With around 700,000 speakers, Swiss Italian is one of Switzerland’s official languages, and its third most-spoken after Swiss German and Swiss French. Yet, if you’ve only studied Standard Italian and decide to visit Switzerland, you might be confused. What exactly are the differences between the Italian spoken in Switzerland and the Italian spoken in Italy?
As you know, Italian isn’t the same everywhere. Within Italy, vocabulary, expressions and sometimes even grammatical constructions change from one region to the next. And Swiss Italian, more precisely from the cantons of Ticino and the Grisons, is no exception. Just like Italian spoken in Lombardy, Tuscany or Sicily, it has its own regional variations. But Swiss Italian is perhaps even more different and certainly less well-known. Not only are Ticino and the Grisons located at a geographic extremity of the Italian-speaking world, they’re also isolated from Italy politically and culturally. They belong to a separate administrative and linguistic environment, where interactions between Italian and the other Swiss languages — mainly French and German — are constantly taking place.
Vocabulary is where Standard Italian and Swiss Italian differ most. In some cases, a word with a specific definition in Italy means something completely different on the other side of the border. In other cases, usage is key. Sometimes a Swiss Italian word just doesn’t exist in Standard Italian. It could be borrowed from another language, from a dialect (sometimes present in other Italian regions, usually in the north), or even from a brand name.
Breaking Down Swiss Italian
Let’s start by looking at a sample of writing that an Italian speaker in Switzerland might put in their diary.
Oggi è stata proprio una giornata da dimenticare.
Quando sono scesa per colazione ho visto che la mamma aveva finito tutti gli zibac. Poi, uscendo di casa mi si sono impigliate le ghette nella ramina. Volevo chiamare il Marco per farmi venire a prendere ma, come se non bastasse, avevo il natel scarico. Allora sono salita sulla posta, e per poco l’autista non tamponava la macchina davanti: meno male che quello sull’altra corsia gli ha fatto i bilux.
Oggi non c’era scuola perché siamo andati in passeggiata, e ovviamente ha piovuto tutto il giorno alla faccia di quello che avevano detto alla meteo. Per fortuna la giornata è finita un po’ meglio: alla Migros ho trovato le ghette in azione e mi sono anche comperata un bel pacco di spagnolette da portare al cinema. Il Marco aveva già riservato due biglietti per il nuovo film di Spielberg e ci siamo proprio divertiti. Adesso andrei volentieri a dormire, ma devo ancora finire il compito sulle differenze tra l’italiano della Svizzera e l’italiano d’Italia. A me di differenze non ne vengono proprio in mente. Speriamo di prendere comunque una bella nota, altrimenti rischio di bocciare anche la quarta.
A little lost? Have no fear! Let’s look at what all of those bolded phrases mean.
Spaghetti in azione at the supermarket? No need to panic, your favorite pasta isn’t about to jump off the shelves like in a horror movie! The term azione is used in Swiss Italian to mean “on sale” (offerta speciale).
A Swiss Italian student writes his notes in a classatore or a classeur (“binder”), while a student in Italy would use a raccoglitore ad anelli or a cassificatore.
In Ticino and the Grisons, people driving past each other can biluxare. The verb comes from Bilux, the brand name for headlights with two functions (main and bright). In Italian-speaking Switzerland, the brand has lent its name to the well-known signal on the road: flashing the headlights. Biluxare or fare i bilux is known as lampeggiare in Standard Italian.
In Italian-speaking Switzerland, you can do an activity outdoors or indoors a dipendenza di (“depending on”) the weather. This expression is connected to the verb dipendere (“to depend”) and seems completely logical. In Italy, however, you’d probably say in funzione di, a seconda di or even secondo.
The word evidente is common in Italian. But there’s a difference between evidente in Standard Italian and evidente in Swiss Italian! In Swiss Italian, evidente takes on the meaning of facile (“easy”). If, for example, it’s not evidente in Lugano to learn to play the piano when you’re an adult, it’s evidente (“obvious”) in Rome that a beginner will make mistakes.
When someone in Italian-speaking Switzerland comanda a pizza in a restaurant or a book in a bookstore, an Italian would be surprised that they’re giving orders to an inanimate object! But all they want to do is ordinare (“to order”) something to eat or to read. The term comandare comes from the influence of the French commander (“to order”).
You know those chainlink fences that are often used to support a bush or just separate a road and a field? In Italian-speaking Switzerland, they make it simple and instead of that long description, they just use the dialect-influenced word ramina! In Italy, la ramina is a pot or copper shavings.
Many Italian-speakers in Switzerland enjoy a zibac for breakfast. It’s not a dietary supplement, a medication or an illicit drug (in case that crossed your mind). A zibac (pronounced ziBAC) is a kind of toast (fette biscottate). The term comes from the German Zwieback, a reference to two-step baking (zweimal gebackenes Brot, similar to bis-cotte or bis-cottate). It’s a term that’s also used in French-speaking Switzerland.
Fare i vizi
Spoiled children are a problem everywhere. But in Italian-speaking Switzerland… a little less! Indeed, if a relaxed upbringing in Italy results in a spoiled little Swiss child (viziato), a child can also be viziato if they like to fare i vizi (or vizietti), which just means being coddled, cuddled or hugged.
Ghette and spagnolette
How many of you remember Scrooge McDuck’s (Zio Paperone) ghette? And Goofy’s (Super Pippo) spagnolette? The most geographically isolated linguistic varieties are often the most conservative. You’ll still find words forgotten in Italy still spoken in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Le ghette (pronounced GHEtte) are stockings or gaiters (gambaletti in Standard Italian) typical of men’s clothing long ago. Curiously, this time the Italians use a French word instead of the Swiss!
La spagnoletta (always with an open “e”), however, has stuck around in Switzerland, while in Italy they now say arachide or nocciolina (“peanut” from America and not Spain!), even for Mickey and his friends.
In Italian-speaking Switzerland, many things can be posse, though the meaning changes depending on what it’s applied to. There’s not only bread (meaning “stale”), but also jokes (“not funny”) or people (“boring”). In this case, it’s not a word used with a different meaning to how it’s used in Italy, but rather a new “concept.” It’s impossible to cover all the meanings that can be expressed by this adjective with just one word. So here’s the challenge: how to translate this posso in Italian? Or, even better, what’s keeping the Italians from using this adjective that seems so indispensable to the Swiss?
One of the most well-known words particular to Switzerland is natel, a term common in every linguistic community in the country, not just the Italian-speaking region. It’s used to refer to mobile phones (otherwise called telefonino or cellulare in Italian). NATel (Nationales Autotelefonnetz) was the name of the first mobile phone network and came to be used for the mobile phone itself. The origin of the term is probably unknown to most young Swiss people, but the word is very common and seems difficult to replace, at least in Ticino and the Grisons. The Italian equivalents have at least two or three too many syllables.
A Few More Definitions
There are a few more terms in the Ticino resident’s diary still to cover. Here’s a quicker summary of what those last words mean.
|Swiss Italian||Standard Italian||English|
|posta||corriera||Swiss mail truck|
|il Marco||Marco||a man’s name|
|passeggiata (scolastica)||gita||school field trip|
|la meteo||il meteo||the weather|
|Migros||Migros||a Swiss supermarket chain|
|nota||voto||grade in school|
|bocciare la classe||non passare l’anno||to fail the year|
This article was originally published on the French edition of Babbel Magazine.