La Maestra Maldestra
After a delightful conversation with Cher Hale of The Iceberg Project last night, my mind got to thinking about how nonnative Italian speakers can make their speech sound, well, more Italian.
I’ve thought about this before; you can speak Italian very well, very accurately, and still not sound Italian. Why is that?
In my case, the reverse is true. The other day I was speaking to a group of Italians over Skype and I know I made a few little slip-up mistakes (mostri [monsters] instead of mostre [art exhibitions], how embarrassing!). Ciò nonostante, (nevertheless) at the end of it they were all like, “We can’t believe you’re Canadian. You sound so Italian!”
So after racking my cervello (brain), here are 5 tips I came up with to help your Italian sound more Italian:
1. Piantala (knock it off) with the personal pronouns. Italian very rarely uses the personal pronouns io, tu, lui, lei, noi, voi, and loro, other than to reinforce a point. It is much more common to hear “sono andata al mercato ieri” (no pronoun) rather than “io sono andata al mercato ieri” (with pronoun), unless the person is trying to reinforce the point that they specifically were the one who went. None of this “io io io io” stuff at the beginning of every sentence. It sounds strange to Italian ears.
Then how do we know who we’re referring to? Well, Italian verbs carry with them the idea of who they refer to with their conjugation. “Parlo” can only refer to “io” because the other pronouns have their own conjugations: parli / parla / parliamo / parlate / parlano.
Why is this hard for English speakers? Because we need our personal pronouns all the time to know who is doing what.
2. Learn Italian word-whiskers. What are word whiskers? They’re those little mean-nothing words that we all put into our speech when we’re trying to search for what we really want to say, or to get attention or to make a point. Why is this important? Well, um isn’t um in Italian. It’s more like “ehhh“. So gets replaced by “allora” or “quindi” or “dunque” and I mean can be translated as, “cioè” . “Beh” is also a good one to use if you’re stalling for time and “ehhhhh” is also widely used. “Capito?”, “giusto?” and “no?” are tacked onto the ends of sentences to make sure the listener understands, while “boh!” is what Italians say when anglophones say “dunno!”
Examples: “Beh, è proprio una bella giornata, no?” and “Voglio partire dopo il 15 aprile, capito?”
3. Talk fast. People can always tell when I’ve been in Italy, because I end up speaking English like a machine gun. I don’t know why, but Italians (in my experience) seem to be faster talkers and maybe leave less space between words. Everything gets run together.
4. Use all the suffixes you can. What? Well, whereas in English we’d describe something as a “little house“, Italians might say “una casa piccola” or they might break out the suffixes and call it “una casetta” or “una casina“. I would ask a little boy about his “amichetti” (little friends, amico + etti) at school, and describe someone as having a nasone (naso + one) if their face is unfortunately adorned with a big shnoz.
This type of talk might sound “cutesy” to we anglophones, but I can assure you that even grown Italian men go around exclaiming that things are “bellissima” (bella + issima, the most beautiful) and hope to introduce you to their “carissimo” (caro + issimo, dearest) friend.
When I asked a friend where he was spending Christmas he replied, “a casina.” At home.
5. Exclaim! Coo. Whiiiinnnneeee. YELL. and generally be theatrical in your speech. All the world’s a stage and Italians are some of its most enthusiastic players. That’s what Shakespeare said, right? Right. The Italian language is melodic in its own right, but Italian speakers are generally pretty theatrical. Don’t just say “ti prego” (I beg you), say, “ti preeeeeeeggggoooooooo” in a begging voice. And when you’ve had enough, it’s a strong “BASTA!” loud and clear. You’re trying to convince someone? Use the long, drawn-out “daaaaaaiiiiiii” (come on) and whine a bit. Everybody’s doing it. I promise.
Have any of your own tips for sounding more Italian? Leave them in the comments section below and maybe we can compile another list.