7 things you should know about Italian
Whether you’re still considering studying the language or you just took your first steps into your language studies, you’re in the right place because the aim of this article is to be a little guide through the 7 main aspects of the language you should be familiar with when you start your language acquisition journey. Italian may seem (and is, to some extent) a rather complex language and its grammar may make you want to give up already. I hope that by reading this article, you’ll be able to approach the language more easily. Let’s begin!
1) The pronunciation system is easier than you think
Italian is a phonetic language, which means words are read exactly as they are written. Every letter has its own sound and the rule is ‘one letter – one sound’. For example, let’s consider the English words ‘book’ and ‘blood’. Not only is a single sound represented by a pair of letters (which normally doesn’t occur in Italian), but the pronunciation of the double ‘oo’ differs from one word to the other. This would never happen in Italian. The same letter produces the same sound in every word. And even the most difficult pairs of letters like ‘ch’ or ‘gli’ always present the same sound from word to word. Let’s take ‘ch’ for example. This pair is read as ‘k’ in Italian in every single word with a ‘ch’ in it like ‘chiesa’ (Eng. Church; read ‘kiesa’), ‘chiamare’ (Eng. To call; read ‘kiamare’) or ‘anche’ (Eng. Also; read ‘anke’). Reading in Italian is an easier task than you may think. I like to give a short text to my students during our very first lesson just to show them that even without prior knowledge of the language, they are perfectly capable of giving reading in Italian a good try and most of them do so without any major difficulties.
2) Masculine and feminine
Unlike English, a genderless language, Italian has masculine and feminine nouns. Generally speaking, masculine nouns end in -o and feminine ones end in -a (though there are some exceptions). Unfortunately, there is no rule as to why a table should be referred to as masculine (il tavolo) and a chair as feminine (la sedia). It’s totally arbitrary, as in every other gender language, and it’s just a matter of practice and memorisation of vocabulary. Did you know that the sun is masculine (il sole) and the moon is feminine (la luna) in Italian but it’s the opposite in German? Articles and adjectives too agree with the noun(s) they refer to. Let’s see an example:
Ex. La casa è bella (The house is beautiful)
The noun, ‘casa’ is feminine and singular. The relevant article (la) and adjective (bella) need to be feminine and singular as well.
The same is valid for every noun.
3) Verbs: tenses and conjugations
Verbs are perhaps the most feared feature of the language. Yes, we do have quite a few tenses and it can be very overwhelming at first. The key word is: conjugations. Let’s compare the present tense conjugation of the verb ‘amare’ (=to love) both in English and in Italian respectively.
As you can see, there’s quite a bit of a difference between the two languages. While in English the verb remains unchanged (apart from the final ‘s’ for the 3rd person singular), in Italian every person has its own desinence (i.e. the ending of the verb). In fact, while we speak, we don’t necessarily need to specify the personal pronouns because if I say ‘amo’, it’s obvious that I’m talking about myself and if I say ‘ama’ it’s clear that I’m talking about someone else.
Every tense has its own desinences which makes it difficult at times to remember, but every tense has also its very own set of desinences valid for all verbs and this slightly simplifies your job. Simply put, the desinences change from tense to tense but within the specific tense the desinences are always the same for every verb.
4) Prepositions: semplici and articolate
I personally find prepositions to be amongst the most difficult elements of any language. You’ll see from the very first Italian lesson that even just saying where you’re from (‘vengo da’, trans. ‘I come from’) is rather complex. In fact, in Italian, there are two different sets of prepositions, namely ‘simple’ and ‘articulate’. The simple ones are nine and they are: di, a, da, in, con, su, per, tra, fra. Nothing super weird about it. It’s just a matter of learning their meaning and how and when to use them. Unfortunately, it gets way more confusing when it comes to preposizioni articolate. The simple prepositions can, in fact, be used on their own (and that’s relatively easy) or very commonly in relation to a definite article (only for di, a, da, in and su). The given preposition together with the article becomes a whole other preposition, the articulate one. Considering that there are seven definite articles (il, lo, la, l’, i, gli, le – the equivalent of the English ‘the’) the aforementioned simple prepositions (di, a, da, in, su) each produces other seven prepositions for a total of thirty articulate prepositions. The preposizioni articolate do not have different uses, they are just combined with the article of the noun in question. Let me give you a couple of examples to make it more clear:
1) Il libro di mia sorella (Eng. My sister’s book)
2) Il libro della sorella di Maria (Eng. Maria’s sister book)
The preposition we’re working with is ‘di‘. It is simple in (1) and articulate (i.e. combined with a definite article) in (2). Both ‘di’ and ‘della’ have the same meaning, which we could translate into English as ‘of’. Why is it ‘di‘ in (1) but ‘della‘ in (2)? Because before a possessive adjective (i.e. ‘mia’; Engl. My), the preposition needs to be simple but before a noun like ‘sorella’ (Eng. Sister), the preposition needs to be combined with the definite article of the noun. In this case the noun ‘sorella’ is feminine and singular and the feminine, singular definite article is ‘la’.
DI + LA = DELLA
Sounds complicated? It’s easier done than said, don’t worry. But it may take a bit of time to master them.
5) Word order
This may be one of the most puzzling aspects of the language and one that confuses many students. Generally speaking, Italian word order follows the SVO rule (subject+verb+object), like in English.
Es. (io) mangio la mela (trans. I eat the apple)
However, unfortunately for you, Italian also allows different variations when it comes to word order. In fact, Italian word order, like that of other romance languages, is rather flexible compared to English. The position of adjectives, verbs, subjects and pronouns is something that you have to keep in mind when you study the language and definitely a skill that you will eventually master with time, practice and, most importantly, by following your instinct!
Let me give you a quick example just so you get the idea:
1) Il mio amico vecchio.
2) Il mio vecchio amico.
The adjective ‘vecchio’ (Eng. Old) can either go before or after the noun (in this case, ‘amico’; Eng. Friend). It seems easy, right? You can’t go wrong! Unfortunately, this is not how it works. Yes, the position of the adjective can vary but the meaning of the sentence changes accordingly. In (1) what I mean is that my friend is old, perhaps he’s 80! In (2), I’m talking about an old friend of mine, who’s not necessarily an old person.
6) Formal and informal language: dare del tu e dare del Lei
In Italian we have two ways to address people: we can either do it formally or informally. It is, for us, a way to show respect to determinate people when it’s due. When to use one instead of the other totally depends on the context. Overall, you want to use the informal language with family, friends and young people in general, and the formal language with elderly people, Doctors, Professors, etc. More specifically, you need to be careful about the context. Let’s say you meet Mario at a party, he’s in his 30s so you speak informally to him. If you meet this same Mario when you go to the cinema and he’s working at the ticket office, then you want to address him formally because he’s in a position of power within that specific context. However, if you go to the ticket office where Mario works, and Mario is already a friend of yours, then you can totally speak informally to him.
It may seem confusing but believe me, it’s not. If the person has a position of power within the context (may he/she be a secretary, a pharmacist, a cashier, a salesperson, a lawyer etc.) then you need to speak formally; if the person is older than you, you speak formally; if the person is your friend or a family member then you can use informal language, whatever the context is (it is always at your discretion though).
7) Dialects and regional variaties
Italy is not that big of a country, but its 60 million inhabitants are more varied than you may think. The peninsula has always been extremely fragmented. The different areas within the country were each characterised by their own traditions, customs and languages (today’s dialects). The political unification of 1861 has not totally dissolved these differences. Today, the country results divided in 20 regions, from north to south and even if you may have the assumption that Italy is a monolingual country, let me tell you, there’s nothing more far from the truth. Each of these 21 regions still holds the same ancient traditions and language varieties. In some of these regions, the dialects may even be more predominant than the standard language. And some of these dialects are actually considered fully-fledged languages (e.g. Sardinian). Furthermore, in the very North, French, German, Slovenian and Occitan are also spoken.
This may be a big problem when you approach the study of the language. Even if your Professor, teacher or language tutor speaks standard Italian like I do (though linguistically speaking there is really no such a thing as a ‘Standard Italian, but this is an academic issue we’re not going to tackle now) they may still have some sort of regional inflections. This is totally normal. If you had more than one Italian teacher from more than one region, you may even be able to tell the different ways of speaking. Sometimes it’s more subtle, other times it’s very evident.
It is the job of the teacher in question to minimise the dialectal and regional influences as much as possible for the students to better understand them. It is also true, on the other hand, that after having learnt standard Italian, going to Italy, for a student, may be frustrating because they will likely hear a totally different Italian depending on where they go. The language you learn in school is always slightly different than the one that’s actually spoken in the country and that is why, in my opinion, it would be ideal to regularly visit the place to communicate with native speakers as much as possible.
Luckily for us, today it’s very easy to get in touch with native speakers, no matter where you are in the world! If you want to keep practicing the language with me, you can book your first lesson HERE. If you’re not quite ready yet, explore the SELF LEARNERS section of the website and SUBSCRIBE to i’mitalish to receive a special newsletter every month with plenty of material to practice on your own!