Words by Dianne Hales, author of “La Bella Lingua” and “Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered”
Italian won me over at first "Ciao!" Over the last quarter-century, I have devoted countless hours and effort - enough, if applied to more practical pursuits, for the down payment on a villa in Umbria - to the wiliest of Western tongues. I have studied Italian in every way I could find - from Berlitz to books, with CDs and computer drills, in private tutorials and conversation groups, and in what some might deem unconscionable amounts of time in Italy. I’ve come to think of the language as a briccone - a lovable rascal, a clever, twinkle-eyed scamp that you can’t resist even when it plays you for the fool. Croce e delizia, torment and delight, Verdi’s Violetta sang of love. The same holds true for the language his operas carried on golden wings.
Italian’s basic word chest, as tallied in a recent dictionary, totals a measly 200,000, compared to English’s 600,000 (not counting technical terms). But with a prefix here and a suffix there, Italian words multiply like fruit flies.
Fischiare (whistle) sounds merry enough, but fischiettare means “whistling with joy”. No one wants to be vecchio (old), but invecchiare (to become old) loses its sting - and, according to an Italian proverb, no one does so a tavola (at the table) – a tavola non s’invecchia.
Just about everything that can be said has been said in Italian - then rephrased, edited, modified, synthesized, and polished to a verbal gleam. It’s no wonder that everything sounds better!
An ordinary towel becomes an asciugamano; a handkerchief, a fazzoletto; a dog leash, a guinzaglio. Garbage isn’t mere trash. In Italian, it’s spazzatura. Italian’s linguistic pantry is stuffed with words delicious enough to eat, such as cappellacci di zucca (pumpkin-stuffed pasta shaped like caps), ciambellone (ring cake) or sospiri di monaca (sighs of a nun).
Does any language have a better word for make-up than trucco (trick)? Barcollare, to move like a boat, perfectly conveys the swaying stride of a drunken sailor. Although I have yet to use it in a sentence, the very existence of colombeggiare, which means “to kiss one another like doves”, makes me smile.
Like the pleasure of such terms, words for pleasure take tantalizing forms. A nation of inspired cooks and enthusiastic eaters has, of course, coined a specific word for a lust for a food - goloso (from gola for “throat”), which goes beyond mere appetite, craving, or hunger.
Although all the Romance languages evolved from the volgare (vernacular) of ancient Rome, none may have so many seductive ways of expressing amore: Ti amo, mio tesoro (I love you, my darling) for l’amore della tua vita (the love of your life); ti voglio bene (for all others). Voglio soltanto te (I want only you). Vieni qui e baciami (Come here and kiss me). Ti adoro (I adore you).
One evening I regaled a conversation group with a tale about an article called “Twenty- four Hours in the Life of a Medical Student” that I had written as a young reporter. “I had no idea that I was spending the night with the future surgeon general,” I said in Italian, “and I enjoyed it.” The teacher, a worldly sophisticate who speaks four languages, leaned close to whisper that the term I had chosen usually referred to sex.
An Italian amante (lover) may be amoroso (amorous), amabile (lovable), amato (beloved), or all three. Many an Italian man is an amatore (a lover of, say, wine, women, or song). An Italian woman may be an amatrice (a lover, perhaps, of the fine things in life). You can also be an amante della lirica, amante degli animali, etc. - a lover of opera, a lover of animals, etc.
There is no English word that quite captures the sensation of innamoramento, crazy head-over-heels love, deeper than infatuation, way beyond bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. But that’s what I am - an innamorata, enchanted by Italian, fascinated by its story and its stories, tantalized by its adventures, addicted to its sound, and ever eager to spend more time in its company.
Have you fallen in love with the Italian language? Then, it's time to start learning Italian!
Make sure to check out our interview with Dianne on ITALY Magazine's Blog of the Week and keep in touch with her via her blog Becoming Italian Word by Word.