Italian Language Blog

Mi Piace Il Verbo Sentire Posted by on Apr 4, 2019 in Italian Language

Today, I’m dedicating a poem by Alda Merini (1931-2009) to my dear husband Geoff, who sometimes complains that the verb sentire (to feel) is used for too many different actions: to hear, to smell, to taste, and to feel.

In reality, we do actually have specific nouns and verbs to describe i cinque sensi (the five senses).
Eccoli (here they are):

la vista = sight
verb: vedere = to see

l’udito = hearing
verb: udire = to hear. This is irregular in the present tense: io odo, tu odi, lui ode, noi udiamo, voi udite, loro odono

l’olfatto = smell
verb: odorare = to smell

il gusto = taste
verb: gustare = to taste

il tatto = touch
verb: toccare = to touch

However, apart from la vista, which always uses the verb vedere, all the other senses commonly use the verb sentire, e.g.:
ho sentito un rumore strano = I heard a strange noise
si sente il sapore del cloro nell’acqua = you can taste chlorine in the water; il sapore del cloro = the taste of chlorine
sento un odore delizioso = I smell a delicious smell
senti com’è morbido! = feel how soft it is!

We also use sentire for feelings, e.g.:
sento pena per lui = I feel sorry for him
quando vedo il mare sento una grande felicità = when I see the sea I feel great happiness

The verb sentire is used in this way for a reason: the word senso (sense) comes from the Latin verb sentire, which means ‘to perceive an external stimulus, either physically through the five senses or emotionally’. In fact English words such as sentiment (sentimento) and sentimental (sentimentale) come from the same root.

Geoff by the sea.

So, here’s Alda Merini’s beautiful poem which pays homage to this very important Italian verb. English translation by Serena.

Mi Piace Il Verbo Sentire…, di Alda Merini:

Mi piace il verbo sentire…
Sentire il rumore del mare,
sentirne l’odore.
Sentire il suono della pioggia
che ti bagna le labbra,
sentire una penna che traccia
sentimenti su un foglio bianco.
Sentire l’odore di chi ami,
sentirne la voce
e sentirlo col cuore.
Sentire è il verbo delle emozioni,
ci si sdraia sulla schiena del mondo
e si sente…

I Like The Verb To Feel…, by Alda Merini:

I like the verb to feel…
To feel the noise of the sea,
to feel its smell.
To feel the sound of the rain
that wets your lips,
to feel a pen portraying
feelings on a white sheet.
To feel the smell of the one you love,
to feel his voice,
and to feel him with your heart.
To feel is the verb of emotions,
you lay down on the back of the world
and you feel…

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  1. Faith Nesti:

    This poem written in both languages is a perfect tool to use when instructing those who want to become proficient in those tongues.

  2. June Stubbs:

    Mi dispiace ma…in English, the verb “to lie” is intransitive and declined thusly: I lie/am lying in the sun., I lay in the sun yesterday., I have lain in the sun for years. The verb “to lay” is transitive and declined: I lay the rug on the floor after cleaning it., I laid the rug on the floor yesterday., I have laid rugs for many years.

    • Angie:

      @June Stubbs June Stubbs: your clarification regarding the declination of the verb ‘to lie (down)’, however grammatically correct, was not really necessary since the form used in the poem could also be interpreted in the past tense (you lay then, and you now feel…), thus (not thusly, btw..) to be considered and accepted as correct.

    • Angie:

      @June Stubbs Also, if I may add, the form used in that line: ‘you lay down on the back of the world’ does not even imply a transitive action of the verb, as pointed out by you: it is merely denoting an adverb of location, and not serving as direct object to the main verb.

      • Geoff:

        @Angie Ciao Angie, as I wrote to June, I wanted to keep our (very inadequate) translation as ephemeral as possible.
        But who knows, perhaps after all these years here in Italia my once ‘top notch’ English ain’t that great no more!

        P.S there’s a thing that I hear many educated English people saying that I find rather fastidiosa (fastidious … there, I’m doing it again!): the use of there’s instead of there are. e.g. ‘there’s two cat’s over there’. There’s is an abbreviation of there is (sing.), no? Or am I really so out of touch with my mother tongue?

        Alla prossima!

    • Geoff:

      @June Stubbs Hi June, ‘lay’ was my call, not Serena’s.
      Poetic licence!
      ‘You lie down’ sounded too abrupt, whilst for some reason ‘you lay down’ seemed somehow softer, more ephemeral, which fitted better with the mood of the poem.
      I guess I was also thinking of lines in songs or poems such as ‘I lay me down’. Actually, there’s a song by Mazzy Star called ‘Lay Myself Down’.
      Translating poetry from Italian to English is always a huge compromise, so much gets lost.
      I’d love to have left it just in Italian, but then a lot of readers wouldn’t have got it.

      A presto, Geoff 🙂

  3. Gugone:

    Dear June Stubbs, it is declined thus, not thusly. Thusly is not an English word.

  4. Rosalind:

    Sono a 100% d’accordo con Geoff. Spesso la parola “sentire” non mi pare abbastanza chiara.

    Non sarebbe Porto Venere nel fondo?

    @JuneStubbs: This is a mistake made by perhaps half the population of the UK (with English as their mother tongue!). Hardly a problem when here we are learning the Italian language and culture.

    • Geoff:

      @Rosalind Ciao Rosalind, Brava, è infatti Portovenere. Facciamo spesso una passeggiata vicino Montemarcello dall’altra parte del golfo dei poeti, troppo bello lì!

      P.S. see my reply to June. It was a kind of ‘deliberate mistake’ for poetic reasons. I hate translating Italian poetry, Alda Merini has chosen each word so carefully, that it almost feels like blasphemy to ‘mutate’ them.
      Questa è davvero una poesia che si deve sentire. 🙂

  5. Barbara Lloyd:

    It’s a lovely poem!
    Is the English grammar lesson really necessary?!

    • Geoff:

      @Barbara Lloyd Ciao Barbara, perhaps the grammar wasn’t necessary for you personally, but I’m sure that it will have helped someone. This is a confusing topic for many students.

      Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  6. William C Auge:

    Bellissima. Io sento l’emozione di questa poema.

    • Serena:

      @William C Auge Sì, è una bellissima poesia, e Alda Merini è stata una grandissima poetessa.
      P.S. In Italian ‘un poema’ (masculine) is a very long composition, such as L’Orlando Furioso, or the Odyssey. A normal poem in Italian is called ‘una poesia’.
      Saluti da Serena

      • William Auge:

        @Serena Serena, grazie per la lezione.
        abbraccio, Bill

        • Serena:

          @William Auge Non c’è di che, Bill!
          Un abbraccio da tutti noi, 7 gatti compresi!

  7. Bri:

    Such a beautiful poem!
    Thank you!

  8. Paule Cailleau:

    Sono molto contenta , sento che ho trovato
    il perfetto modo di studiare l’italiano

  9. Andrei:

    La poesia e’ davvero bella.
    PS: verbs are conjugated , nouns are declined
    Saluti da Andrei

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