Archive | Grammar

BUON NATALE A TUTTI VOI! Let’s write our greetings…

Tanti auguri di Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo a tutti!

South Italian traditions

Do you want to send some Italian Christmas greetings this year? Perhaps, you’d also like to say Happy New Year and show off your Italian subjunctive… Here are some suggestions, pick the ones that suit you best!

The most common of our Italian Christmas and New Year greetings is: ‘Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo’, which literally means ‘Good Christmas and Happy New Year’, but it works like your ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’. If you want, you could add ‘Tanti auguri di’ (many wishes of) in front and as a result it would be ‘Tanti auguri di Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo’ and if you’re sending it to a family, you could also add ‘a tutti voi’ at the end to say ‘to you all’: Tanti auguri di Buon Natale a tutti voi.

North Italian traditions

If you want to express your hopes and wishes for your friends’ new year, things get a little more complex as the subjunctive is required… ‘Che il Nuovo Anno vi porti’ means ‘I wish that the New Year will bring you’ and afterwards you could add what you think your friends need most, for example: felicità (happiness), salute (health), amore (love), prosperità (prosperity, which is a nice way to say soldi, money, love (amore). We can also say ‘Che il 2014 vi porti’, instead of Nuovo Anno. If the card is for a single person you should use the indirect pronoun ‘ti’ (to you singular) instead of ‘vi’ (to you plural). You might be wondering about the use of capital letters: I use capital letters for Felice Anno Nuovo, which is not compulsory, but it is a sort of traditional way to write these wishes. Let us know if you would like some help with your personal Italian Christmas and New Year wishes, I will be happy to craft them for you!

 

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The POWER of the PRESENT tense

Italian verbsDon’t worry, this is nothing to do with self help, but you might find it interesting that the present is a very important tense in Italian and that it is used very much more than its corresponding English tense. 

Here are some examples of present tenses: vado a scuola (I go to school, I am going to school), sono italiana (I am Italian), domani compro la macchina nuova (tomorrow I will buy a new car, I am buying a new car tomorrow), a Natale mangio il tacchino (at Christmass I will eat turkey). As you can see, while you are using the present continuous or the future, we can use the present in Italian (we could also use the other two tenses, but this is not necessary at all and the sentences I wrote above are perfectly correct). In fact, we can use the present in Italian not only when you would use the present in English, but also when we talk or write about something that is on our ‘agenda’ or something, we are sure, is going to happen. This is why, many of us can say: ‘Mangio il tacchino a Natale’ which literally translated means ‘I eat turkey at Christmas’. This doesn’t mean, like in English, that I always eat turkey at Christmas, but that I already organized or decided it and I know it is going to happen, unless, something terrible happens, but Italians are optimistic people!North Italian traditions

As a teacher, I can say that this is a great opportunity for all the Italian beginners and it shouldn’t be missed. After a few lessons they will be able to use the present tense of many verbs and they will also be able to construct ones they don’t know, yet. Therefore, thanks to this resourceful verb tense, they can start writing plans about their future days, weeks, Christmases, holidays and so on. This will help them build up their vocabulary, consolidate it in long term memory and become more fluent… And they know I will always be happy to check their sentences and give a quick feedback… a present for a present!

North of Italy traditions

 

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Che bellino questo cagnolino… ha proprio un bel canino… What kind of Italian is that??

It is curious, isn’t it? Che bellino questo cagnolino’ means how nice this doggy is. ‘Ha proprio un bel canino’ means ‘he really has a beautiful canine (tooth)’. Do not worry, do not panic if, in spite of your excellent Italian, you could not get it immediately. Bellino is an adjective, but it has been modified by the suffix ‘ino’ which turned it into a cuter sounding word and this process has also been applied to cane (dog), but, of course in an irregular way. In fact, cane should have become canino, but, canino already means canine (tooth), therefore we use cagnolino (doggy). The suffix ‘ino’ is, in fact, the one which modifies the words to imply that it is smaller and, thus, cuter. We have many other suffixes, such as ‘one’ which modifies the words adding a bigger and awkward sound. For example un uomo (a man) becomes un omone (a big man, but also awkward looking, like Frankestain for example). The suffix ‘accio’ turns the words into something unpleasant, for example: ‘Ho mangiato una pizzaccia’ (I have eaten a bad pizza). We do have a few more, but I do not want to turn your day into una giornataccia (a bad day)!

 

You might already have studied our suffixes, but, as you know, there is no strict rule, but only some guidelines in order to use them. For an Italian native speaker it is easy to grow accustomed to their uses and their many exceptions, but it takes time spent in Italy for a non native speaker. Do not worry as they are not essential at all. We use the ‘ino’ ones, for example, when we want a word to sound sweeter or nicer, especially when we talk to children. I noticed that you do the same, using other kinds of suffixes. In fact, I needed a bit of time with my nephews to realize that you actually have them in English! I found out that ‘le manine’ are your handies and that ‘i piedini’ are your ‘footsies’ and so on.

 

Che bellino questo cagnolina… ha proprio un bel canino!

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Al fresco, outside or locked up?

We laughed so much the other evening with my students about this expression… Al fresco! I found out that two students named their golf team ‘Al fresco’ and after reading this story you will know why it is so funny.

You use the expression ‘al fresco’ to say that you want to eat outside, but it does not mean exactly the same in Italian.

In Italian the expression al fresco means literally ‘in the chill or in the cool’, but it does not mean outside. In fact, we say that ‘il vino e’ al fresco, in cantina’ (the wine in the chill in the cellar’ or that ‘il formaggio va conservato al fresco’ (the cheese has to be kept in a cool place). Besides, you know that it is not necessarily cool or chilly in Italy outside, especially from May on. In fact, you may not want to eat outside (unless you are up in the mountains) in August as the temperature is unbearable. You would probably prefer to eat inside with the air conditioning where it is much cooler.

We also use the expression ‘al fresco’ to mean that someone is in prison. In fact, ‘Giovanni è al fresco’ means Giovanni is in prison. This is a more light hearted way to state it than saying ‘Giovanni è in prigione’ (in prison). The expression comes (probably) from the fact that prisons had thick walls and were not very warm. It is interesting that ‘cella’ in Italian is the room of a prison and it is not too different from your cellar (cantina).

After this long story, you will now remember that in Italy you want to eat ‘fuori’ (outside) or ‘all’aperto’ (in the open air), you do not want to eat ‘al fresco’ as you do not want to eat in a prison… Can you now picture Leo, Cathal and all their golf team al fresco (behind the bars)? I can…

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‘Hai una bella figura’ or ‘hai fatto una bella figura’, which one is the right Italian expression?

Frequently, and especially during our Conversation Classes, the expression ‘bella figura’ crops up when we are talking about how someone looks so as to pay a compliment. This is probably because you have the word figure in English which, among many other meanings, refers to ‘the shape of the human body and especially a woman’s body that is attractive’ (Oxford Dictionary). Therefore, it sounds fantastic to our ears when someone is telling us that we have a great figure.

Unfortunately, the exact translation does not have  the same meaning in Italian. In fact, to compliment someone on their appearance we use other expressions, such as ‘sei in gran forma’ (you are in great shape) or ‘hai un bel fisico’ (you have a beautiful figure) or ‘hai un bell’aspetto’ (you have a beautiful look); this last one also refers to things, such as plates, for example: questo piatto di spaghetti ha proprio un bell’aspetto (this plate of spaghetti looks very good).

The word combination ‘bella figura’ is used in the expression ‘fare una bella figura’ which means ‘to give a good impression’. In fact, everyone would be happy to hear: ‘Hai fatto una bella figura ieri durante il tuo colloquio di lavoro’ (you gave a good impression yesterday during your job interview). The opposite of ‘fare una bella figura’ is ‘fare una brutta figura’, which has the corresponding English expression ‘to make a poor figure’.

Allora (so), what do you say to an Italian friend if you want to pay them a compliment? I would be more careful if you are talking to women. Women can tell each other: ‘Hai un bel fisico’ and this is a great compliment, but it might sound cheeky if it is from a male friend who is not very close. To anyone, you can say: ‘Sei proprio in forma!’ and ‘farai sempre una bella figura’ (you will always make a good impression)!

 

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Curiosity about our lasagne

Did you ever eat lasagne? Yes, it is written ‘lasagne’ and it is not  a mistake, trust me! It comes as a surprise for many of my students to know that what they always called lasagna, due to the fact that many restaurants actually call it that, does not make much sense for an Italian speaker.

It is not only a different spelling, but also a different pronunciation. In fact, the final ‘a’ in lasagna has an A (æ) sound like in cat, while the final ‘e’ of lasagne lasagne has an E (e) sound like in ten.

It would be as if I were inviting you for dinner to eat spaghetto or uno spaghetto. You would think that I am a bit mean, as you cannot make a dinner for two out of a single spaghetto. You would be much happier to be invited over for ‘un bel piatto di spaghetti’ (a good plate of spaghetti). The same rule applies to our lasagne. A single lasagna is actually a single rectangular piece of pasta. Many of them are lasagne.

In fact, la lasagna is singular while le lasagne is plural. Many of you already know that ‘la’ is the definite article (the) which goes in front of singular and feminine nouns (they are also called substantives). ‘Le’ is the plural of ‘la’ and goes in front of feminine and plural nouns, this is why it goes in front of lasagne.

Therefore, now you know that next time you want to order lasagne, you, full of confidence, will say: ‘Come primo vorrei le lasagne, per favore!’.

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Mi mangio la pizza, mi guardo un film… mistakes or what?

Many of my students stumble over this particular use of the reflexive form which is not academic or formal but, nonetheless, sounds truly Italian.

In Italian we use some verbs which are called ‘Riflessivi’ or ‘Reflexive’ such as, lavarsi (to wash oneself), pettinarsi (to comb oneself), radersi (to shave oneself) and so on. The majority of them are somehow involved with the care of one’s body, for example: mi lavo i denti (I wash my teeth), mi lavo le mani/i capelli (I wash my hands/hair), mi faccio la doccia (I take a shower), mi faccio il bagno (I take a bath). In all these cases the performed action falls on the subject and the listener cannot misunderstand. For example, if I say: ‘Mi lavo le mani’ everyone will understand that I am washing my own hands and no one else’s; but if I say: ‘Lavo le mani’ an Italian listener would be waiting for the name of the person whose hands I am going to wash, for example: ‘Lavo le mani di/a Kevin’.

 

Sometimes, other verbs can be used in this way, even though they do not become really reflexive, but emphasize that the action greatly pleases or displeases the subject. For example, if I say to you: ‘Questa sera mi mangio una pizza’ or ‘Questa sera mi guardo un film’ or ‘Questa sera mi leggo un libro’, I am already anticipating the pleasure of doing these things. It is almost as if I am going to treat myself. While if I say: ‘Stasera mangio la pizza’ it could mean that I do not have anything to eat and I will have a pizza as a backup or that of the options available, this is the ‘best of a bad lot’.

 

The trick does not work for all verbs, though. For example, reading the following sentence: il gatto si mangiò  il topo (the cat ate the mouse) we can draw the conclusion that he really enjoyed his meal, but we cannot say ‘Il cane si morse il gatto’ as it would not make much sense, besides the fact that he might have bitten himself when he was trying to bite the cat!

 

To know more about ‘Il cane che morse il gatto che si mangiò il topo’, you can google ‘Alla fiera dell’est’, a great song by the singer-songwriter Angelo Branduardi who also won a price for it in 1978.

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Grammar or no grammar?

Italian is a very easy language to learn. In fact, it is very easy to read as we pronounce it as it is written. In addition, no stress is involved in reading as you should read slowly and take your time when you pronounce the vowels; they should be over pronounced in comparison with English pronunciation. In fact, I always say to my students that the longer the vowels and, therefore, the more stretched the syllables, the more they sound like they are from the South of Italy! This is a very good thing.

Moreover, many words are very similar between Italian and English. As you may already know, Italian is a Latin language and, therefore, all English words coming from Latin have a corresponding Italian word, easily recognizable. For example, volcano (vulcano), city (citta’) or family (famiglia), defenestrare (defenestration, to throw someone out the window) and so on.

On the other hand, Italian grammar requires a bit of commitment for those who are not used to studying grammar. No more nor less then the same commitment if you had to study English grammar, believe me! The point is that usually grammar is not studied very much in Anglophone countries, at least so I have been told. In Italy we do study Italian grammar since our first primary school year, therefore by the end of our forth grade we know the difference between an adjective and an adverb, and so on. Grammar is also studied in the transition years and in many secondary schools. Therefore, it might be a bit of struggle for those who never studied other languages, but if you have already studied French, Spanish, Latin or any other language it will be quite easy! (In fact, students, who do not struggle with Italian grammar, usually have a good preparation in other languages such as French, Spanish or Latin or are not native English speakers.)

Having said this, you should not worry. In the first instance, grammar can be learnt in easy ways, and, most importantly, it should always be linked to immediate and practical usage. In my classes I have seen many students improve, not only their conversation skills, but also their grasp of grammar. One of them really impressed me. He hated grammar, and probably he still hates it, but through role playing of real life situations we approached grammar in an indirect way, and, almost incidentally, came to understand all the grammar we worked on during the winter. Now he is doing very well and learning away! Are you reading? Did you recognize yourself?

If I can give a piece of advice, I would recommend never letting grammar stack up. As soon as you have time, you should go over your lessons and do your exercises and take a look at them before the next class. If you don’t understand, you should ask your teacher immediately for further or different explanations. This is your second or third language, therefore there is nothing to be ashamed about.

Let’s not forget that you can do without grammar, as far as your target is not reading ‘La divina commedia’ or writing Italian essays! If you’re aiming at going to Italy for you holidays and being able to ask for information, make an order or introduce yourself, you do not need much grammar, but rather Conversation which is much easier

If you have been studying Italian for a while, it would be great to know what you think about this subject and if have any suggestions for those who are just starting to learn Italian!

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