Italian Language Blog

Parliamo L’Italiese, part 2 Posted by on Jun 12, 2009 in Italian Language

In my last blog I had a look at the way in which English words have been incorporated into the Italian language. In part two I thought it would be interesting to take a look at ‘the other side of the coin’, and discover some of the less obvious Italian words that we use in everyday English, i.e. not pizza, spaghetti, cappuccino, and so on. But first of all I’d like to direct you to this interesting BBC article which indicates that Anglicization is not necessarily that popular amongst us Italians:

Italian words have long been a feature of the English language, particularly in the fields of art, architecture, and music. In fact the vast majority of expressive musical terms are Italian, largely due to the fact that the practice of indicating speed and strength in musical notation began in 17th century Italy. The huge popularity of Italian music helped to disperse this practice and we continue to use the terminology today. Let’s look at a few examples:

Forte – in musical terms means loud. In Italian it can also mean: strong, tough, considerable, severe, and, if you’re describing a color, bright.

Piano – in musical terms means soft. In Italian it can also mean: slowly, flat, floor (as in lui abita al primo piano – he lives on the first floor), plain (geographical), carefully (as in andarci piano – go carefully), and plan (as in piano d’emergenza – emergency plan).

From these two musical terms derives the name of the musical instrument, Piano, which is an abbreviation of pianoforte. The name pianoforte (originally piano e forte) describes the qualities of the instrument, literally soft and loud.

Adagio – in musical terms means slow. This isn’t used much in spoken Italian, we prefer to use piano.

Allegro – in musical terms means lively or fast. In spoken Italian it means happy, or jolly.

Andante -in musical terms means ‘at a moderate pace’. Andante, (walking/going) is the present participle of the verb andare which means ‘to walk’, or ‘to go’, and is not commonly used in spoken Italian.

Then there is Andantino, which instructs the musician to play faster than Andante, and Andante ma non troppo which literally means: at a moderate pace but not too moderate! So how fast is that? che ne so io! (how would I know!).

This is just a small selection of the many descriptive musical terms which have been adopted from the Italian language. There are also, of course, many musical instruments other than the pianoforte that have Italian names, e.g. Violin from violino, which is a diminutive of viola, then there is cello which is an abbreviation of violoncello which is itself a diminutive of violone or ‘big viola’, and so on, ……………phew!

Closely linked to music we have the word ballerina which is a female ballet dancer. In Italian we also have the word ballerino for a male ballet dancer, and both of these words come from the Italian verb ballare meaning to dance. The word ballet itself has come into the English language via French, and originated in Italian as balletto, which is the diminutive of ballo (ball).

In the field of architecture we have such words as balcony from balcone, and campanile from…..well campanile (bell tower), however many other words that are often cited as having been adopted from Italian have actually come into the English language from Latin via French or various other convoluted routes. Baluster is a particularly interesting example, having come into English from the French word balustre which came from the Italian balaustra, which came via Latin from the Greek word balaustion, the name of the wild pomegranate flower which is shaped like? yes a baluster! Then of course there’s the word balustrade which is a row of balusters with a railing on the top to form a kind of banister, and just to stretch things a bit further banister is a corruption of barrister, which is itself a corruption of baluster! mamma mia … mi fa male la testa!

From these examples we can see that the adopting of ‘foreign’ words is nothing new, especially when a new art or science, with its own special terminology, spreads throughout different cultures. For me it also highlights what a rich and rewarding experience learning a new language can be, because in the process you also relearn your own language, and discover something of its roots. If you would like to do a bit of research yourself you will need a good English dictionary which gives you the etymology, or linguistic roots, of each word. Beware, however, of lists which you might find on the internet, they are usually full of errors! If you find anything interesting please share it with us in the comments section.



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  1. VincePlato:

    Salve Serena:

    I was taught in school, many years ago, that the French word ‘forte’ was pronounced as ‘fort’ and meant one’s ‘long suit’ or ‘area of most expertise’. For example, “I can play midfield but center-back is my forte.” The Italian word ‘forte’ was pronounced ‘for-tay’ and was a musical term meaning ‘strong’ or ‘loud’. Over the years so many people have mispronounced ‘forte’ that today many will sayi both pronunciations are correct. Americans are very democratic. If enough people do something wrong, it becomes right.

    Do Italians use the French word ‘forte’ pronounced ‘fort’ in Italian? Do Italians use the Italian word ‘forte’ in both cases?

    Also, can you think of any Italian words that were once considered incorrect speech that, because of constant misuse, have become proper usage today?

    This may be of some interest. For over twenty year I have given adult students a vocabulary test and about 90% identified a ‘lectern’ as a ‘podium’. Show a picture of a lectern and most Americans will call it a podium. Do you think this is the case in Italy? Do you use the words ‘podium’ and ‘lectern’ in Italian or do you have two different words?


  2. VincePlato:

    Salve Serena:

    Another two questions please regarding your comment about dialect dying out. I read all of Donna Leon’s books about Venice (they may be mysteries but they are really about Venice — in my opinion). Donna Leon has the Venetians almost always speaking dialect to each other which is so different, the outside Italians can’t even understand it. Is this the way it really is or is this just poetic license?

    When Adriano Celentano and Mina sang the song “che t’aggia di” could Italians nationwide readily understand it?


  3. cinzia:

    I found quite a long list of “Forestierismi” at
    More in depth and you can actually read this entire book called “L’Italiese” online (a little tricky to navigate using the yellow arrows).

    Ecco le informazioni:
    Author: Barella Sciolette Anna
    Title: L’ITALIESE

    Also ieri sera I came across this per caso (=by chance) and found it very interessante. Unfortunately it is tutto in italiano – so I recommend it only to advanced learners:

  4. Serena:

    Salve di nuovo Vince, In Italian we don’t use the French pronunciation ‘fort’, but we do use ‘forte’ to mean not just loud or strong but strength as in ‘il calcio non e’ il mio forte’ (football isn’t my strength).
    There are numerous cases of grammatical, or pronunciation mistakes becoming accepted as the norm, e.g. ‘Il ginocchio’ (the knee) in its plural form should be ‘le ginocchia’ but it has become very common to hear ‘i ginocchi’. In many small villages where the older people have had little education incorrect names and words are commonly used to describe plants, animals etc. In our village, for example, the Dandelion which in Italian is called Dente di Leone is commonly and incorrectly called Radicchio, and if you use the correct name they won’t understand what you are talking about.
    We use the word podio to mean podium or raised platform and leggio for lectern, and they are not confused because in Italian it is obvious that leggio comes from leggere = to read.

  5. Serena:

    Buongiorno Vince, I’m not familiar with Donna Leon’s books, but I can tell you that the real Venetian dialect is almost incomprehensible for most Italians who are not from the Veneto region.

    The song “Che t’aggia di” is written in Neapolitan. I’ve never heard Mina and Celentano singing it, however I know that they are not Neapolitan, but from the North of Italy. I believe that their pronunciation is not as difficult to understand as the pronunciation of a genuine Neapolitan singer. You can read a bit more about Neapolitan dialect in my recent blog “O sole mio”.

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