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12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language

Many learners struggle with the peculiarities of Italian. The good news is that if you relate to most of the items on this list, you're not far off fluency.

12 signs you’ve cracked the Italian language
Do you know your 'penne' from your 'pene'? Photo: Marnee Wohlfert/Unsplash

You can express any emotion in a single syllable

They say a picture paints a thousand words, but a combination of a drawn-out ‘boh’ (a way of expressing 'what do I know?') or dai ('come on!' or 'stop it!') and the perfect facial expression surely convey even more. If you’ve mastered this, you’re not far off bilingualism.

WORD OF THE DAY: Find the complete archive here

Photo: DepositPhotos

Whether it’s to refer to a party, a car or an attractive man, this slang term for ‘cool!’ – literally translating as ‘what a fig!’ – is thrown about with reckless abandon by many young Italians, so if you've started using it, you could be turning into one of them.

The uninitiated should be warned that swapping the final ‘o’ with an ‘a’ turns the phrase into a more vulgar term…

You realize that every word needs a suffix

To the true Italian speaker, ‘bello’ is rarely enough – everything must be ‘bellissimo’! This applies to adjectives, adverbs, nouns – no word is safe.

For example, adding the suffix ‘one’ (meaning ‘big’) to the verb ‘sbrodolare’ (to dribble or spill) creates the word ‘sbrodolone’, meaning ‘big spiller’ or ‘messy eater’. Bonus points if you accompany your superlatives with an extravagant hand gesture.

READ ALSO: How to talk about love, sex, and dating in Italian

Photo: DepositPhotos

Dating a local is one of the best ways to pick up a language, and a sure sign that it’s working is if you’ve picked up the Italian tendency for soppy pet names. Yes, ‘patatina’ (‘little potato’) is actually used as a term of affection in Italy.

You can guess someone’s hometown based on whether they say ‘adesso’, ‘ora’ or ‘mo’

When Italy was officially unified in 1861, less than ten percent of the population spoke standard Italian, so it’s no surprise to learn that Italian dialects are still widely used. Even in the standard language, significant variations in usage remain.

When you can tell a Tuscan from a Roman based on their vocabulary choices or pronunciation of ‘che cosa’, you’re doing well.

READ ALSO: Twelve dialect words to help you survive in Rome

Photo: Marnee Wohlfert/Unsplash

Italian pronunciation is largely straightforward for English speakers, but a common problem is the use of tricky double consonants.

Failure to distinguish between single and double consonants can lead to confusion between ‘capello’ (hair) and ‘cappello’ (hat) – harmless enough, but you wouldn't want to mix up ‘penne’ (a kind of pasta) and ‘pene’ (penis)…

The following sentence makes perfect sense to you: ‘It was raining sinks and it was dog cold so I had to dress like an onion’

Italian is full of strange idioms and phrases which can be difficult for new arrivals to comprehend. If they’ve become second nature to you, you’re well on your way.

READ ALSO: How and why learning a new language messes with your old one

Couldn’t figure it out?

Piove catinelle = it’s raining cats and dogs (it’s raining sinks)
Fa un freddo cane = it’s really cold (it’s dog cold)
Vestirsi a cipolla = to wear layers (to dress like an onion)

When something bothers you, you don’t hesitate to exclaim ‘che schifo’ or ‘mi fa cagare’

Not only is this a sign of embracing the Italian disregard for over-politeness, but using Italian to express strong emotions is a sign that the language now comes naturally to you.

Che schifo’ (how disgusting) and ‘mi fa cagare’ (it makes me shit) are two of the blunter ways to make your disapproval known.

Photo: Marcus Spiske/Unsplash

You also know that it's bad manners to throw 'confetti' at a wedding, and understand friends who moan about their 'sensible skin'. False friends are a source of endless frustration for language learners – not to mention hilarity among natives when their foreign friends inevitably slip up.

QUIZ: Are you fooled by these Italian 'false friends'?

Once you’ve realized that casino means ‘brothel’, ‘sensibile’ means ‘sensitive’ and ‘confetti’ means ‘sugared almonds’, you’re doing well. The only downside? You might start mixing up the meanings and using the Italian sense when speaking English.

You say things like ‘speriamo che faccia bello’ with confidence

Casually slipping the subjunctive into conversation will make you the envy of any friends still getting to grips with Italian grammar. The subjunctive mood, which tends to express ‘unreal’ conditions, is rarely used in modern English, and its forms can be difficult to learn.

READ ALSO: Seven songs that will help you learn Italian

Photo: Gilles Lambert/Unsplash

Learning Italian from textbooks and Dante is one thing, but being able to communicate with locals in real life is quite different. Dealing with text abbreviations – with not a single hand gesture to help you out – can be hard at first, so mastering the art is impressive.

The above example translates as ‘Dove sei? Domani ci sentiamo. Ti voglio bene’ or ‘Where are you? See you tomorrow. Love you.’

You know how to use ‘magari’ and do so frequently

‘But what does ‘magari’ mean?’ This question plagued you throughout Italian lessons and conversations with natives.

Once you’ve accepted that it can mean almost anything you want it to, and you feel comfortable using it in several different contexts (it most commonly loosely translates as ‘if only!’ or a sarcastic ‘yeah, right’), you have successfully assimilated into Italian culture.

READ ALSO: 21 mildly interesting facts about the Italian language

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

A version of this article was first published in November 2015.

Member comments

  1. The correct expression is “piove a catinelle”, meaning that rain is coming down as if the content of many sinks was falling, not the sinks themselves.

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Italian word of the day: ‘Inchiodare’

You'll nail this word in no time.

Italian word of the day: 'Inchiodare'

What do a carpenter, a detective, and a bank robber screeching to a halt in their getaway car all have in common?

In English, not much – but in Italian, they could all be said to inchiodare (eenk-ee-ohd-AHR-eh) in the course of their professional activities.

In its simplest form, inchiodare simply means ‘to nail’ (chiodo, ‘kee-OH-do’, is a nail) – a picture to a wall, or a leg to a table.

Ha trovato questo cartello inchiodato alla sua porta.
She found this notice nailed to her door.

Inchioderò la mensola al muro più tardi.
I’ll nail the shelf to the wall later.

But like ‘to nail’, inchiodare has more than one definition.

You can use it to describe someone or something being ‘pinned’ in place, without actually having been literally nailed there.

Mi ha inchiodato al muro.
He pinned me to the wall.

La mia gamba è inchiodata al terreno.
My leg is pinned to the ground.

You can be metaphorically inchiodato to a place in the sense of being stuck there, tied down, or trapped.

Dovrei essere in vacanza e invece sono inchiodata alla mia scrivenia.
I should be on holiday and instead I’m stuck at my desk.

Don'T Forger You'Re Here Forever GIF - The Simpsons Mr Burns Youre Here GIFs

Siamo inchiodati a questa scuola per altri tre anni.
We’re stuck at this school for another three years.

Sono stati inchiodati dal fuoco di armi.
They were trapped by gunfire.

Just like in English, you can inchiodare (‘nail’) someone in the sense of proving their guilt.

Chiunque sia stato, ha lasciato tracce di DNA che lo inchioderanno.
Whoever it was, they left traces of DNA that will take them down.

Ti inchioderò per questo omicidio.
I’m going to nail you for this murder.

Thomas Sadoski Tommy GIF by CBS

Senza la pistola non lo inchioderemo, perché non abbiamo altre prove.
Without the gun we’re not going to get him, because we have no other proof.

For reasons that are less clear, the word can also mean to slam on the brakes in a car.

Ha inchiodato e ha afferrato la pistola quando ha visto la volante bloccando la strada.
He slammed on the brakes and grabbed the gun when he saw the police car blocking the road.

Hanno inchiodato la macchina a pochi passi da noi.
They screeched to a halt in the car just a few feet away from us.

Those last two definitions mean that you’re very likely to encounter the word when watching mystery shows or listening to true crime podcasts. Look out for it the next time you watch a detective drama.

In the meantime, have a think about what (or who) you can inchiodare this week.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.