One of the most identifiable characteristics of Italian, setting it apart in the world of languages, is its unique use of hand gestures. Everyone recognizes this distinctive trait from Italian culture, even if our use of gesticulation is typically reduced to a simplified folk stereotype.
Imagine then if someone decided to address and analyze this topic in depth, traveling around the world to explain that hand gestures are actually a complex linguistic code and an indelible part of the Italian psyche.
Having made a documentary entitled “The Voice of the Body,” which sought to analyze and didactically present the phenomenon of Italian hand gestures (with a special focus on those used by Sicilians), I began an educational tour in which I literally “taught” Italian hand gestures at many universities across the world, including collaborating with prestigious theatres such as the National Theatre in London.
This journey across continents has allowed me to understand how we Italians are seen by other cultures, which led to a profound self-analysis of our ability to communicate. As you might expect, there was also a real exchange of cultures during the trip — as I provided useful information about Italian to others, I learned how body language is used in other cultures, ultimately giving me a deeper understanding of different customs and traditions. The biggest misconception about Italian gestures is that they illustrate words like charades, but most are actually an abstracted code.
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 25, 2016 at 4:08am PST
The beauty of Italian hand gestures is also evident in how the countless different meanings can be constructed through creative use of the hands. Repeatedly hitting the side of your right hand with the palm of your left hand, for example, means “Go away! Get out!” This same gesture can also mean “to cut loose” or “to jump ship.”
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 27, 2016 at 2:18am PST
Sometimes, there can be true poetry behind a gesture, which is the case with the gesture used to communicate “perfetto!” (perfect). The thumb and index finger form a ring, with the other three fingers fanned out. The hand is then moved slowly across the chest as though gently dancing, accompanied by a facial expression portraying great satisfaction.
Non c’è niente
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 28, 2016 at 2:09am PST
Some gestures are expressions of precise concepts that can be used to effectively replace speech. Think of the gesture for “non c’è niente” (there is nothing), in which one makes a “gun” gesture and rotates the wrist, paired with a sorrowful and dramatic facial expression.
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 28, 2016 at 9:21am PST
With gestures, you can also convey irony and satire in an almost theatrical manner. Think about the gesture to express “too much talking” or “blah blah blah,” in which the hand could almost be seen to be mimicking a puppet chatting away to itself. This is used when someone is talking too much and is saying something that perhaps isn’t exactly true.
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 26, 2016 at 1:55am PST
Gestures don’t only express concepts — they can also be used to describe states of mind. For example, to ask if someone is feeling scared, it’s enough to simply turn your palms facing upwards and open and close all five fingers at the same time, as if to form an artichoke with the hand.
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 30, 2016 at 1:49am PST
I don’t know why, but for me, the gesture signifying “stealing” is very creative. The four fingers (not including the thumb) are moved together harmoniously in the air, as if they were playing a virtual piano, while the person winks like they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.
Ti faccio un &%$? cosí!
A video posted by Babbel (@babbel.languages) on Jan 31, 2016 at 2:23am PST
As you might imagine, there have been some funny anecdotes to come out of my journey across the globe. I’ll tell you one in particular. This gesture was too vulgar to include in the video, but we have decided to talk about it here anyway.
During one of my workshops, a student asked me:
So if I wanted to go to Naples and order a pizza without speaking, could I make this gesture?
And with his hands, he made a gesture that he thought represented the circle of a pizza, but in Italy this would translate as “Ti faccio un culo così” (or roughly, “I’m gonna kick your ass”).
I explained to him that this would be a massive miscommunication and he would risk a violent backlash. I still remember the look on his face when I told him this — he was visibly upset to say the least.
And rightly so; this vulgar and threatening gesture, used to criticize someone for his actions as well as to communicate the statement “I can make you very ill!”, could certainly get him into trouble!
It’s also true that this gesture can be used in a different context with another meaning: “Mi sono fatto un culo così” (roughly meaning “I worked my ass off”) to indicate how much effort you put into achieving a specific goal. However, in this case, you would also need to make a different facial expression to accompany the gesture. In either case, I don’t think any Italian would think about pizza if they saw this gesture!
This is obviously only a small taste of the extraordinary world of nonverbal communication in Italian; I would recommend deepening your knowledge of what it means to be Italian in all of its facets and forms of communication, hand gestures included. It’s really interesting to see how people from other cultures react so incredulously to explanations of our hand gestures. In effect, we are talking about an extraordinary language which traces its roots back to the primordial dawn of humanity.
Oh, and one more thing: because I am Sicilian, you should be prepared — you might just find me standing in front of you soon, ready to hug and kiss you in perfect southern Mediterranean style! 😉