A few weeks ago, my printer ran out of ink which meant it was time to learn a bit of new vocabulary. At this point, my Italian is good enough that I can work my way around an unknown word, I could easily walk into a store and ask, “Excuse me, do you sell………..the black stuff that a printer uses to write?” While it’s a pretty effective way to get your point across, I still want to improve my vocabulary.
When my printer flashed the dreaded low-ink light, I turned to my boyfriend and said, “Fra poco mi servirà la seppia.” I’m going to need ink soon.
“Non ti preoccupare, ci sono tanti locali che la vendono.” Don’t worry, there are a lot of places that sell it. I continued to mention my need of “la seppia” for the better part of a week, until I finally had a free morning to run some errands.
I called Eugenio to ask him exactly where I could find “la seppia.” He told me that there was a shop next to his bar, but he didn’t give me much more detail. No problem, his aunt & brother were working at the bar that morning so I could get the rest of the information from them, all while enjoying my usual cappuccino and cornetto.
“Dov’è quel negozio qua vicino che vende la seppia per stampanti?” Where is the shop near here which sells “la seppia” for printers?
No response. I was surrounded by blank stares and puzzled faces.
I’ve become used to this reaction though; it usually means that I’ve been sloppy with my pronunciation. I repeated my question, paying special attention to my cadence and careful to correctly roll my rrrrrrrrrs.
Again, blank stares. Okay is my accent really that thick?!?
“La seppia per una stampante?” asked Eugenio’s aunt.
“Si!” relieved that finally someone was able to repeat what I was trying to communicate. Once someone with a native tongue repeats what I said, everyone is usually on the same page.
But no, everyone still remained confused. Okay, something’s not right.
I heard Cico, a regular at the bar, say “Bella, dovresti andare alla pescheria per trovare la seppia.” You’d have to go to a fish market to find la seppia. And at that point everyone busted up laughing.
And then it hit me. I never actually consulted a dictionary to determine what the Italian word for “ink” was. I used “la seppia” because it’s always written on the menu for squid-ink pasta. If I had paid more attention, I would have realized that the dish is called “pasta al nero di seppia” – literally, pasta with the black from a seppia.
“Nero” refers to the ink.
“Seppia” is the animal that produces the ink.
Which meant that I was essentially asking for a place that sells squid for my printer.
After a good laugh at my expense, Eugenio’s aunt informed me that the word for ink is “inchiostro,” and with this knowledge I was able to buy a new printer cartridge. But first I made a quick phone call to my darling boyfriend to chew him out for not having once corrected me. I must have used “la seppia” incorrectly a dozen times.
His defense? “Well, I knew what you meant…so I let it go.”
And therein lies one of the challenges of a life in a foreign language: you make mistakes, and you make them often. People don’t want to correct you because they find your errors endearing. You don’t want to be corrected too much, or else you lose confidence.
But at the same time, you also don’t want to walk around asking for squid for your printer.
While I have no answer for how often one should correct a non-native speaker, I will say that I learned a critical lesson: to learn a new word, I need to consult a dictionary rather than a menu (or my boyfriend for that matter).
The cappuccino: Italy’s favorite breakfast beverage. One part espresso, one part steamed milk, one part foam. Though the simplicity of its ingredients should not to be taken lightly; it’s all too easy to burn the espresso or overheat the milk. In this country of food-snobs, a great cappuccino is an acceptable reason to be late to work while a bad cappuccino is an acceptable reason to boycott a certain bar. Considered to be a delicate form of art, the cappuccino is most enjoyable when your favorite English student demonstrates his confidence in using the Present Simple and Object Pronouns:
But what does the word “Cappuccino” actually mean?
We know that the suffix -ino is a diminutive which communicates the smallness of an object. And the word Cappuccio means “hood” in Italian, as in Little Red Riding Cappuccio. So what does a little hood have in common with a coffee drink? A 16th century Order of Catholic Friars, obviously.
The Cappuccin Order was a group of friars who broke off from the Franciscan Order. St. Francis of Assisi renounced all material things and in dedicating his life to serving God, he lived in extreme poverty. The Cappuccini took these ideas to the next level: the monasteries were not allowed to possess anything, the friars practiced regular fasting and were only permitted to store food sufficient for 2-3 days. Everything was acquired by begging and the friars were not allowed to touch money.
Still, how does this all relate to coffee? Their dress code. The Cappuccini were so named because of their unique tunic from which hung a large pointed hood – a cappuccio. The tunic was a rich, warm brown color and accompanied only by a wool cord wrapped around the waist.
The combination of colors, the brown tunic and the cream-colored cord, was the inspiration for the name of our favorite frothy cappuccino.
Every once in a while I have a moment when something just clicks. And it’s always something incredibly obvious. Call it a brain fart or a blond moment (because by Italian standards I am actually considered blond, seriously) but for whatever reason it’s a connection I never made before. In retrospect it’s always “oh duh, how did i never think of that?” But in that one moment, that moment when it clicks, it’s an incredible discovery.
My most recent revelation happened on a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the park. I was having a picnic lunch with my ragazzo Romano (roman boy) and he was in the process of cutting some fruit. His sleeve was falling down and since his hands were sticky, he asked me, “Puoi tirarmi su?” Without registering the words he used, I helped him pull up his sleeve.
And then it clicked.
Tirare, the verb “to pull.” The imperative form tirami means “pull me,” and su simply means “up.” Tirami – pull me – su – up….tirami su…pull me up. Tiramisu…….yummmmmmmmmmm. The dessert that never sees an oven, impossible to consume without feeling instant bliss. Key ingredients include espresso, chocolate, mascarpone cheese, and a liqueur of your choice (my favorite is Chambord). Delicious. Or in the words of a dear friend in San Francisco, amazeballs.
So there you have it, my “oh duh” moment was the discovery that Italy’s most famous dessert is appropriately called a “pick-me-up” in Italian.
And now onto the fun suffixes that have proven to be crucial for the expansion of my Italian vocabulary:
Parola del Giorno #4: the little “-ino” or “-etto”
Think about the English use of “-y” or “-ie” to make something small, young or cute…as in “it was an itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie yellow polka dot bikini.” But imagine a situation where you could add that “-y” suffix to any word and not sound like a mother blubbering over her child in that affectionate, yet somewhat gag-worthy, “wuvey-dovey” way.
Enter the Italian -ino or -etto. Two diminutive suffixes that serve as perfectly rational, grammatically correct ways to make an object smaller in size or age. And best of all, you don’t sound like a fool when you use them!
- My roommates pay much more for their rooms as I have the cameretta – the small room – in our apartment.
- Despite the fact that my mammina – little mamma – is 5’1″ on a good day, I am 5’9″ and tower over most Romans (the height comes from my father’s side).
- When going to my boyfriend’s house, I take the trenino – the little train – which is used by commuters to get from the city center to the surrounding suburbs. (and yes, it’s official. Despite my best efforts, I’ve fallen victim to the classic story of an Italian stealing my heart)
I am definitely not a linguist, but I must admit that I have developed quite an enthusiasm for prefixes and suffixes. I never considered what an impact they could have on someone who’s learning a language. My Italian vocabulary is growing at a fairly steady rate these days, but with the simple addition of 4 new prefixes or suffixes it has quadrupled in size. I’ve struck language gold, and I thought I’d share the wealth:
Parola del Giorno #3: the un- “s”
The “s-” prefix is similar to the English “un-” or “dis-” in that it basically turns any word into its opposite.
- When gambling or playing sports, it is always better to be fortunato (lucky) than sfortunato (unlucky).
- Don’t forget to blocca (lock) the door on your way out. If you forget your 4-digit code, it’ll be impossible to sblocca (unlock) your iPhone.
- In the morning, si trucca (we put on makeup). At night, si strucca (we remove makeup).
And finally, a personal favorite: sgrassatore. The root “grasso” means fat, and the suffix “-ore” turns it into an action done by someone or something. Add that “s-” to the mix and you have something that un-greases. So when your attempt at Spaghetti alla Carbonara goes all wrong, you’ll need a sgrassatore (a degreaser) to help you clean the oil splatter off the counter.
In an effort to de-fragment my brain, I have started applying the “s” prefix to English words. As in “A.S. Roma has had a slucky season” or “My hands are full. Could you slock the door for me?”
Try it out at home, I promise it’ll make your conversation a little more sboring.
Can you still call it a Parola del Giorno – word of the day – if you don’t post #2 until four months after #1 posted? I vote yes. Therefore, I bring you…
Parola del Giorno #2: post-menopausa
While the literal translation is obvious, I have been informed that the term “post-menopausal” has more comical alternate use. I discovered its meaning during a lesson with my 60+ year old, cigar-smoking, Orthopedic Surgeon, pre-intermediate student. Yesterday we were talking about the Spice Girls (don’t ask) and their various Spice names. He was not familiar with the word ‘ginger,’ so I had to explain that while it is actually a spice, Ginger Spice was so-named for the fact that she’s a redhead.
The doctor proceeded to tell me that redheads are called ‘post-menopausal’ in Italian. Random, I know. But bear with me.
Have you ever seen a redheaded Italian? Not likely. Along with freckles, fair skin, and the ability to talk without gesturing, the red hair gene was weeded out of the Italian gene pool long ago. It can only be accomplished by chemical means, which presents another problem for the Italian Ginger-Wannabe: any red dye would be masked by the typical dark brown-to-black Italian hair color tones. Therefore, the only ‘true’ redheads are the women who’ve allowed their hair to turn grey or white before attempting the red dye. Or in the words of the doctor, “The only Italian women with red hair are those who have gone through menopause.”
Post-Menopausa: Italian slang for ‘ginger’
Disclaimer: I did absolutely no research or fact-checking on this and I have no idea if this is a well-known or commonly-used term. It could just be the doctor’s quirky sense of humor. Regardless, it was too good not to share.
Learning a language can be very dull and extremely tedious at times. Verb conjugations, vocab flashcards, ordinal numbers, tense agreement, intonation, pronunciation, definite and indefinite articles…I’m actually falling asleep right now as I type. But every once in a while you have an “ah ha” moment where you piece something together and it makes perfect sense. I adore the Italian language for this reason – my “ah ha” moments are regular. The grammar is more complicated than English, but it also makes more sense.
Today I learned something new and proceeded to have a “ha ha” moment instead of an “ah ha” moment. I would like to share the Italian word of the day (hopefully more to come):
Montone: ram, a male sheep
On the surface, a seemingly simple and uninteresting vocabulary word. But my 60+ year old student (a doctor) informed me of the origin of the word today and I just about lost it.
Montone comes from the verb “montare” which means “to mount.” So what is the word for a male sheep? A montone – one who mounts a lot of female sheep. Classic.