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Italian for Beginners

Having tried to speak Italian for six years now, and working on my third foreign language, I feel justified in offering my strong opinions on learning italiano for the beginner. Forget the passato remoto and compound pronouns; work on your presente and passato prossimo, and learn some choice phrases like those below!


Che bello/a! > This simply means “How beautiful!” and will probably be used frequently while you’re here.


Boh! > Only the Italians, who use only three monosyllabic words to say “I don’t know” could have invented an even shorter way to profess ignorance. Raise your shoulders slightly as you say it.


Etto > “A ten-dollar word,” as my father would say. Of course, with inflation and the bad exchange rate, that’s only about $6.50 these days. Anyway, an etto is a hundred grams of whatever you like: pizza, cheese, olives, etc. Use this handy word to buy things at the grocery store – you’ll soon see how much an etto is of whatever you need.


Gimo > This is Perugian dialect for “Andiamo!”, “Let’s go!”


Potrei… > An all-important word so you can be polite. It means “Could I…” and all you have to do is put an infinitive after it. So “Potrei vedere…” means “Could I see…” and “Potrei scendere a…” is “Could I get off at…”


Non me ne frega! > This means roughly “I couldn’t care less.”


Mannaggia! > An acceptable way to say you’re annoyed, like “Dangit!” Always informed about Italian etymology, Måns Persson tells me that this word comes from “male ti aggia,” a dialectical form of “male ti abbia,” May the evil get you!


Vaffanculo! > Indispensible for women who are harassed by Italian men, this simply instructs the harasser to be on his way to a part of his own body normally inaccessible to him. Not for polite company.


Ciao > Everyone knows this word, but not many know its history. My elegant academic friend Paolo explained that Venetians used to bow and present their hands to ladies and say “Sciavo su’,” which in modern Italian would be schiavo suo, or “[I’m] Your slave.” Eventually it became “ciao.


Domani > Often inaccurately translated with the English word “tomorrow,” domani means more literally “a day, not today, not yesterday, and probably not in the next 36 hours.” Welcome to Italy!


Oretta > A “little hour,” it should mean about forty minutes but usually means an hour and a half.


thomas davisthomas davis