's midway between formal and informal.
Signora Caterina, non si preoccupi per Brigadiere, perché l'ho portato alla pensione Abbaio Giocoso e starà benissimo.
Miss Caterina, don't worry about Brigadiere, because I took him to the kennel "Playful Barking" and he'll be just fine.
Captions 39-40, Il Commissario Manara S2EP6 - Sotto tiro - Part 14Play Caption
We've also talked about the fact that Italians use the term dottore (doctor) when wishing to treat someone with respect, regardless of whether the person is an actual doctor, or whether he has a PhD. The Dottore is In.
And, like dottore, they will use a title without the name of the person. For instance, in the story of Adriano Olivetti, he was an engineer, so people — especially people who worked with him — would just call him Ingegnere (engineer), without his name.
Ingegnere, Lei mi sta facendo una proposta incredibile.
Sir, you are making me an incredible offer.Play Caption
Lastly, at school, the actual name of the teacher seems to be of relatively minor importance when addressing him or her directly. You simply call your teacher Prof, short for professore (professor, teacher) if you are allowed to by the teacher. When speaking more formally, students will use professore or professoressa, once they leave primary school. If they are still in primary or elementary school, they will use maestra (schoolmistress) to refer to a female teacher. On the subject of the schoolroom, Yabla offers an original content series about the regions of Italy. It's set in a classroom with Anna as the student and Marika playing the (often mean) teacher. How does Anna handle this? It might depend on the mood of the professoressa. Check out the videos here.
Guardi, Lei ha studiato, perché Lei ha studiato, ma mi sta antipatica oggi e quindi Le metto sette. -Ma prof, ma sono venuta volontaria. -E ho capito, però mi gira così.
Look, you've studied, because [and I see] you've studied, but I find you disagreeable today and so I'll put down a seven. But teacher, I volunteered. -Uh, I get it, but that's how it's hitting me today.
Captions 88-91, L'Italia a tavola Interrogazione sulla LiguriaPlay Caption
Yabla offers the TV series, Provaci ancora Prof as part of its growing library. The title is a takeoff on Woody Allen's "Play it Again, Sam."
A student is speaking to his teacher:
Prof, si unisca a noi.
Teach, join us.Play Caption
Of course in American English, we would use Mr., Mrs., Ms, or Miss and the last name of the teacher. The translation we have given is very informal, and calling a teacher "teach" would likely be frowned upon in most schools. But in Italy, it's the norm in many school situations. Good to know!
More about meeting and greeting formally and informally here: I say hello; you say goodbye
When we see the word “ape,” it makes us think of a rather large, ferocious animal. But in Italian, its meaning is almost the opposite. Ape is the word for "bee." The Ape, as we shall see, was built for people who work, for someone who is busy as a bee.
At the end of World War II, many, if not most Italians were having money problems, and certainly only a privileged few had the financial means to buy a car, much less pay for its fuel and maintenance.
The Ape came to the rescue. In 1947, the inventor of the Vespa, (a popular motor scooter whose name means “wasp”) came up with the idea of a light, three-wheeled commercial vehicle to power Italy's economical reconstruction. Piaggio, who had built the Vespa became interested and took on the project. The very first Ape models were glorified Vespas with two wheels in the rear, and a flat-bed structure on top of the rear axle— a sort of tricycle with a motor.
Little by little, the model developed to include a cab to protect the driver. Designed as a one-seater, a passenger is often seen squeezed in, as well, but it's definitely a tight fit. There are now doors on either side to facilitate parking right up next to a wall. Although no longer made principally in Italy, the Ape is still in production today!
Because of its small scooter-sized engine, the Ape doesn’t go fast (maximum around 60 kilometres an hour), and as a result, you don’t need to have an automobile driver’s license to drive one. The motor is strong enough to carry a sizeable load, and to get up the steep hills found in many parts of the country.
We see in the movie Chi m’ha visto, that Peppino’s vehicle is indeed an Ape. Given the size of the streets in so many Italian towns, cities, and country roads as well, the Ape is just right for negotiating them. Peppino races around like a maniac anyway, honking at pedestrians to get out of his way.
If you have ever been traveling in Italy, you might have heard an Ape before seeing one. The noise is terrifying especially as it climbs steep, narrow, cobblestone streets in the middle of an old town, where the close stone walls amplify the sound even more. Getting caught behind one on a narrow road can add hours and frustration to your trip. Fortunately, the Ape is so narrow, the driver can hug the side of the road so that cars can pass. Menomale!
Still a familiar sight all over Italy, the Ape is amazingly useful for the handyman, gardener, farm worker, delivery man, etc.
In an episode of Commissario Manara, Manara himself actually drives an Ape to figure out how a crime had been committed. He's putting himself in the killer's place.
Al piazzale davanti allo studio ci potrei andare a piedi, invece ci vado con l' Ape. Perché? Perché devo trasportare qualcosa, qualcosa di pesante. E che cos'è?
To the courtyard in front of the studio I could go by foot, but instead I go with the "Ape." Why? Because I have to transport something, something heavy. And what is it?
Captions 44-47, Il Commissario Manara S1EP11 - Beato tra le donne - Part 9Play Caption
Even though the Ape is pretty small already, many Italians use a diminutive suffix and call it l'Apino. It also distinguishes it from ape the insect, and it renders the idea of "small."
A recent segment about Italian Fascism and language focuses on dubbing.
What's doppiaggio (dubbing)? After receiving a translation of a script, an actor, in a special recording booth with a monitor, has to watch a movie, adapting what he or she reads to whatthe actor on the screen is saying. The meaning and intention have to be there, and at the same time, there must be the same number of syllables, more or less, so that it can look convincing. It’s a huge, creative, and painstaking job. Historically, Italians have been champions at this. Dubbing provides a way for people to enjoy foreign movies. When dubbing started out in Italy, lots of people all over the country had never learned to read. They were analfabeti (illiterate).
Nel millenovecentotrentatré viene inventato il doppiaggio, che permette ai film di circolare in vari paesi.
In nineteen thirty-three dubbing is invented, which allows for films to be distributed in various countries.
Uno dei più complessi e magici trucchi cinematografici.
One of the most complex and magical cinematographic tricks.
Captions 11-13, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italiana - Part 9Play Caption
Even today, although many Italians read a lot, there are still those who aren't comfortable or just don’t enjoy reading. When given the choice of a dubbed movie or one with subtitles, dubbing wins most of the time. This is certainly a generalization, but the fact that you need to go to a special art movie theater to find a movie in its original language with subtitles bears witness to this.
There are arguments for both dubbing and using subtitles, each having vantaggi (advantages) and svantaggi (disadvantages). Luckily, in this digital age, you can often choose your language when watching at home on DVD, streaming, or even on commercial TV. It comes down to personal preference as well as familiarity with the original language of the movie. Culture, tradition, and economics determine what happens in the movie theater.
There was a time when it was popular to dub Italian films in post-production, rather than record the sound live. At the outset, it may have been for technical reasons, as recording live sound is complicated, but for some directors, like Fellini, it was part of their art. And ofcourse, in many filmmaking situations, there comes a time when dubbing is needed to fix mistakes made by actors or for technical reasons. So the dubbing booth is part of making movies.
Italians, having had a lot of practice over the years, happen to be extremely good at dubbing.
Here at Yabla, of course, we promote watching a video in the original language. It’s hard to learn a foreign language if you never hear it spoken. And being able to turn the subtitles on and off with a click is pretty handy.
Speaking of Yabla, two people on our talent force have worked in the field of dubbing.
Eh, all'inizio sì, lo facevo come [sic], doppiavo grandi artisti e attori.
Yeah, at the beginning, yes; I did that like I dubbed famous artists and actors.
Poi, eh, mi sono concentrata molto sui documentari.
Then, ah, I started concentrating a lot on documentaries.
Captions 14-15, Marika e Daniela - Daniela Bruni, voice overPlay Caption
Inoltre, questo... in questo corso si impara a interpretare: interpretare un personaggio, interpretare un testo.
In addition, this... in this course one learns to act: to play a role, to interpret a script.
Questo è fondamentale quando ci si trova appunto nello studio di doppiaggio a dover affrontare un, un testo oppure un personaggio.
This is fundamental when you find yourself, in fact, in the dubbing studio and need to deal with a script or a character.
Captions 14-17, Arianna e Marika - Il lavoro di doppiatricePlay Caption
The verb doppiare comes from the noun doppio. Its cognate is “double” in English. And sometimes it means just that, as in the following example, where it functions as an adjective. Note how the ending of the adjective changes according to the gender of the noun it modifies.
Ecco qua, doppia senape e doppio ketchup. -Bella schifezza.
Here you are, double mustard and double ketchup. -Nice bit of junk food.Play Caption
But more often than not, it means “twice,” as in the following example.
E per metterci magari anche il doppio del tempo?
And maybe takes even twice as much time?
Caption 7, Marika spiega - Proverbi italiani - Part 2Play Caption
Italians use sdoppiare to mean “to duplicate, to copy” when referring to CDs or cassettes. It is the negation of doppiare, and means “to split” but it also means “to make something into two.”
Mi potresti sdoppiare questo CD?
Could you copy this CD for me?
Interestingly enough, the verb “to dub” comes from “double” and came into use in the nineteen twenties. We use the verb “to dub” to refer to replacing speech in a movie, but also to copy from one tape to another (sdoppiare).
As Arianna tells us, you can go to school to get professional training in dubbing. Apart from dubbing actual movies, producers need dubbers for corporate videos, voice-overs for documentaries, and voices for cartoon characters. It’s a career choice that doesn’t immediately come to mind, but one that will never become obsolete.
See this fascinating article in English about the practice of dubbing in Italian cinema.
In the English language, with some exceptions, history is told in the past. The historical present does exist, however. In English grammar, the historical present is the use of a verb phrase in the present tense to refer to an event that took place in the past. In narratives, the historical present may be used to create an effect of immediacy. It’s also called the historic present, dramatic present, and narrative present.
But in Italian and other romance languages the historical present is commonly used to recount events in the past, especially when referring to history.
Context is very important, and translating can present some challenges.
Here’s an example of how Italian uses the historical present for something that clearly happened in the past. In English, it would sound a bit strange in the present tense, and the first phrase would be well nigh impossible to express in the present tense.
Pitrè nasce nel milleottocentoquarantuno a Palermo, in una famiglia di pescatori.
Pitrè was born in eighteen hundred forty-one in Palermo, in a family of fishermen.
Il padre, un povero marinaio del rione di Santa Lucia, è costretto, come tanti, ad emigrare in America, dove muore di febbre gialla.
The father, a poor sailor from the Santa Lucia district, was forced, like many, to emigrate to America, where he died of yellow fever.
Captions 28-32, Dottor Pitrè - e le sue storie - Part 2Play Caption
In the documentary about Fascism currently available on Yabla, the historical present is used in several instances. Sometimes it makes sense to use it in English, too, as in the following example. By using the historical present, we set the scene. We seem to observe the events from close up, as they happen.
Sono gli anni delle campagne di stampa contro le parole straniere.
Parole straniere e borghesia sono mali da estirpare.
These are the years of the publishing campaigns against foreign words.
Foreign words and the bourgeoisie are evils to be rooted out.
Captions 5-6, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italiana - Part 5Play Caption
La "Gazzetta del Popolo" di Torino inaugura la rubrica "Una parola al giorno".
Turin's “Gazzetta del Popolo” [The People's Gazzette] launches the feature “Una Parola Al Giorno” [A Word a Day].
Captions 14-15, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italiana - Part 5Play Caption
The use of the historical or narrative present in Italian is just something to be aware of. Deciding whether or not to maintain the same tense in translation is a subjective one, based on the tone to be set, or based on clarity. Much of the time, using the past tense in English will be preferred, but not always.
English doesn’t make the distinction — as far as pronouns go — between familiar and polite forms, but many languages do.
In a recent documentary about how the Italian language was influenced by Italian fascism, we learn that Lei, the polite form of “you” (singular), was actually banned from the language by Mussolini, and that the form Voi was imposed. But what’s this all about?
Let’s clarify, right away, that voi with a lowercase “v” is the second person plural personal pronoun, that is, “you” plural. We use it all the time. What we’re discussing here, however, is the use of Voi — with a capital letter — as a second person singular, polite form. It uses the same conjugation as voi (you plural).
The story is a long, complicated, and fascinating one, but here are the basics.
In ancient Rome, people used only the familiar form, “tu” (which later became the Italian tu (you, singular).
At a certain point, around the year 300, the Latin “Vos” ("you" plural used as a singular) began to be used with important figures such as emperors, much the same way as the pluralismajestatis was used.
“Vos” then became Voi in Italian, and was commonly used from the 1200’s to the 1400’s for addressing artists, nobility, etc. Dante used tu and Voi. Later, in the Renaissance, with the return to studying the Greek and Roman classics, there was a tendency to go back to the “Roman” tu.
Also in the Renaissance, Lei began to be used in offices and courts as a polite form of address. Lei corresponds to the third person feminine singular (she/her). The words used for prominent figures, like Eccellenza (Excellence) and Maestà (Majesty) are feminine nouns, and so, this led to a feminine pronoun: Lei. Lei was used alongside Voi for centuries as a deferential form of address, with tu as a familiar and intimate one. Many consider that the use of Lei came into use following the model of the Spanish, whose presence was felt in Italy during the 16th Century.
So, though not actually foreign (but believed to be, at least, partially), Lei was banned by Mussolini as being a non-Italian word:
Imposizione del Voi ...
The imposition of “Voi” ["you" singular, formal] ...
Parole straniere bandite e sostituite per legge.
Foreign words banned and replaced by law.
Captions 6-9, Me Ne Frego - Il Fascismo e la lingua italiana - Part 2Play Caption
Thus, Voi was revived and/or imposed all over Italy. After the fall of fascism, Voi fell into disuse in many parts of Italy, where it had not really had time to be assimilated.
In much of southern Italy, however, Voi, as a deferential form of address, had never gone out of fashion, as it had in the north. So, it simply remained, and to this day it’s still used as a sign of respect, especially in families: a nipotino (grandson) in speaking to his nonno (grandfather), for example.
If you are an adult and go on a trip to Naples, Sicily or other southern Italian destination, you may very well be addressed as Voi. This is a sign of respect.
Lei has entered Italian vocabulary and grammar books as the official personal pronoun for addressing someone formally. But since language is fluid and ever-changing — not by law and imposition, but by common use — this could change. There's a lesson about this!
Thanks for reading, keep up the good work, and feel free to write to us at
email@example.com with your comments and questions.
A note about Adriano and his Dublin videos. You may notice that in a recent installment, he uses the noun locali to mean “the locals.” It’s incorrect.
Questa scuola di cucina serve appunto per far conoscere a locali [sic: persone del posto] e a stranieri le tecniche, i segreti della cucina italiana.
This school serves, in fact, to acquaint locals and foreigners with the techniques, the secrets of Italian cooking.
Captions 22-23, Adriano - Pizzeria Pinocchio - Part 1Play Caption
In Italian, un locale is a place. Adriano is using a “false friend” that made its way into his brain without his even realizing it, perhaps. This can happen very easily when we spend time in a foreign country. We make a huge effort to learn the language of the place, we even start thinking in that language, and then all of a sudden we have to speak our native language there in the foreign country. It’s easy to get a little mixed up sometimes. Living in a foreign country encourages us to become somewhat multilingual, using the word that seems the most appropriate at the moment, in whichever language. Since there is no good, single Italian word for “the locals,” Adriano just grabbed the first word that sounded right, treating it as an Italian word, making the plural with an i. If you speak English, you understand it. Just remember: it’s not correct Italian.
There are times and situations in which reading is the thing to do.
Oppure potete semplicemente sdraiarvi sull'erba, prendere il sole e leggere un buon libro.
Or else you can simply lie on the grass, sunbathe and read a good book.
Captions 22-23, Anna presenta Villa Borghese - Part 2Play Caption
Here are a few ideas to feed your Italian language curiosity.
Una parola al giorno (One word a day)
This is a great website for learning new words in Italian, or for getting explanations about words you have heard or read, and maybe even used, but would like to know more about.
The explanations are in Italian, so it’s mostly for more advanced learners. You can always consult an English language tool as well such as Google, or go straight to WordReference if the Italian is too difficult. By subscribing to Una parola al giorno, you’ll receive a new word every day in your inbox. It may be a word you don’t care about, and you can just send it to the trash, but there will be plenty of useful words, too. It’s free, and you can unsubscribe any time.
Do you like to read?
Sometimes it’s fun to learn new words and expressions in Italian within the context of a book or story in English set in Italy. Both of the following authors pepper their writings with Italian words and phrases. It’s a great opportunity to discover when, where, and how to use them. It also gives you some inside information about Italian culture.
Tim Parks is a British author who has lived in Verona, Italy for many years. He worked as a translator and taught translating skills at Italian universities, as well as being a successful novelist. His books about Italy provide some well-written and humorous insight into Italy, Italians, and the Italian language.
Below are his non-fiction books about Italy.
Italian Neighbours, 1992. Relates how the author and his wife came to a small town near Verona and how they integrate and become accustomed to the unusual habits of their newfound neighbours. ISBN 0099286955
An Italian Education, 1996. Follow up to Italian Neighbours and recounts the milestones in the life of the author's children as they progress through the Italian school system. ISBN 0099286963
Italian Ways, on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo 2013 This is all about the railway system in Italy, and how the author travelled the length of the “boot” to discover its ins and outs.
Donna Leon has written a long series of mysteries set in Venice. She lived in Venice for many years, so her descriptions are quite true-to-life.
In a recent video, Marika shows us the balcony of her apartment in Rome, so let’s talk about a couple of details concerning Italian life that come to the fore as she takes us around.
Il bucato (the laundry):
In the United States, there are laundry rooms in the basement of a house or apartment building, but this is rare in Italy. People have their own washing machines, usually in the kitchen, bathroom, or on the balcony.
Quando ho finito di usare la lavatrice e devo stendere i miei panni, userò lo stendibiancheria, che è questo.
When I've finished using my washing machine and I need to hang out my laundry, I'll use the drying rack, which is this one.
Captions 41-42, Marika spiega - Il balconePlay Caption
Some people have dryers but most ordinary people don’t. That’s why Marika talks about the drying racks. You buy the one that suits the space you have. The weather is usually such that you can dry your clothes outside. Occasionally, you do need to put the drying racks inside because of inclement weather, or you can place a plastic tarp over the rack to keep the rain out. There are laundromats in town, so if the weather is too bad, you can dry your clothes at the laundromat. Laundry in Italy is something that takes a little thought and planning. Electricity costs less at night, on weekends, and on holidays, so people who want to save do their laundry on the weekend, or at night. Newer washing machines have timers so you can schedule the wash to start at an appropriate time. A load of wash takes a lot longer to finish than you may be used to. It’s not unusual for a cycle to take an hour and a half.
La raccolta differenziata (recycling):
We say “recycling” but actually, what raccolta differenziata (differentiated collection) actually means is separating our garbage into different types to be collected, thus the term “differentiated.” It’s a bit tricky for people who live in apartments.
Per fortuna anche qui, come in tanti posti del mondo, si fa la raccolta differenziata.
Luckily, here too, as in many places in the world, we do recycling.
Caption 17, Marika spiega - Il balconePlay Caption
All the wrappers for food and other materials, usually made of plastic, but also including Tetra Paks and cans, go in one bin. Paper and cardboard go in another, glass in another, and most importantly, the wet stuff, usually food waste, goes in a separate container. What cannot be recycled in any way goes into the general, mixed garbage, or indifferenziata. We are encouraged to keep this type of waste to a bare minimum. Separating the different kinds of waste makes it much easier for the sanitation department workers to go through it and sort it further. Appropriate material will then be actually recycled. People who live outside the city, and have enough space, can get a bio-composter (usually free of charge) so they can recycle their own food and gardening refuse.
The European Parliament has set goals for reducing waste as far as possible. The method that has had the most success is what is called porta a porta (door to door) collection. Every day, a different kind of waste is picked up. At the outset, it costs more, but as it takes hold, people can actually save money.
Zanzariere (mosquito screens):
In the United States, most houses have screen doors and screens on the windows, but in Italy, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are all kinds of solutions, from screen curtains with magnets or velcro, to mosquito nets, to proper screens fitted into the windows and doors. They are usually the type that can be easily raised and lowered so people can air their bedspreads and pillows, and shake out their rugs, rags and dust mops from the windows.
Questa alle mie spalle si chiama zanzariera e serve per proteggermi dagli insetti.
This, behind me, is called mosquito netting [screen], and serves to protect me from insects.
Captions 6-7, Marika spiega - Il balconePlay Caption
If you travel to Italy in the summer, it can be wise to make sure the hotel or Bed and Breakfast you are staying in has screens on the windows and French doors. It may not be a given.
Find some history and general information about the Trentino-Alto Adige Südtirol region of Italy here.
But let’s take a closer look at the name itself: Trentino-Alto Adige.
The Alto Adige part of the name refers to the upper part of the Adige River that runs from the Alps through the Trentino-Alto Adige region and on to the Veneto region to empty out into the Adriatic Sea just south of Venezia and Chioggia. The Adige is the second longest river in Italy after the Po River, and it is this river valley that accommodates a good part of the toll road autostrada A22 that runs from the Italian-Austrian border at the Brenner Pass to Modena, as well as the railroad that follows a similar route. And so when travelling to and from Italy by way of the Brenner Pass, the river is visible for a good number of kilometers.
Trentino refers to the province of Trento (Trent), one of the two provinces of the region. Trento is a beautiful medieval city with a marvelous castle (Il Castello del Buonconsiglio), and was the seat of the famous Council of Trent in the 16th century.
Trentin-Südtirol is the German language name for the region, with its German speaking province and main city, Bozen/Bolzano.
When travelling north from Modena, Verona, and Trento towards Innsbruck, Austria, whether by car or by train, the names on the signs start to appear in two languages, Italian and German. The mountains get higher, the temperatures a bit cooler. The views are breathtaking.
It is great wine country, and on both sides of the river and of the autostrada, there are vineyards carpeting every inch, except for when there are apple orchards. Most of the apples produced in Italy come from this region.
There is also a bike path that goes along the Adige river, through the vineyards, for about 60 kilometers between Trento and Bolzano.
In a previous episode of the series on food, Gianni Mura talked about trends in restaurant dining. He talked about what quickly caught on as a popular way of getting a little taste of everything. Instead of a primo (first course), secondo (main dish), contorno (side dish), and dolce (dessert), a restaurant would offer a tris di assaggi (three "tastes," or miniature servings) of primi piatti (first courses). This became, and still is, a great way for tourists, or anyone else, to find out what they like. Depending on what's offered, and on the kind of restaurant, the three servings may arrive all on the same plate at the same time, or on separate plates, one after the other.
At the end of concerts, audiences ask for an encore. In Italian, this is called a bis. It comes from the Latin for "twice." It has come to mean "again" or "more" in a concert setting, where people want to hear a piece played a second time, or something extra once the programmed performance is over. If you're dining with friends at home, and would like another helping, you can use bis:
Posso fare il bis?
Can I have a second helping?
In rare cases you can ask for a bis in a restaurant, but usually in a restaurant setting, bis will indicate two small servings of two different dishes, rather than one normal one. Likewise, a tris (coming from the Latin for "three times") denotes three small servings of a dish rather than one normal serving.
Now that you know what tris means, here's a tris of tidbits about Italian.
In some cases Italian uses il passato prossimo (constructed like the English present perfect) to express an idea that in English would use the present tense. Here's an example. Luca is telling the doctor that Lara will promise to take care of him. She hesitates but then agrees. She uses the past participle of promettere (to promise) rather than the present tense, as we would in English.
Dottore, che... che devo fare? -Senta, se lo dimetto, mi promette di non lasciarlo solo neanche un attimo? Promette, promette... -Eh... sì! Promesso.
Doctor, what... what should I do? -Listen! If I release him, do you promise not to leave him alone, not even for an instant? She promises, she promises... -Uh... yes! I promise.
Captions 47-49, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP7 - Sogni di VetroPlay Caption
Capire (to understand) is another word that often gets used in its passato prossimo tense to mean what we think of as being in the present.
Ho capito, ma adesso, qua in mezzo alla campagna... con le mucche, che facciamo?
I get it, but now, here in the middle of the countryside... with the cows, what are we going to do?
Captions 10-11, Francesca - alla guida - Part 3Play Caption
As a question tag, the person and auxiliary verb are often left out:
Tiziana, calmati. Ho già fatto richiesta per farti scarcerare, però mi devi dare una mano. Mi devi aiutare, capito?
Tiziana, calm down. I've already put in a request for you to be released, but you have to give me a hand. You have to help me, do you understand?
Captions 21-22, Il Commissario Manara - S2EP9 - L'amica ritrovataPlay Caption
Ho capito (I understand [literally "I've understood"]) is what you commonly say to let someone know you're listening, much like "I see," "I get it," or even "uh huh."
E poi eravamo in giro tutte le notti, perché a quei tempi gli artisti andavano ad alcool e quindi...
And then, we were out and about all night because in those times, artists were fueled by alcohol, and so...
Captions 3-4, L'arte della cucina - La Prima IdentitáPlay Caption
In giro is a very general way to say "out" or "around," when you ask or say where someone is, or where someone has gone. There are many ways to use this expression, so check it out here.
In an online video lesson, Marika talks some more about object pronouns, this time with the participio passato (past participle). One important thing that can be difficult to grasp is that when the pronoun is used, the object (in the form of a pronoun) comes first. Let's look at this example.
Hai guardato il film? Sì, l'ho guardato.
Did you watch the movie? Yes, I watched it.
Captions 15-16, Marika spiega - I pronomi diretti con participio passatoPlay Caption
We also need to remember that the "h" in ho is silent. L'ho sounds like "lo," but the apostrophe is there to tell us that it's really lo (it) ho (I have). We have "l" + silent "o" + silent "h" + "o."
One extra tidbit concerning the passato prossimo: While constructed like the present perfect, it often translates with the English simple past tense, just as in the above example.
That's it for the tris!
This week Yabla features an interview with a poliziotto (policeman). Nicola gives us some insight into what it really means to be a policeman.
Sono un agente di Polizia da ventitré anni.
I've been a police officer for twenty-three years.
Caption 2, Nicola Agliastro - PoliziottoPlay Caption
But what brand of policeman is he? In Italy there are different categories of police, with different roles, rules, and uniforms.
Judging from the sign at the Commissariato (police headquarters) at the beginning of the video, Nicola appears to be part of the Polizia di Stato (state [national] police), which is the main, national police force. They are responsible for patrolling the autostrade (highways), ferrovie (railways), aeroporti (airports), and la dogana (customs). Their vehicles are blue and white (see thumbnail of video).
If you subscribe to Yabla, you’re quite familiar by now with La Polizia di Stato, since the popular series Commissario Manara takes place in that environment (in fact, there's a new segment this week!).
Luca and Lara are usually in borghese (plainclothes), and wear their uniforms only on special occasions. At first glance Luca Manara doesn't quite look the part, and Ginevra, the medico legale (coroner), who doesn't look the part any more so, comments:
Tu devi essere il nuovo commissario, però non ne hai l'aspetto.
You must be the new Commissioner, but you don't look it.Play Caption
La polizia municipale (local police force) on the other hand, works at a local level and is responsible primarily for traffic control, but also for enforcing national, regional, and local laws regarding commerce, legal residence, pets, and other administrative duties. The officers of the municipal police aren’t automatically authorized to carry weapons, since public safety is generally relegated to the Polizia di Stato. The municipal forces may be called polizia comunale (community police), polizia urbana (town police), or polizia locale (local police). They’re commonly called vigili urbani (town guards), but the correct nomenclature is agenti di polizia locale. Their vehicles depend on local tastes and traditions, and differ from town to town, and from region to region.
If you’re in Italy and you lose your wallet, or something gets stolen, you go to the Carabinieri to report the theft or the loss. They file a report, and make it official. When you’re driving, the Carabinieri may have you pull over for a routine checking of license, registration, and proof of insurance. If you have reason to believe there is a crime being committed, call the Carabinieri.
The police emergency number is 113, equivalent to 911 in the United States.
Here’s hoping you never need it!
Another important police force is la Guardia di Finanza (financial guard). The Guardia di Finanza deals primarily with financial crime and smuggling, and is the primary agency for suppressing illicit drug trade. They work on land, sea, and in the air. These are the agents who might ask you to produce a scontrino (receipt) upon exiting a shop, restaurant, or bar. The customer, since 2003, no longer incurs a fine, but it’s still good practice to hang on to your receipt until well away from the place of business.
These agents wear grayish green uniforms with the insignia of a yellow flame on the shoulder. Because of this, they are sometimes called le fiamme gialle (the yellow flames).
Whichever kind of policemen you see around, be they carabinieri, vigili, agenti di polizia locale, poliziotti, or fiamme gialle, remember they're there primarily to help, not to give you trouble.
Ferragosto (August 15th) is one of the most important and respected holidays of the year in Italy. It's also a religious holiday, the Feast of the Assumption, a very important holiday for Catholic countries like Italy, and so there's something for everyone: beach, barbecues, religious processions, fireworks, horse races—you name it.
In recent years, things have changed somewhat. Lately, people have had less money to spend on long vacations, and laws have changed, allowing stores to stay open on holidays, so there's a bit more city life than there used to be. Still, Ferragosto is not when you want to get a flat tire (forare), or a toothache (mal di denti).
Le strade sono deserte, le serrande sono chiuse (streets are deserted, stores are shuttered). You'll see signs on those closed serrande saying chiuso per ferie (closed for vacation). Ferragosto is also one of the hottest holidays, full of sun and blue skies. People want to be at the seaside.
In a video about the culinary arts, an art critic mentions gli anni di piombo (the years of lead), the sad and scary seventies when terrorism was an everyday reality in Italy, and there was gunsmoke in the air. He gives us this image of Milan:
Sembrava che la nebbia ci fosse anche a Ferragosto.
It seemed as though there was fog even at Ferragosto (national holiday on August 15th).Play Caption
Luckily, these days Ferragosto is much calmer. In fact, Ferragosto (which can also refer to the days around the 15th of August) is the time of the year in Italy when it's hard to get certain things done because so many shops and services are chiusi per ferie. Small commissioni (errands, tasks) can get complicated, such as:
comprare il pane (buying bread)
portare la macchina all'elettrauto (taking the car to the auto electrician)
farsi i capelli dal parrucchiere (getting your hair done at the hairdresser's)
mangiare al tuo ristorante preferito (eating at your favorite restaurant)
andare in palestra (going to the gym)
comprare l'aspirina per quel mal di testa (buying aspirin for that headache)
pagare l'assicurazione sulla macchina (paying your car insurance)
prendere un appuntamento col dentista (making a appointment with the dentist)
spedire un pacchetto alla posta (mailing a package at the post office)
chiamare un corriere (calling a delivery service)
fare riparare la lavatrice (getting your washing machine repaired)
Italians worry about what supermarkets might or might not be open on and around Ferragosto, and they stock up on acqua minerale (bottled mineral water), birra (beer),salumi (cold cuts), carbonella (charcoal), crema solare (sunblock), and molto ancora (lots more) before heading for il mare (the seaside).
Before wishing you buone ferie, a quick reminder about le ferie. It's a noun, always used in the plural to indicate time off, leave, or vacation.
If you've kept up with Commissario Manara, you'll know how thrilled he was to finally have some ferie (time off), but invece (instead) he had to stay put and solve a crime.
Ho dovuto sudare sette camice, ma alla fine la tua settimana di ferie eccola qua.
I had to sweat seven shirts [I had to go to a lot of trouble], but in the end, your week of vacation, here it is.
Captions 20-21, Il Commissario Manara - S1EP6 - Reazione a CatenaPlay Caption
It's very easy to confuse the meaning of the adjective feriale, which refers to just the opposite situation. Giorni feriali (workdays) include Saturdays, but not giorni festivi (Sundays and holidays). These terms are very important when you're parking your macchina (car) in order to avoid getting una multa (a fine or ticket).
So whether you're spending your ferie (time off) a casa (at home) or going in vacanza (on vacation) someplace exciting, or even if you're working, here's hoping you can relax and enjoy the rest of the summer.
Yabla non è chiuso per ferie! (Yabla is not closed for vacation!)
Just for fun:
Here are some visuals to help you get a feel for the Ferragosto spirit:
Italy is known for its three-course lunches and dinners, but in most cities and towns, there’ll be a more casual type of place where you can get take out, eat at a little table, or mangiare in piedi (eat standing up).
Pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) is very popular all over Italy, especially in Rome. As Anna explains, prices vary according to size and what’s on the pizza.
Tu scegli il pezzo di pizza, viene pesato, a seconda del tipo di pizza. Ha un prezzo diverso al chilo, e paghi a seconda della grandezza e del peso di pizza che hai scelto.
You choose the piece of pizza, it's weighed, depending on the kind of pizza. It has a varying price per kilo, and you pay depending on the size and the weight of the pizza you've chosen.
Captions 69-72, Anna e Marika: Pizza al taglio romana - Part 1 of 2
You can certainly find pizza al taglio in Tuscany, but in addition, and baked in the same oven, you’ll often see la cecina, made from farina di ceci (chickpea flour). Learn more here. Liguria and Tuscany, as well as Puglia have focaccia, in some areas called schiacciata, which is made with flour, water, oil and yeast, like pizza, and often takes the place of bread. You’ll find it in bakeries, bars, and pizzerie. As a quick snack, Romagna has the piadina, a flat bread made with lard rather than olive oil, which gets filled with cured meats or cheese. Learn more here.
A way for people to get together socially, without having to spend lots of money on dinner, is to have drinks before they go home for dinner: fare or prendere l’aperitivo (to have an aperitif). As we’ll see, aperitivo has different sfumature (shades of meaning).
Prima di andare a cena, quindi verso le sei o le sette, gli italiani fanno un aperitivo.
Before going to have dinner, so, around six or seven o'clock, Italians have cocktails.
Captions 1-2, Corso di italiano con Daniela: L'aperitivo
Adriano, in describing his day, includes an aperitivo, at least on the weekend.
Mi rilasso e mi sfogo con gli amici dopo una lunga giornata di lavoro.
Mi concedo qualche aperitivo e poi anche qualche cocktail alcolico.
I relax and I let off steam with my friends after a long day of work.
I allow myself some aperitifs and then also a few cocktails.
Captions 44-46, Adriano: Giornata
It’s pretty clear that Adriano considers aperitivo in its broader sense, and he uses qualche aperitivo here to mean a few appetizers. For an explanation of how to use qualche, see this previous lesson. For the drink itself, Adriano uses "cocktail.” As with most English words integrated into the Italian language, "cocktail" will remain in the singular no matter how many he has.
While the aperitivo, usually served with patatine (potato chips) or olive (olives), is an established ritual in most parts of Italy, one of the latest trends is the apericena. If you combine aperitivo (drinks) with cena (dinner), you get apericena. What is it? It’s drinks and appetizers, both savory and sweet, that are varied and abundant enough to replace dinner, served buffet style. The apericena exists both in bars about town, offering an alternative to a costly tab in a restaurant, and in homes, making for a relatively low-budget, flexible, and fashionable alternative to a sit-down dinner. It encourages mingling, conversation, and allows for guests to just stop by. These light buffet dinners are becoming more and more popular all over Italy.
All over the world there's a tendency to take foreign words and knowingly or unknowingly give them a meaning different from the original. So, be aware that in bars, the apericena or the aperitivo (depending on how much there is to eat) is sometimes called a “happy hour,” which in Italy is not about discounts on drinks as in the United States, but rather having drinks accompanied by a small buffet of stuzzichini (appetizers) for a fixed, though variable, price. More about the Italian happy hour here. The word for “toothpick” in Italian is stuzzicadenti. Little bite-size appetizers are often served with toothpicks, thus the term stuzzichini. If you travel to Venice, you'll want to check out the Venetian version of stuzzichini: cicchetti.
Learn more here. This is an important tip, given that it’s quite a challenge finding good food at reasonable prices in Venezia.
As we saw in a previous lesson, Italians are very conscious of formal and informal greetings, and will say hello in different ways depending on the situation. But there’s more. When speaking or writing to someone they must, or want, to treat with respect, they’ll use the polite form of “you”—Lei. This happens to be identical to the word for “she,” lei. For a fascinating explanation, see this article and its continuation here. To show respect, Lei gets capitalized, together with its possessive pronouns Sua, Sue, Suoi (your, yours) and its object pronouns La and Le (you). Although the capitalization of these pronouns is going out of style, it can be helpful for figuring out who is being talked about. Using the formal “you” is called dare del Lei (giving the formal “you”). The opposite is called dare del tu (giving the informal “you”).
In Ma Che Ci Faccio Qui (But What Am I Doing Here?), Alessio finds himself in an embarrassing situation. (Yes, he’s about to fare brutta figura!) Things have gotten decidedly intimo, but Alessio da ancora del Lei (is still giving the formal “you”) to this woman, and she calls him out on it.
Ma che fai, mi dai ancora del Lei?
What are you doing, you still address me formally?Play Caption
In an episode of Commissario Manara, Lara is trying to get some information from a woman in shock over the death of her employer. Lara uses Lei since she is addressing someone older than her, and whom she doesn’t know. Lara sees the woman is touchy on the subject at hand so she immediately apologizes, even though she’s done nothing wrong.
When the personal pronoun in question is an object, either direct or indirect, it can become part of the verb, as we’ve talked about in a previous lesson. In the example below, the polite “you” is a direct object of the verb offendere (to offend), and becomes part of it (with a respectful capital letter in this case).
Mi scusi, non volevo offenderLa.
I'm sorry, I didn't want to offend you.Play Caption
In another episode, Luca Manara is being polite to his boss, but only on the surface. In this case, the indirect object pronoun is part of the compound verb, riferire a (to report to).
Ma, come, purtroppo Lei mi ricorda, io devo riferirLe tutto, no? -Si aspetta magari che le dica bravo?
But, since, unfortunately you remind me, I have to tell you everything, don't I? -Maybe you're expecting me say, "Good work?"
Captions 25-26, Il Commissario Manara S1EP2 - Vendemmia tardiva - Part 17Play Caption
In the concluding segment of “Vendemmia tardiva,” la zia, as usual, uses her powers of conversazione and intuizione femminile to help solve the crime:
Avevo capito che, in tutti questi anni, è stata innamorata di lui. E per trent'anni gli ha dato del Lei, ma ti rendi conto?
I'd figured out that, for all these years, she'd been in love with him. And for thirty years she addressed him formally, can you imagine that?Play Caption
Dare del tu (to address informally) or dare del Lei (to address formally) is an important aspect to settle in a new relationship. A common question to ask is: ci possiamo dare del tu? (can we give each other the informal "you?") or, ci diamo del tu? (shall we give each other the informal “you?”). The answer is almost always: sì, certo!