A Guide to Italian - 10 facts about the Italian language

Useful facts about the Italian language

Translation in Italian

Check the Italian-only version

1. Where is Italian spoken?

Italian is the official language of Italy and one of the four official languages in Switzerland. You’ll find Italian speakers in Malta, Vatican State, San Marino, Croatia, Slovenia and France (especially in Corsica)

Italian is also the second most spoken language in Argentina. It has however seen a decline in the African countries of Eritrea and Libya, which used to be Italian colonies

2. What you already know about Italian

The historic influence of Italian culture in terms of music, food, architecture, design, literature and science is very prominent in other languages

Have you ever said ciao?
Have you eaten al fresco, ordered a pizza, spaghetti, broccoli or a cappuccino?
Fiasco and propaganda are also of Italian origin.
Even if you’re not an opera fan, you might be familiar with maestro, orchestra, piano and solo. You might even sing a cappella in your shower!

Other words have a different spelling, but they are still very close to English and you can figure out their meaning, such as  teatro,
 cattedrale or  caffè

3. How hard is it to learn?

With Italian,  si legge come si scrive, it’s read as it’s written so, helpfully, it looks similar to how it sounds

Pronunciation is clear with every vowel distinctly enunciated and the sing-song intonation makes sounds easier to identify. Vocabulary is similar to other languages of Latin origin

Nouns can be masculine or feminine and, as a result, adjectives need to agree with them. There are six endings for each verb tense

Although certain aspects of the language can seem tricky at first, grasp some simple rules and you’ll be able to communicate in a variety of situations

4. The longest Italian word and most difficult tongue twister

If you ask Italians, they would probably tell you that the longest Italian word is  precipitevolissimevolmente, extremely quickly, with 26 letters

According to recent research though, the longest Italian word has 29 letters:  esofagodermatodigiunoplastica and refers to surgery following the removal of the stomach and oesophagus

Arguably this is the most difficult tongue twister in Italian:
  Trentatré trentini entrarono a Trento tutti e trentatré trotterellando
Thirty three people from Trento entered the city, all thirty three waddling

5. Know any good Italian jokes?

Recent TV comedy shows have introduced a more sarcastic sense of humour and examples of Italians laughing at themselves and their traditions - a sign of the changing times!

Jokes about politics, the police force, carabinieri, dodgy business practices and the often farcical dealings in the world of Italian bureaucracy are also very popular:
 Un imprenditore ad un altro:
- Come mai i tuoi impiegati arrivano sempre così puntuali?
- Facile, trenta impiegati e solo venti posti auto!
A company boss is talking to another:
- How come your employees always arrive on time?
- Easy, there are 30 employees and only 20 parking spaces!

 Due impiegati comunali si incontrano per strada:
- Ciao Mario! Posso offrirti un caffè?
- No, grazie! Il caffè non mi fa dormire.
- Ma come? Sono le otto di mattina!!!
- Appunto... Sto andando in ufficio...
Two civil servants meet on the street:
- Hi Mario! Can I get you a coffee?
- No thanks! I can’t sleep if I drink coffee.
- But it’s only 8 in the morning!!!
- Exactly... I’m on my way to the office…

6. If I learn Italian, will it help me with any other languages?

Italian is a Romance language, ie of Latin origin. Romance languages share a similar grammatical structure and there are often similarities in vocabulary

Learning Italian will help with the grammar of other Romance languages, such as French. You’ll find that some words are very similar to Portuguese and Spanish. In fact, it’s said that Italians can get by in Brazil or Argentina speaking only Italian!

Many would also argue that the universal language of Italy is that of gesture, whether conveying messages with the hands or with facial expressions. This ‘handy’ method of communication helps Italians to be understood abroad, even when they don’t speak the language. So when you visit  il Bel Paese, the beautiful country, as Italians like to call it, enjoy observing the locals conversing and gesticulating with each other

7. What not to say and do

Italian has many false friends: words which sound similar to an English one yet mean something different

If you ask for  una camera you may be sent to the nearest hotel! It means room. The word for a camera is a  macchina fotografica

If you’d like pepperoni on your pizza, don’t be too surprised if you end up with peppers instead. The Italian word  peperoni is the plural of  peperone, which is a pepper, so to make sure that you get the spicy sausage that you’re after, ask for  salame piccante

If you like something, make sure you say  mi piace, I like it, and not  mi piaci, which means I like you as it’s likely to invite some very unpredictable reactions!

Beware of breaking one of the golden rules of Italian food etiquette: a cappuccino with your pasta dish will get you odd looks from the waiter - do as the Italians do and order a shot of strong espresso and only after your meal!

8. Famous quotations to impress the locals

 Eppur si muove
And yet it moves
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
These were the words whispered, or so the story goes, by the philosopher and scientist after being found guilty of grave heresy by the Inquisition. He was accused of suggesting that the Earth, then considered the centre of God's universe, moved around the Sun

 Ogni nostra cognizione principia dai sentimenti
All our knowledge has its origins in perception
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)
It’s a curious fact that Da Vinci wrote his notes in mirror writing, from right to left, leaving a lot of puzzled experts wondering why. Two of the most common theories are that he wanted to keep his work secret and that as he was left-handed he didn’t want to smudge the ink

9. First written records

One of the earliest texts is believed to be Indovinello Veronese, The Veronese Riddle, written around 800AD. However, some experts consider this to be in Vulgar Latin rather than Italian

From the town of Benevento in the Campania region, I Placiti cassinesi is a collection of legal documents concerning land ownership disputes, dating from around 960AD

In the first years of the 14th century poet, Dante Alighieri wrote his main work La Commedia, later renamed La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy. It was written in Italiano volgare, a mixture of Tuscan and Sicilian dialects, to this day thought to be the earliest example of a standardised Italian language

10. How to be polite

Like other Romance languages, there are different ways of saying ‘you’:
 tu, for people you can be on first-name terms with, and
 Lei in other cases.
The plural is, respectively,  voi and  Loro.
Lei and Loro are written with a capital to distinguish them from lei, she, and loro, they

In informal situations, Italians will quickly suggest:
 Possiamo darci del tu? - Can we use ‘tu’?
This is where Italian hospitality begins and a way of making new friends!

Italians are very proud of their food and will entertain you endlessly on the countless varieties of local culinary specialities. Declining a dinner invitation, or indeed a second course, could be considered impolite. If in doubt, try to savour a little of everything and be sure to let your host know just how tasty it all is:  È buonissimo!

Italian key phrases

Italian key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Italian alphabet

The Italian alphabet

Get the lowdown on accents and nasal sounds

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