Whenever you are visiting Italy and your embarrassment at your limited Italian vocabulary makes you feel self-conscious and fall back onto the safety blanket of the english language, just remember two things. The first is that we will probably feel equally self-conscious when we attempt to reply in english and the second is that we will love you for trying to learn our language, regardless of how many mistakes you make and how funny your accent may sound to our ears. After decades of english being presented as the language that we were expected (and mostly failed) to learn, we are always pleasantly surprised to meet an Italian learner. Having said that, you already know more Italian words than you think. This is due to the nature of languages and cultural exchanges, whereby words tend to be exported alongside concepts and whole areas of human knowledge are described using terms that are identical or very similar across several languages. Once you are aware of the breadth of your preexisting Italian vocabulary, you might want to pad that up with a smattering of grammar, which comes easily if you practise. The basis, however, is already there.
English words that have been imported into the Italian language
English became the lingua franca of the modern world, conveniently, more or less at the same time as the evolution of human technology took on the frantic pace that we are used to (incidentally, the latin expression “lingua franca” is commonly used both in Italian and in English). This means that most words commonly used to describe electronic devices, IT technology and All Things Internet (such as, you know, the Internet), don’t have an Italian translation and even when one exists, the English original is more commonly used.
Such words include:
Computer, mouse, internet, web (exclusively in the “world wide web” meaning), network, ebook, download, upload, router, file, browser, hacker, post (both the social media variety and the latin preposition), blog, webzine, password, smartphone, laptop, email, pixel.
For reasons never adequately investigated, several english words that have nothing to do with technology have been imported into Italian, mostly between the 70s and the 80s, as a result of passing fads that have translated into full-blown lifestyles. Most of them have Italian equivalent and from time to time the issue is raised of why on earth would we choose to employ an english term when we have a perfectly good Italian equivalent. So far, this has had no impact whatsoever on the popularity of the following english words:
briefing, jogging (which is also often referred to in Italian as footing, but then again, english speakers have their own misconceptions about latte, which makes us even), fashion, film, privacy, relax, yuppie, hippie, hipster, magazine, shot (exclusively the drinkable variety), jazz, indie, rock, band, sketch (as in “short play or piece of comedy writing” rather than “hastily executed drawing or brief outline of facts), leader, picnic, weekend, hotel, manager, shopping, performance, babysitter, star, restyling, budget, meeting, marketing, hamburger, t-shirt, jeans, zoo, club, stress, puzzle (the game, rather than the verb), drink, cocktail, shock, waterproof, ok, cinema, random, spelling, car-sharing, bus, tv, cd, dvd, stop, killer, show, business, bar, sexy.
Italian words that have been imported into the English language
Once you have recovered from the surprise of already knowing a grand total of 75 Italian words, simply because we have been too lazy to come up with our own versions of those, let us examine all the Italian words you already know because you have been too lazy to translate them. To be fair, of course, this has nothing to do with laziness, but rather with concepts being developed within very specific contexts and needing to be easily understood by native speakers of different languages. If English has set the standard vocabulary for technology, fashion and modern musical genres, Italian words are still more or less universally used when talking about classical music and the arts. Music and painting enthusiasts all over the world unwittingly speak Italian when using words such as tempo, piano, forte, pianissimo, pizzicato, allegro, crescendo, chiaroscuro, opera, concerto, tuba, viola, soprano, sfumato, bravo, staccato, legato, alto, mezzo, ballerina, primadonna, graffiti, magenta, terracotta, replica, orchestra, scenario, diva, presto.
Another field in which Italian culture and traditions have set world-wide appreciate standards, of course, is cooking. The names of typical recipes are almost never translated (just think of sushi, cous cous and roast beef), but in matters of food the Italian language is so omnipresent that most non-italian speakers are no longer aware that they are using imported words.
Along the obvious pasta, pizza, tiramisù, lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti, cappuccino, espresso, ricotta, mozzarella, pesto, focaccia, prosecco, penne and parmigiano, there are several other words that are no longer perceived as Italian. These include broccoli, banana, biscotti, al dente, gelato, calamari, panini, pistachio (which in Italian is spelled “pistacchio” and pronounced pees-tahk-kyoh), zucchini (the correct Italian word is “zucchine”, pronounced zook-keen-eh).
Finally, there are words which evolved natural from a latin or greek origin and where incorporated in Italian with little or no alteration and adopted afterwards in several other languages, as well as words that were born in specific regional contexts and then went on to describe similar situations in different historical and geographical environments. Among the most common words in these two categories are terms like gorilla, virus, quota, ciao, satellite, algebra, ghetto, mafia, finale, plasma, influenza, radio, villa.
Within the space of a short blog post, you have now discovered that you can already use 150 Italian words correctly. On your next trip, you might well come across a sexy hipster in a bar, share a few shots and ask them out for a pizza, followed by a gelato and drinks, exchange emails on your respective smartphones and meet afterwards to watch the season finale of your favourite tv show. If you work things up to a crescendo, you might get invited to their villa for the following weekend. How does that sound? About half of it, you won’t be surprised to learn, sounds entirely Italian.