Common Italian Sayings and Phrases for Tourists
The Land Of A thousand Hellos
There are very few common phrases in Italian, and this is certainly not due to a restrictive and decaying cultural dictionary. If anything, the opposite is true. The reason is that most Italians identify with their commune or region before they do with their nationality -- leading to a startling diversity of language and expression within Italy itself.
Despite speaking Italian fluently, the fact that I grew up in Rome often means that having a conversation with someone from, say, Sardinia, often boils down to hand signals and body language.
This isn't to say that aren't phrases that both a Sicilian and a Milanese resident won't understand, and that is precisely what I plan on outlining in this article. I consider the following phrases and sayings "safe" for tourists anywhere in Italy, even if they are occasionally highly functional and lamentably unimaginative.
A word that often confuses tourists in Rome (specifically) is the term bella. While the term literally translates to beautiful (feminine), it also doubles as a greeting. If you find yourself approached by locals opening with this, chances are they are just saying hi and not making a romantic pass.
Ciao - Ciao is the quintessential and world famous Italian word used both as a hi, and as a bye. It is pronounced Chee-ow. While it veers towards the informal, it is appropriate in just about any scenario.
Mi Chiamo Thooghun - Mi chiamo (mee kee-a-moh) translates to "my name is", and due to the fact that Italy is a frustratingly bureaucratic country (paperwork is literally unavoidable) knowing it is imperative.
Buongiorno - The day is divided into three distinct time-related greetings. Unlike English, good morning is usually substituted by the more generic Buongiorno, or good day.
- Buon pomeriggio (optional) - Good afternoon.
- Buona sera - Good evening (can be used a lot earlier in the day than you'd initially think -- it isn't uncommon to hear it used as early as four or five p.m).
- Buona notte - Good night.
Mi scusi (or scusami) - While both mean "I'm sorry", Mi scusi is a formal greeting, whereas scusami is informal. A general rule of thumb is to use the formal with people you haven't already met and the informal with people you have.
Come va? - Pronounced ko-mey va. Quite literally, how's it going? This is a great phrase to throw around informally as an Italian version of "what's up?, although frankly, its English equivalent is also used more and more frequently. You might be surprised at how "English" Italy is progressively becoming!
Salve - Yet another common way of saying hello. It is pronounced sal-vey. If you're getting bored of throwing ciao around, this one's for you. Please note, unlike ciao, it does not double as both a hi and bye. It is only used as an introductory phrase.
Phrases To Improve Your Day-To-Day
These phrases represent a random and highly subjective assortment of useful sayings that are bound to bubble-up now and then during your trip to the old country.
Sto cercando - I'm looking for. Given the treasure hunting nature of most touristic escapades this simple phrase will likely see more use than the all-encompassing ciao. Here are a couple of examples on general usage, including some of what we have already learned from the previous section:
- Salve, sto cercando il Colosseo -- Hey there, I'm looking for the Colosseum.
- Mi scusi, sto cercando un ospedale -- Excuse me (formal), I'm looking for a hospital (fingers crossed).
Dove sta? - A more direct version of sto cercando is the evergreen dove sta , which literally means "where is?". In Rome, if you really want to impress the locals, you can use the slang "Do 'sta" which is ironically a little more user friendly for foreigners.
- Scusami, dove sta il Colosseo?
Mi serve Aiuto - I need help. No, not me! That's what the phrase means. There are many useful ways to efficiently use this phrase, and not all of them involve fight or flight survival scenarios (on a serious note, Italians are generally very open to strangers and Italy itself is among the safest countries I've ever been to -- so feel free to close the distance and get the information you need).
- Aiuto!!! - The multiple exclamation marks denote an exaggeration in the way it is uttered -- we're looking at a highly dramatic "Aiuto". The reason I mention this somewhat manic use of the term is because Italians like to use it as a stress vent, not dissimilar from our own "Oh, em, gee", and are not genuinely looking for help.
- Mi serve aiuto - The direct and practical way of looking for help.
- Mi puo aiutare? - A formal "could you help me?"
- Mi puoi aiutare? - Its informal cousin.
- Aiutami - Help me!
Mi serve un Taxi - I need a taxi. Of course, because you have been highly focused during the course of this article, you may interject that you could logically use the phrase sto cercando un Taxi, and guess what? You'd be right!
Dove posso - Where can I? Never underestimate the utility of this winner in your everyday Italian landscape. Organization isn't our forte. Here are some ways to use this effectively.
- Mi scusi, dove posso trovare il bagno? - Where can I find the bathroom?
- Ciao, dove posso trovare il Colosseo . - Where can I find the Colloseum?
- Dove posso ballare? - Where can I dance?
Things To Avoid!
Beyond the unpredictable slang, there are always facets of the Italian language that fire locals up in bouts of controlled laughter at the expense of a now blushing tourist.
1) Subtle differences in the way double letter words are pronounced can lead to confusion. Allow me to elaborate with a common example.
I used to work in a restaurant in the center of Rome's nightlife hub, and without fail -- every weekend -- a tourist would confuse the word penne (a type of pasta) with the word pene (*cough* not a type of pasta). The different may seem subtle, but not to an Italian. Consider also that the Italian language is very sensual in nature, it's sexual dictionary alone is respectably outstanding. The puns are literally endless.
A little pronunciation practice can go a long way!
2) Hand signals and body language are an integral part of everyday conversation. Here are a few ways tourists can trigger the dark side of the Italian psyche without intending to.
- Placing the palm of one hand on the front of the other arm's elbow is equivalent to our middle finger. And yes, that gesture is also alive and well.
- Raising your pinky and index finger in a glorious death metal salute will let your Italian interlocutor assume that you think very poorly of him or her (to put it mildly).
- Rubbing the lobe of your ear with your fingers is an Italian way of telling someone you think they are a homosexual.
- Bringing your thumb to rest on the tips of your extended fingers, ala "I'm hungry" is actually a way of saying what the hell do you want?
- And on.
Italians will know that as a tourist you won't know the ins-and-outs of the body language lingo, unless you run into an everyday scrooge looking for a reason to vent his anger. Which is lamentably a global phenomena and not a reflection of the Italian mindset, which I find to be deceptively transparent and caring.