False friends

30 Apr
Più io studio italiano, meno lo so.The more I study Italian, the less I know. When I took my community college classes in the U.S., I knew that a tutor would be key to any degree of fluency, but I also thought that “a few months” of one-on-one classes while actually living in Italy, would make me fluent. Ha! After 21 months of individual classes with a magnificent teacher, Eleonora, the more complex this language becomes.
Not only must you consider gender, number and how formal or informal you want to be before openinglearn-italian-language your mouth, but conjugating verbs is a nightmare even for Italians. There are fifteen tenses with 6 conjugations in each, plus the gerundio, participio and the infinito (don’t even ask) for a total of twenty-one (21) tenses, therefore about 95 conjugations for each infinitive. My Big Book of Verbs contains 601 infinitives: You do the math! Luckily there are patterns. Sort of. Except for the irregular verbs. È un incubo! (It’s a nightmare!)
Are you stating a fact, giving an order, or rendering an opinion? You’ll conjugate the verb differently. “I want you go to the moon” is conjugated differently than “Go to the moon if you want.” Io voglio che tu vada sulla luna versus Vai sulla luna se vuoi. (Vada and vai are different forms of the same verb “to go.” For that matter, voglio and vuoi are both conjugations of volere, “to want.”)
dsc_0024OK, too much info, but I wanted to give non-Italian learners an idea of the level of confusion I am in daily. Add to that “false friends.” No, I don’t mean traitors, betrayers, and two-faced meddlers. These “false friends” are words in Italian that drive the English learner mad. These are words that sound like something in English but mean something entirely different in Italian. In linguistic circles they are called false cognates.
Allow me to illustrate.
We have some favorite merchants, particularly at the market in Campo dei Fiori: The salumiere (the man who sells us superb fatty pork products from Umbria), the fruttivendolo (greengrocer), and our “snack guy” Manuele. I reduced Manuele to tears one day when I asked for “Mandorle leggermente saltato,” which mean “Almonds, lightly jumped.” I wanted them lightly salted, which is salato.
I present to you a few of the more amusing and tricky falsi amici in Italian:
  • Never go to the salumiere and ask for peperoni. He can sell you salume piccante, but only the fruttivendolo can sell you peppers. In a pizzeria, asking for peperoni pizza will result in a nice vegetarian pie with sautéed red peppers on it. Peperoni = pepper (red, or any other type); salume piccante = Spicy salami, something like what North Americans put on pizza.
  •  If you are fussy about additives in your food, you might be tempted to ask your waitress if the food contains preservativi. She might shake her head in wonderment as preservativi are prophylactics. A conservante is used to keep food from spoiling. Preservativo = condom; Conservante = food preservative.
  • When your friend asks you to non fare rumore she is not accusing you of gossiping, but asking you to be quiet. Rumore = noise; Rumor is pettegolezzo.
  • We go to the tabaccheria (tobacco shop) to buy postage among other things, and one day I heard a tourist asking for “una stampa.” Understandably the tabaccaio (tobacconist) was confused because of all the things they sell printing isn’t one of them. A postage stamp is francobollo, and una stampa is a something printed, like a picture.
  • When the bus is late we are not annoiato, but rather we find the situation fastidioso. Annoiato = bored; Fastidioso = annoying.
  • To borrow a book one must go to the biblioteca, not the libreria. One buys a book at the libreria and borrows one at the biblioteca. 
  • A cadavere is indeed a corpse, but it is not morbido, it is morboso. You might pet a kitty and pronounce it morbido; or a pastry might have a filling that is morbido. Morbido = soft. It took me a long time to get that one!
    Tu sei licenziato!

    Tu sei licenziato!

  • When your colleague says “Sono stato licenziato” he was not just awarded a license, but fired. To license = autorizzare. 
  • When shopping for a hotel, asking for one that is lussuria may land you in the wrong place. A five-star hotel might better be described as lusso. Lussuria = lust while lusso = luxury.
  •  Children who are maleducato are not illiterate, they are badly behaved. Educato = well-mannered or polite, but istruito = educated.
  • One can take a photo of a camera, but you cannot take a photo with a camera. Camera = room; Macchina fotografica = camera.
My head about to explode as I learn the dreaded subjunctive tense.

My head about to explode as I learn the dreaded subjunctive tense.

 Non pretendere does not mean you should give up your flights of fancy, it means you should not make demands. You can fingere (pretend) you speak Italian all you want! Pretendere = demand while fingere = pretend.
 An ingiuria is an insult, while an injury is a ferita.
A fabbrica is a factory, while fabric is tessuto.
At the newsstand when I want something to read, I must ask for una rivista. If I ask for un magazzino I might end up renting a warehouse.
Finally, a person who is sensibile (sen-SEE-bill-ay) is not someone with common sense, but rather someone who is given to being easily upset or emotional, i.e., sensitive. But a person who is sensitivo (sen-si-TEE-vo) is level-headed or sensible.
Is it any wonder I end the day with a glass or two of wine?

26 Responses to “False friends”

  1. Terah May 1, 2014 at 18:52 #

    I feel so much better after reading this. Every time we visit Italy I find them looking at me with great concern. Lord knows what I really said! If YOU are having trouble, there’s no hope for me. I love your friend’s comment about “embarasado” in Spanish. I did that one too and had the whole family in an uproar! keep writing and I’ll keep laughing!


    • gooddayrome May 6, 2014 at 19:38 #

      Terah my dear, I am so sorry to be so tardy in responding! Thanks for reading and laughing along with me. I hope I can continue to provide amusement for you. Un abbraccio!


  2. donna lomba May 1, 2014 at 17:09 #

    You are living my dream! To live in beautiful Rome for a year and try to learn Italian. I am thoroughly loving your blog! This one is particularly funny, and I’m going to print it.


    • gooddayrome May 1, 2014 at 17:21 #

      Thanks Donna! Nice of you to stop by, I do improve year-by-year. Hopefully one more year of tutoring will leave me feeling slightly less lost.


  3. Ruth Fletcher April 30, 2014 at 21:00 #

    Oh dear, I’m on Lesson 8 of my Pimsleur Italian and thought I was doing so well!

    Kudos to you for hanging in there. When we lived in Germany, the frauen at the village bakery dissolved in laughter every time my husband walked through their door. He was the guy who once asked to have his loaf of bread “circumcised!”


    • gooddayrome May 1, 2014 at 06:46 #

      That is hysterical, Ruth! Once could write a book! I haven’t caused an international incident yet…maybe I’m not trying hard enough.


  4. gayleseely April 30, 2014 at 16:19 #

    Hilarious. I wonder if, after a little wine, your Italian improves? Or perhaps wine is like some pain medication: it doesn’t actually change anything it just makes it so you don’t really care. How FUN this post is! Thanks


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 17:34 #

      I think after a bit of wine my inhibitions are lower but my mispronunciation is higher adn My bad accent more pronounced!


  5. ckleonard April 30, 2014 at 16:15 #

    I love all your blogs. This one will remain one of my favorites. Must admit tho, reading it in the a.m. and it being too early for wine, is a problem.


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 17:35 #

      Thanks Carolyn! I do like to write when I have good subject matter. Wasn’t sure non-Italian speakers would find this so amusing and entertaining, but apparently they (you) do!


  6. R.H. April 30, 2014 at 16:01 #

    Hi Laurel! I don’t know if you are using any “flashcard” style stuff to learn vocab / verbs. But Leila is taking Latin 100 this year, so we’ve learned a lot about the best way to memorize gobs of data. A friend of ours who is learning Japanese told me about spaced repetition (http://www.supermemo.com/english/ol/background.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition) and it has been a game changer. The best implementation of a spaced repetition algorithm we’ve found is Anki (http://ankisrs.net/). It is free and has “shared decks” so you don’t have to input all the Italian vocab/verbs yourself. As always, thanks for the great post! So much fun to read! We miss you, but love living vicariously through your great writing!


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 17:33 #

      Hi Rachel! Thanks for the resources. I will check them out. So Leila is now taking Latin as well as Chinese and French?


  7. Sharon April 30, 2014 at 15:45 #

    Preservativo = condom; Conservante = food preservative…..add them together and you have Viagara!

    At least you have great Italian wine!! I know that word…VINO!!


    ciao bella!


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 17:36 #

      I think you were born to say “vino” Sharon. 🙂 Miss you! Will be in NJ in October. I’ll send you details separately.


  8. Nigel April 30, 2014 at 15:41 #

    oy vay!! and I thought I could just struggle through when visiting … I must look more of a fool than I thought. I’m sure I have made some major screw ups. Thanks for the reminder. I may stick to the pleasantries and then English…

    Great blog entry, Laurel.


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 17:38 #

      Oh Nigel, you cannot learn without making mistakes. It’s part of the fun. And think of all the Italians that can go home at the end of the day and regale their families with stories of us butchering their language! Ciaaooo!


  9. Mary Henry April 30, 2014 at 14:42 #

    So good to hear from you, as Sue Perry and I were just talking about you and I told her I would forward any new posts , You must have heard us. Hope you are well and always look forward to the next blog. Mary Henry


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 17:39 #

      Ciao Mary!(And to Sue, too!). tell her to subscribe herself then the magic will appear in her own inbox! I miss your services, and Angela’s, very much. Will be in Portland in October. Hope I can stop in for “the works!”


  10. Jonnie Martin April 30, 2014 at 07:57 #

    Any excuse to drink wine is a good excuse! One of your best blogs, of which there have been many.


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 08:05 #

      Thank you! I take that as high praise as you are an accomplished writer and critic!


  11. Mary April 30, 2014 at 05:11 #

    A few years ago, I was in Rome and decided to buy milk and asked for lette. The lady behind the counter smiled. Then I realized it was the wrong word. I meant latte.

    I give you credit for your perseverance.


    • gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 05:13 #

      Ha! Be careful too with “tetto” and “tetta.” All the difference in the world!


  12. gooddayrome April 30, 2014 at 05:11 #

    Good one Susan! So many ways to get into linguistic trouble in any language!


  13. Susan April 30, 2014 at 05:05 #

    Too true, Laurel! Spanish has many similarities (maleducado, for one)… and saying you are “embarazado” would be pretty embarrassing if you are not, in fact, pregnant (which is what “embarazado” means in Spanish). Hee hee!



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