In his latest guest blog, Il Negozio del Papà di Mattia, our friend Mattia uses il Passato Remoto (Historical Past), a tense that is often seen as more or less redundant because it’s mainly used in formal and historical writing, e.g. Napoleone morì nel 1821 all’Isola di Sant’Elena (Napoleon died in 1821 on the Island of Saint Helena).
I remember that, one summer many years ago, a boy told me: “Si sente che leggi molto: usi il passato remoto nel parlare” (One can hear that you read a lot: you use the historical past when you speak). This little anecdote illustrates the regional differences that exist here in Italy: I often speak in the passato remoto, not because I like reading (even if I really do!), but because I come from Lucca in Toscana, where il passato remoto is still alive, alongside the passato prossimo (present perfect). The boy in my anecdote was from Milano in the North of Italy, where this tense has become pretty much obsolete .
Before looking at the ways in which il passato remoto is used, let’s see how we conjugate this tense.
1. Regular verbs in –are, e.g. Parlare (to talk):
io parlai (I talked), tu parlasti (you talked, singular, informal), Lei parlò (You talked, singular, formal), lui/lei parlò (he/she talked), noi parlammo (we talked), voi parlaste (you talked, plural), loro parlarono (they talked).
2. Regular verbs in –ere, e.g. Credere (to believe):
io credei / credetti (I believed), tu credesti (you believed, singular, informal), Lei credé / credette (You believed, singular, formal), lui/lei credé / credette (he/she believed), noi credemmo (we believed), voi credeste (you believed, plural), loro crederono / credettero (they believed).
3. Regular verbs in –ire, e.g. Sentire (to hear):
io sentii (I heard), tu sentisti (you heard, singular, informal), Lei sentì (You heard, singular, formal), lui/lei sentì (he/she heard), noi sentimmo (we heard), voi sentiste (you heard, plural), loro sentirono (they heard).
N.B. When not marked, the accent always falls on the first vowel of the suffix, e.g. parlai, parlasti, credei, credette, sentii, sentimmo, sentirono.
Unfortunately, il passato remoto is full of irregular verbs, especially amongst the verbs ending in –ere (my grammar book records 40 verbs just for this group!). Of course, at the top of the list are the two essentials: essere (to be) and avere (to have).
Essere: io fui (I was), tu fosti (you were, singular, informal), Lei fu (You were, singular, formal), lui/lei fu (he/she was), noi fummo (we were), voi foste (you were, plural), loro furono (they were).
Avere: io ebbi (I had), tu avesti (you had, singular, informal), Lei ebbe (You had, singular, formal), lui/lei ebbe (he/she had), noi avemmo (we had), voi aveste (you had, plural), loro ebbero (they had).
You can find a more or less exhaustive list of Italian irregular verbs, with their complete conjugation, here: Verbi Irregolari
In part 2 we’ll have a look at how il passato remoto is used.