7 Things Italian Can’t Do (But Other Languages Can)

Despite the Italian language’s prestige, it has a few limitations that may seem bizarre to those who study it.
Things Italian can't do represented by a side shot of buildings in Italy, including many bread shops.

Linguistic diversity is absolutely fascinating. With its unique grammar, vocabulary, history and literature, every language is, by nature, a world to be discovered. There’s something that we don’t talk about often: the fact that sometimes features can also be limits! Think of the Italian language, for example. Among its many idiosyncrasies, there are a few that showcase the things Italian can’t do as opposed to what it can.

This doesn’t mean Italian is defective; every language is perfect in its inherent uniqueness. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that there are some things in certain languages that you can’t do in others, and Italian is no exception. Despite its centuries-old prestigious literary tradition, Italian has a few interesting limitations that may seem a little odd to a someone who’s learning it as a new language. Here are seven things that you can’t do in Italian.

Seven Distinct Characteristics of the Italian Language (And Its Limits)

Distinguishing Between The Host And The Guest

If you’re talking about vacations or holidays in Italian, sooner or later you’ll encounter a word with a rather ambiguous meaning. The word in question is ospite, and you have to pay close attention when you hear it. This term means both “the host” and “the guest.” In other words it has two definitions with opposite meanings. This linguistic phenomenon is called enantiosemy. 

In this case, this phenomenon doesn’t occur in English because it’s very clear who the host is and who the guest is. But there isn’t the same clarity in Italian, and using context is the only way that you’ll be able to understand the true meaning of ospite.

Ending Words With Consonants

If you listen closely to a conversation between Italian speakers, you’ll hear English words peppered in pretty often. This is all very normal, especially when it comes to technology, science and marketing. What makes it interesting is the pronunciation. A lot of native Italian speakers can’t help but add a soft vowel at the end of every word that ends in a consonant. So we don’t pronounce the word “network” like English speakers do; instead we say something to the effect of “network-uh.” But if you ask an Italian, “Why do you always add an ‘e’ at the end of a word?” they’ll swear up and down that they don’t. And they’re not lying, either.

One of the many fascinating characteristics of the Italian language is its strong propensity for vowels. Nearly every word ends in a vowel, and the sound of the final consonant almost results in a contradiction, sounding both clunky and awkward. Italians feel the need to sweeten everything. That’s why they add a barely implied vowel at the end of every word. If you’re a careful reader and you speak Italian, you’re surely thinking that there are words that aren’t borrowed words that do, in fact, end in a consonant. We’re talking about per, ad, con, il, un and so on. Yes, they all end in a consonant, but these words are what the French call a liaison, creating a phonetic link from one word to the next word which, without fail, will end in a vowel. A consonant will certainly never appear at the end of a sentence.

Differentiating Questions And Statements Without Verbal Tone

In most European languages, questions are formulated with a particular phrasal construct known as the interrogative form. But this construct doesn’t exist in Italian. The fact that Italians perfectly understand when someone is asking a question can baffle English, German and French speakers.

You may ask, “But how can they understand each other?” It’s exactly the same as a statement! The secret lies in the tone. In order to understand if a sentence is a question or statement, Italian speakers pay close attention to the last syllable. If the last syllable in a sentence is pronounced with a slightly higher tone, the speaker is asking a question. Of course there’s no tone in the written language, which is why we use a question mark in those cases.

Giving A Noun A Neutral Form

Gendered nouns, nouns that are masculine or feminine, tend to confuse English speakers who study Italian. This doesn’t happen in English because the noun’s gender is almost always neutral, except in special cases like actor and actress. This unique characteristic is truly interesting, especially considering the fact that Latin, the language that Italian is derived from, had neutral nouns. But clearly the Italians (as well as French and Spanish speakers) loved the idea of giving an object a gender, and that’s how all the neutral nouns became gendered!

In some cases, the same term is masculine in its singular form and feminine in its plural form. For example, the word uovo — “egg” — is masculine in the singular form but feminine, uova, in the plural form. Likewise, dito or finger, is masculine when singular but feminine, dita, when plural. The lack of a neutral gender can be heard in everyday life too. For example, the name of professions are nearly always masculine, even when women hold them.

Growing Beyond Italy’s Borders

Italian is a language with a very compact concentration of speakers. Other than Italy, Italian is spoken in Vatican City and San Marino which are both located within the Italian territory. Italian is also the official language of the Ticino Canton and the Grisons, but it’s really only spoken at the Italian border. From a numerical standpoint, Italian speakers living in Italy represent the lion’s share of speakers compared to Switzerland or San Marino. The geographic proximity of different communities who speak Italian has resulted in identifying the language of Dante as the “language of the Italian Republic.”  Unlike many other European languages, Italian didn’t undergo any emancipation from a nation of origin.

If this concept seems a bit obscure, here are a few examples of other widely-spoken European languages to compare with. English isn’t only spoken in England. On the contrary, it’s the official language of dozens of sovereign States, and there are numerous standard dialects, including British and American. Spanish is spoken by more people in South America than in Europe. Portuguese is spoken in Brazil and certain parts of Africa, and there are more Portuguese speakers outside of Europe than within it. On the other hand, the case of the German language is similar to that of Italian. German speakers are mostly concentrated in one area that’s limited to their country or bordering countries. But there’s a high numeric proportion of speakers compared with Italy. If the number of Italian speakers outside of Italy is about 100,000, the number of German speakers outside of Germany (mainly Switzerland and Austria) is nearly 15 million.

Identifying The Source Of “True Italian”

If you know a little bit about the history of the Italian language, you surely know that the modern Italian that we speak today comes from Florence. You’ll also know that in the 18th century, Alessandro Manzoni wrote his novel The Betrothed inspired by the Florentine dialect. The expression “rinsing cloths in the Arno” refers to the river that passes through Florence. It’s a saying that comes from Manzoni himself who sought to “cleanse” his writing from Lombard and French influences and make them more Italian. Having said that, you might think that Italian is strictly linked to the Florentine dialect even now. But that’s far from the truth: Florence’s influence on the Italian language has been in slow decline since the unification of Italy.

Today, nobody considers the Florentine dialect to be the most prestigious. The Tuscan pronunciations of an aspirated hard C, T and P make Florentine pronunciation sound odd for those using standard Italian. Indeed, the circumstances of modern Italian are very different from those of France where the Parisian dialect has been considered the purest form of French for centuries. The same goes for Spain, where Castile is still considered the cradle of the Spanish language, though the term Castilian is used to refer to Cervantes’ language.

Modifying The Standard Language By Decree

If we Italians decided to try to eliminate the word rinoceronte from our vocabulary, we probably wouldn’t be successful. There’s a simple reason for that: there isn’t any regulation in Italy that specifically deals with the language. In other words, no public institution can modify the standard language. But there is the prestigious Accademia della Crusca, which is the highest authority on everything relating to the Italian language since the 16th century. When someone has a question or inquiry about proper Italian, they consult this ancient linguistic academy.

What you may not know is that the Crusca merely has consulting power, not regulatory power. Essentially, it can provide advice on how to write and speak correctly, but it doesn’t have the power to add or subtract words or modify grammatical rules. The Accademia della Crusca asserts that the standard language can’t be modified by default, but it does transform with the use of the language. The speakers always have the last word! It should be noted that throughout Italian history, there have been several attempts to modify the language through regulations.

One of these attempts took place during the Fascist dictatorship when loanwords were banned and substituted with Italian words. That’s how bar became mescita, slalom became obbligata, cocktail became arlecchino, etc. This reform was wildly unsuccessful. Once the regime fell, Italians went back to using loanwords. A recent attempt to modify the Italian language took place in 2001 when a decree banning so-called “bureaucratese,” similar to what we might call legalese, or bureaucratic terminology and expressions like suggellare or all’uopo, which were incomprehensible for most Italians. As soon as the law took effect, public documents couldn’t be duly written anymore, but the public administration continued using its pretentious and complex wording. The law, almost never applied, was finally repealed in 2013.

Among all of these things Italian can’t do, we can add more: Italian can’t be tamed. It’s a wild horse that’s appreciated for its beauty and prestige as well as its peculiarities!

This article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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