Tag Archives: culture

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?
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