Italian Language Blog

Parla come Mangi Posted by on Sep 1, 2009 in Culture, Italian Language

Browsing through a magazine a few days ago I came across an article about a recent survey which set out to discover the best known Italian words throughout the 27 countries of the Unione Europea. Although the article itself was rather trivial it did remind me of something quite important: the existence of La Società Dante Alighieri, the organization which undertook the survey.

The Dante Alighieri Society was created in 1898 by a group of intellectuals under the guidance of the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci. According to their constitution the main purpose of the society is to: tutelare e diffondere la lingua e la cultura italiana nel mondo, tenendo ovunque alto il sentimento di italianità, ravvivando i legami spirituali dei connazionali all’estero con la madre patria e alimentando tra gli stranieri l’amore e il culto per la civiltà italiana’ (‘protect and spread Italian language and culture throughout the world, universally upholding the feeling of ‘being Italian’, reviving the spiritual ties between our fellow countrymen abroad and the motherland, and promoting amongst foreigners a love and admiration of the Italian civilization’).

The founders named the association after Dante Alighieri because it was in his works of literature that the Italian language first took shape, eventually giving form to the official language chosen six centuries later when Italy came into being as a unified nation.

Although the activities of the association take place both in Italy and all’estero (abroad) it is for its work in the latter area that the Società Dante Alighieri is best known. In fact one of the first important actions which they undertook was the development of Italian language courses for Italian emigrants who had moved abroad to find work.

If you would like to discover more about the Società Dante Alighieri here is a link to their website: Società Dante Alighieri


Parla come Mangi (Speak like you eat)

As for the survey, well the question posed by the society on their website was: Quali sono fra queste 100, le dieci parole Italiane entrate nella vostra lingua che considerate più importanti storicamente e culturalmente? (Which, out of these 100 Italian words absorbed into your language, do you consider to be the most important from a historical and cultural point of view?)

Here are the top 10 words chosen by roughly 10,000 voters:











The results are fairly predictable but perhaps a little depressing when you consider what is missing from the top 10 words in the list, e.g. pianoforte, opera, influenza, terracotta, virtuoso, malaria ………all of which seem to me very common cultural and historical words. How come for example that mozzarella is at number 5 in the list and influenza is only at number 56? Well I can only assume that the rest of Europe is just as obsessed with their stomachs as is the average Italian!

Which Italian words would you have put at the top of your list? Please feel free to post a comment.

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  1. Nathan:

    Unfortunately, if this survey was conducted in America “Mafia” and other underworld terms would contend with the food words on the list. Sadly, most Americans according to a recent poll (sorry the name of the organization that ran the survey escapes me) think that most Italian-Americans are in someway connect to “organized crime”. I’d love to see Italian taught along with German, Spanish, French, and Latin in High Schools to erase this stigma and to spread this beautiful language. Then important cultural words like “sonata”, “andante”, “adagio”, or “fresco” would appear on a list like this.

  2. Luis González-Serva:


  3. Joe Vernuccio:

    What about “martini!”

  4. Lorna Russell:

    This is my very quick Top 10:
    ti amo
    caffe latte
    gelato cioccolato

  5. cinzia:

    The first word I think of is “ciao”! Pretty much used in any country of the world now. I guess “pizza” does deserve it’s No.1 place as it is one of the first Italian words introduced beyond the Italian community. I think it was referred to as “pizza pie” and probably still is in some places. I don’t know about other nationalities but I don’t think Americans even associate ‘influenza’ and ‘malaria’ as being Italian words. 🙂

  6. Amm Jeannet Mulder:

    Salve Serena,

    “The Dante Alighieri Society”

    The 10 words I first think about are:

  7. Rollando Spadaccini:

    Your assessment of Europeans and Italians all thinking with their stomachs, same here in the States. My list would mostly have food on the list before anything else.

  8. Vince Mooney:

    Salve Serena:

    I have a few words that Americans may not think of as being Italian: Ghetto, Arsenal, (these may be Venetian) graffiti, casino, lava, soda (sodium carbonate), studio, solo, and one word everyone knows is Italian: paparazzi.

    I expect that the English words may have a somewhat different meaning now than the Italian words.


  9. Serena:

    Nathan wrote: ‘I’d love to see Italian taught along with German, Spanish, French, and Latin in High Schools to erase this stigma and to spread this beautiful language. Then important cultural words like “sonata”, “andante”, “adagio”, or “fresco” would appear on a list like this’.

    Bravo Nathan, hai detto bene!


  10. Serena:

    Ciao Cinzia, Yes I agree that a lot of English speakers have very little awareness of the etymology of their language, and are not aware, as you say, that words such as ‘influenza’ are Italian. In fact in my experience many of them never even make the connection between the word ‘influenza’ and its English counterpart ‘influence’, which is a shame because understanding the Latin roots of English is a great help when learning Italian or another Latin language.


  11. Serena:

    Salve Rollando, Just out of interest, what would you put on your list after all the ‘edible’ words?


  12. Serena:

    Ciao Vince, If you look at the full word list on the Alighieri website you’ll see that most, if not all of your words are included. I think they put paparazzi in the singular, i.e. paparazzo, which would not be so familiar to English speakers, they also included some very odd words in their list that I have never heard used in English , perhaps they were struggling to come up with 100 words. Maybe it would have been more interesting to ask people to name as many Italian words which had been assimilated into their language as possible, then from that come up with the most predominant throughout the languages of the EU.


  13. Randy:

    How about Prego (even if most Americans only think of a jar of spagetti sauce when they hear the word). Or “presto”? Can’t forget good ole “papa” or “nanna.”
    Bambino and buon giorno are worthy of mention too.

  14. andreas:

    First about Societa’ DA. I graduated from their 3year courses, which I’m greatful for.
    Italian loans: Since my native tongue is Russian, I would put first such words: solo, opera, prima donna, soprano, then became widely known paparazzi and pizza.

  15. cinzia:

    I had started collecting words used in both the English language and Italian language (they were originally formated in a table). Oh well you can still read them.
    acne aerosol
    Africa / India alibi ambrosia America
    antenna area aroma arena
    banana la base belvedere bordello
    bravo casino ciao il cinema
    circa il costume il dilemma il diploma
    diva la dose duo enigma
    fertile fiasco formula fragile
    gala ghetto gondola graffiti
    gratis gusto* idea in
    inferno lava mafia malaria
    mania la manicure manifesto missile
    motto nausea nostalgia opera*
    orchestra panorama paparazzi pergola
    propaganda quasi quota la radio
    replica riviera saliva soda
    solo* gli spaghetti stanza* stiletto
    studio sublime tempo* terrazzo
    torso stucco il trauma vendetta
    veranda versatile viceversa vile
    vista lo zoo *limited use

  16. Serena:

    Ciao Cinzia, Interesting list. When you say ‘I had started collecting words used in both the English language and Italian language’ do you mean Italian words used in the English language? Because otherwise if you really mean ‘words used in both the English language and Italian language’ you will have to include all the English words used in Italian, and then all the French words of which there are many in Art, Architecture, Music, etc. There are also other words e.g. pigiama, veranda, and bungalow which are all Indian words, then there are Arabic words such as zero and zenith, Greek words like stigma, etc. etc.

    Beh, ci voule una vita per fare la lista completa!


  17. Serena:

    Salve Andreas, It’s interesting to hear which Italian words have infiltrated into the Russian language.
    How did you find the Società Dante Alighieri course, does it help you communicate in spoken Italian or was it more accademic?

  18. andreas:

    Salve Serena.
    Società Dante Alighieri course was first academic: mostly grammar(1st year of studies). Then we had grammar and communication with native speakers (2d and 3d year). The native speaker on the second year could not teach, but her Italian was so beautiful, and being a teacher of languages myself, I used our communication to teach myself. At the 3d year the native speaker teacher was good, so we spoke and he taught us some language points.

  19. Serena:

    Salve Andreas, The course sounds very interesting, perhaps some of our other readers should check it out, of course a lot depends, as always, on who you get as a tutor. It sounds like your background as a language teacher certainly helped you out.
    I attended some Società Dante Alighieri lectures myself when we lived in Nottingham in the U.K. In fact I was invited to come as a guest speaker one evening, and I gave a talk on ‘Calcio Storico Fiorentino’, and if you don’t know what that is you’ll just have to wait for my blog about it!

    A presto, Serena

  20. andreas:

    Salve Serena,
    Ti ringrazio la risposta. Noi non hanno avuto delle conferenze, ma piuttosto dei corsi, e certo che tutto dipende dal professore.
    Serena, vorrei chiederti un favore: e’ possibile che tu mi rispondi in italiano? Vorrei praticarlo quanto piu’ possibile.

  21. Serena:

    Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this blog. I just wanted to point out however, that place names, or brand names such as Venezia, and Martini are not normally considered in this type of word list, in the same way that they are not allowed in a game of Scrabble.

  22. Serena:

    Salve Andreas,

    Mi fa molto piacere risponderti in italiano. In genere rispondo in inglese per permettere agli altri lettori di seguire lo scambio dei commenti, ma se questi non riguardano un’informazione di importanza generale, non vedo alcun problema a scrivere in italiano. Complimenti per il tuo italiano.

    A presto,


  23. andreas:

    Salve Serena,
    Grazie infinite!!!

  24. Jeannet Mulder:


    Mi ha fatto piacere di leggere la vostra
    conversazione in italiano.


  25. Tonnie:

    I quote: ” How come for example that mozzarella is at number 5 in the list and influenza is only at number 56? Well I can only assume that the rest of Europe is just as obsessed with their stomachs as is the average Italian!”

    How about mozzarella being a typical Italian type of cheese, therefore with an Italian name in the rest of Europe, and influenza existing in the whole world from the beginning and therefore not an Italian invention so it does not have an Italian name? Seems pretty obvious to me..?!

  26. Serena:

    Salve Tonnie, I’m not sure that I completely get your point, are you saying that influenza is not an Italian word? The survey was about the usage of Italian words in other languages, not Italian inventions. In fact the word influenza is Italian and it derives from the medeival Latin word ‘influentia’, or ‘influence’, referring to the ‘flowing in’ from the stars of an ethereal fluid which was supposed to affect the character and destiny of man. At one time this ‘etherial influence’ was believed to be the cause of what we commonly call ‘flu’, or more correctly ‘influenza’. I’m pretty sure therefore that the word ‘influenza’ has been around in other European languages for a longer time than mozzarella, and that it is known by more people. Perhaps it’s due to our contemporary usage of the word ‘flu’ that we aren’t so familiar anymore with the origins of the word.


  27. Keith:

    I think what Tonnie is saying that is that the Italians didn’t “invent” the flu – meaning, they didn’t create it like they did mozzarella. The flu is something made by nature that happens to be referred to by an Italian word all over the world.

    I think that people don’t think of the flu and Italy like they might with pizza, pasta, Colosseum or any other marvel/beauty/wonder that is associated with Italy. 🙂

  28. Serena:

    Salve Kieth, you wrote: ‘I think what Tonnie is saying is that the Italians didn’t “invent” the flu – meaning, they didn’t create it like they did mozzarella’
    True, but neither did the Italians invent the universal concepts of ‘bravo’ or ‘allegro’ and yet they are at numbers 7 and 8 in the top ten list!


  29. Jeannet Mulder:

    It is a pleasure for me to read all about, specially
    in Italian language, but I do not have a website; – does it matter.

  30. Serena:

    Salve Jeanette, You wrote: ‘but I do not have a website; – does it matter’. I’m sorry but I don’t understand what you mean, could you try to explain to me again so that maybe I can help you.

    A presto, Serena

  31. Jeannet Mulder:

    Salve Serena,
    My comment: ‘but I do not have a website;
    – does it matter.’ followed reading above stated: “Your email is never shared” Website-
    from which I got the impression I need to have one. Okay? Kind regards Jeannet

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