Illustration by Elena Lombardi
On several occasions, in my previous articles, I have given you tips and advice on learning Italian. I started with some fabulous idioms, before adding some actions in the form of typical gestures. I also revealed a few expressions that you probably won’t learn in a language school and, last but not least, I shared with you the secrets of Italian pronunciation.
If you have diligently followed my instructions, you will most certainly have improved your communication skills in Italian. Yes, there’s still a lot of work to do, but don’t complain: Dante Alighieri didn’t write the Divine Comedy in a day!
Since I’m really getting into the role of the strict teacher, I decided that today’s lesson will be based on a list of special words that you need to learn if you want to have a fulfilling conversation with a native Italian. Me, for example. Ready?
Literal meaning: then / so / well / at the time / therefore
Actual meaning: …there are so many!
This is probably one of the most eclectic words in the Italian language. As you can see from the literal translations above, it can be used to mean so many different things. The one meaning you should learn, though, is the one we use as a “filler word” to take some time to think before blurting out a response during a potentially embarrassing conversation, or to fill an awkward silence.
- “Did you finish that presentation I assigned to you 2 months ago?” /”Are you ready to talk seriously about this relationship?”/”Will you marry me?”/”When will you find a job?”
- “… Allora…”
Literal meaning: listen to me
Actual meaning: we need to talk
Uh-oh… Just so you know, if you’re talking to me and I start the sentence with senti, it probably means that you are in trouble. Senti can either be used as a synonym for allora (to give you some time when you don’t want to answer straight away), or to introduce a very serious topic or statement. It’s the Italian version of, “We need to talk.”
- “Senti… there’s something I need to tell you…” [to a person who’s chatting too loudly in the office while you’re trying to focus]
Literal meaning: let’s see
Actual meaning: No
I probably shouldn’t reveal my dark side to you all, but this is the magic word that I use when I don’t really want to give a direct answer or, in other words, when I really want to say “no” but am fully aware that the person I’m talking to will insist or won’t take that as an answer.
On a cold rainy day:
- “Hey, Giulia, are you coming to my birthday party?”
- “Uhm, actually, I’m not feeling well/I have my book club tonight/I have work to do/someone set my house on fire.”
- “Oh, come on, it’s my birthday, you know how important this is to me!”
- “Mmmh, ok, vediamo!”
Literal meaning: give it!
Actual meaning: come on!/really?
This tiny word is used as a term of encouragement most of the time, when, for example, you want to spur someone on or hurry them up:
- “You’re not done yet? DAI!“
- “Dai, keep going, it will be over soon!”
What most Italian learners don’t know is that dai is also used as an exclamation of surprise, more or less like “really?”
- “You disappeared, where did you go?”
- “I traveled the world for one year!”
Meaning: “I don’t know” (with an “I don’t care” allure)
Italians probably use this word more than ciao (Hello/Goodbye) or oddio (Oh my God!), and I can easily say that boh doesn’t only express a concept, but also a way of living. The hidden message behind a boh — added to a question such as, “Sorry, I don’t know, why are you asking me this?” — is that you really don’t care. After all, why should I get stressed about something unimportant to me? No way: relax, let it go, indulge, procrastinate, don’t worry (and be happy, of course).
- “Ok, so I’ve planned my whole weekend: firstly, a party, secondly, a dinner with friends, thirdly I’m going to try that new restaurant and yes, I will then obviously spend the rest of the night in a club. What about you?”
- “… boh!”
Don’t confuse boh with bah. The latter meaning is slightly different and could be translated, more or less, with “Whatever, I could’t care less, but I am actually quite irritated by the question, so maybe I do care after all.”
- “Hey, what do you think about the last Italian political scandal?”
Meaning: I’m annoyed / bored / frustrated
This is another word that you must learn if you want to truly understand a native’s feelings towards something. Be careful: if you hear uffa directed at you more than once or twice, then it probably means that you’re pushing it, even if it’s said with a smile and a snort of laughter. It’s simply a friendly warning.
After a very long and boring meeting:
- “We’re not done yet, 40 more slides to go, be patient.”
Literal meaning: eye
Actual meaning: pay attention!
Do you need to warn someone against a dangerous or risky situation? Well, then an occhio shouted with a worried and agitated voice is worth more than a thousand words.
- “I’m going to the beach for a swim. Want to come along?”
- “Occhio, the red flag is out!” (note: beaches are marked with red flags when the sea is very choppy and dangerous)
- “I like the new colleague, she’s very nice!”
- “Occhio, I heard that she’s conniving and two-faced!”
Literal meaning: Go figure
I decided to add this word to the list because it has so many different meanings and could theoretically be used to communicate different and sometimes opposing messages.
1) You can say figurati after grazie (thank you), which pretty much means, “don’t mention it.”
- “Thank you very much for all your help.”
- “Ma figurati!” (Don’t mention it!)
2) If someone is apologizing to you and you want to be polite.
- “I’m so sorry I’m late!”
- “Figurati!” (No worries!)
And lastly, if you want to make something very clear, once again with a hint of a warning, you should use figurati to express a negative response.
- “Can you do this report for me?”
- “Ma figurati!” (Absolutely not!)