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SHEELA CLARY: How to undo things in Italian

I have been studying Italian since 1990, but I keep getting delighted anew. Right now, a source of fresh delights is one of the Italian versions of the English “un.”

Among the many reasons my Italian students want to learn the language is a wish to connect to their Italian heritage, or because of an intention to spend part of the year, or their retirement years, in Italy, or because of upcoming teaching gigs. Yet another reason to take up language learning is to keep one’s brain sharp and stimulated into old age. Still another is simple intellectual curiosity.

All of us learners find that a benefit of our work is pleasure. Italians have put care into ensuring that their language is pleasurable to speak and ingest. It is like spaghetti carbonara for the mind and soul. If you ask, “How do you pronounce _________ in Italian?” The answer will invariably be: “In the way that sounds loveliest.” Both spelling and articulation are based on the ease and beauty of sounds. As the stereotype accurately indicates, all Italian words end in vowels, but it is awkward to put two vowels together across the divide of words. So phrases such as “and I” in Italian, which is “e io,” offend the ear and the tongue. We therefore put a “d” after the “e,” to produce something pleasing, “ed io.” Another example would be “to Assisi,” which without a d would be “a Assisi.” Very awkward. “Ad Assisi,” by contrast, is very beautiful. If an Italian word does sound harsh or grating, it is generally meant to. Take “suocera,” which means “mother-in-law.” Sounds terrible. (No offence, Jane. I love you.)

I have been studying Italian since 1990, but I keep getting delighted anew. Right now, a source of fresh delights is one of the Italian versions of the English “un.” Italian uses an “s,” among other prefixes, in place of the “un.” The “s” undoes what is there, and so turns “fortuna” (good luck) into “sfortuna” (bad luck), “cortese” (polite) into “scortese” (impolite), and “corretto” (correct) into “scorretto” (incorrect). There are dozens and dozens of these examples, but I will share eight, which I have selected for their particular charm, emotional resonance, or exception-to-the-rule nature. Some are obvious, even predictable. Others are enduringly mysterious, and I can’t really explain them. Anyone who’s ever delved deeply into learning a foreign language will, I imagine, be able to identify with the wonder, frustration, and ineffability of how we use particular words and why.

  1. Spiegare/Piegare: To explain. How can you explain the word explain? The Italians think of it as unfolding. “Una piega” is a fold, and so the verb “piegare” means “to fold.” To explain, then, is to unfold, or “spiegare,” as though the thing needing an explanation were a piece of paper or a tablecloth.
  2. Scaricare/Caricare:Un carico” is a burden—it is related to the English word “cargo”—and the verb form, “caricare,” means “to burden,” as in, “La vita l’ha caricato con una suocera pettegola” (“Life burdened him with a gossipy mother-in-law”). A divorce, in this case, would be “una scarica,” or an unburden, as in, “Il marito si è scaricato della suocera pettegola” (“The husband unburdened himself of his gossipy mother-in-law”).
  3. Sfamare/Famare:Ho fame” means “I’m hungry,” and the verb “famare” means “to starve.” “Sfamare,” then, is to feed, or to un-starve. Really, the proudest work of an Italian nonna is to sfamare her family. I always get a little thrill when I discover an Italian word for which there is no exact translation in English. It is like I am trekking through life and coming upon an uncharted slice of land.
  4. Sfumato/Fumato: This is my exception-to-the rule entry. Students of art history might recognize “sfumato,” or “sfumatura,” as it is ubiquitous in reference to the works of the masters, especially Leonardo da Vinci. You might also have seen signs on Italian trains or buildings that read, “Vietato fumare,” which means “No smoking.” Put much too simply, “fumato” is smoking and “sfumato” is smoky. No, I don’t know why. In art, “sfumato” seems to mean “borderless” or “with lines blurred.” If you are fascinated, here is more info from someone who knows from “sfumato.”
  5. Smettere/Mettere: Another smoking-related example: “Mettere” is one of the most common verbs in the Italian language. It means to put or place, as in, “Metti la bottiglia sul tavolo, Giovanna.” So “smettere” means to unput or unplace, but in practical usage, it means “to quit” or “to stop.” When I was living in Italy and tried to quit smoking—after taking it up by default, because I was literally the only person not smoking in any given situation—I said, if someone offered me a cigarette, “No, grazie, smetto di fumare” (“No thanks, I’m quitting smoking”).
  6. Sfogliatelle/Fogliatelle: Another head-scratcher example: Maybe you have heard of, seen, or eaten “sfogliatelle” (pronounced in the most beautiful way possible, remember, so “sfoh—lee—ah—tell—ay”). These are the Italian desserts, which, according to what I have seen on the “Great British Baking Show,” are the equivalent of culinary torture. This is because “foglia” means leaf, and una sfogliatella is made up hundreds of very thin “leaves” of pastry that take enormous effort to pound into and roll into existence. Not only are sfogliatelle really more high maintenance than any sweet deserves to be, they are also linguistically unsatisfying. Apparently, “sfogliatella” and “fogliatella” mean the same thing, so there goes the “s” as “un” theory. Grazie mille, Italiano. Sometimes, it seems, the “s,” rather than bring about the opposite meaning, pushes the word to lean more heavily into itself? (Another common example in this vein would be “sguardo” and “guardo.” “Un guardo” is just a look, while “uno sguardo” is a gaze, or a more meaningful look.)
  7. Sdegnare/degnare: Here is a much simpler palette cleanser: “Degnare” is the Italian for “deign,” and “sdegnare” is “disdain,” “refuse,” or “scorn.” “Sdegnare” can also be “disdegnare.” I like it for the weird “sd” combo, which feels on the tongue like it expresses with perfect clarity the word’s essence, of rejection and refusal.
  8. Spensierato/pensierato: This is my favorite of favorites, I think. “Pensare” is a verb meaning “to think”; “pensieri” is a noun meaning “thoughts”, and “pensierato” is the adjective form that means “thoughtful.” So what are you if you’re feeling “spensierato”? Thoughtless, but not in the sense of inconsiderate. This thoughtlessness is beautiful, carefree, without a thought or care in the world. A May stroll through the birdsong and wildflowers of the woods.

I wish you “un giorno spensierato.”


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