Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Linguistic Marriage

It’s fascinating how words move from one language to another. Why and how they move can be enlightening and often down right funny. English and Italian have a close relationship even though English is not classified as a Latin-based language. The connection comes in part from the years that Julius Caesar and his troops spent on the British Isles.

Take the word tooth, for example. It comes to us from Old English, but the Italian, dente, comes from Latin. From that root in English we have dentist, dental, dentifrice, etc. Likewise, the word hard in English is duro in Italian. It’s Latin root gives us durable, duration, duress, and endure.

English speakers learning Italian and Italians learning English have to be wary of “false friends,” words that appear to be the same, but aren’t. In Italian, the word for farm is fattoria; many Italian students of English think fattoria is factory. Other examples are more confusing: sensibile in Italian means sensitive. A sensible person in Italian is described as being di buonsenso. And if you want to order prosciutto without preservatives, say senza conservante because preservativo means condom.

In general, Italians love to use English words, but they often get them wrong. Last year on my other blog, Italian Intrigues, I wrote a piece about the Titty Bar. It’s not topless; in fact, the name is intended to conjure up a warm, family feeling. In this case, the name has as much to do with pronunciation as meaning. But it makes English speakers smile.

Often, an English word migrates into Italian to perform one narrowly defined task. Take chat, for example. Italian has a perfectly good word, chiacchierata, that is virtually equal in meaning to the English word. When the practice of Internet chat emerged, the English word was adopted, but only for Internet chat. Thus when someone says to me, “I was chatting with my friends,” I have a mental image of people talking face to face while they mean keyboard to keyboard.

Piercing and lifting are two other words that have narrow meanings in Italian. The first is body piercing, the second a face lift (or beauty products purported to have face lift properties). I once helped an Italian jewelry designer develop a presentation about her work in English. She had designed a line of gold jewelry in which the metal had been pierced to make intricate designs. She refused to believe that pierce was the correct word, and even after I showed her in the bilingual dictionary, her preconceived reaction to the word made it impossible for her to use it. We had to find another, more complex, way of describing her work.

Italians immigrating to America developed a slang that combined their own language with the new one. A classic example is Dean Martin singing about pasta fazool in “That’s Amore.” He was singing about an Italian dish called pasta e fagiole (pasta and beans).

Image from Western Connecticut State University
In Italian, a photographic camera is a macchina fotografica. Simple. Descriptive. But how we English speakers came to use camera for the same mechanism is quite interesting. It’s the Italian word for room. Camera di letto, bedroom; camera di pranzo, dining room. So how did camera come to mean macchina fotografica in English?

Before the invention of film, artists could record images by constructing a “room” outside, known as a camera obscura, dark room. Light passing through a small hole was reflected onto the opposite wall. It was upside down, but it maintained perspective. Artists could then trace the reflected image for an accurate record of the scene. Later, a box with mirrors to reverse the image was constructed, and the camera as we know it was born.

Know of any other languages that play tricks on your comprehension?


  1. Patricia, some of the false friends you've seen in Italian are the same in German: sensibel for sensitive and Preservativ for a condom. But the Italian-American rendering of fagiole made me smile because it reminded me of a Farsi word I learned from my mother-in-law that sounds almost the same. When our dog would come sniffing around her while she was in the kitchen, she'd shoo her away, saying "foozool, foozool!." "It means "busybody." The dog was looking for food, of course, not gossip. But I've loved the word ever since.

  2. Oh, I love that. Foozool. I'll remember to use it sometime.

  3. Oh yes, so much fun when "false friends" are used. For me, Spanish and Italian are so similar, so many of the challenges English speakers have when learning either of these languages are pretty much the same.

  4. I think you're right about those challenges. The two languages are so similar I've actually overheard conversations between Italians and Spaniards with each speaking their own language! There are differences however. For example, burro in Italian is butter and roba is stuff (the noun, not the verb).