Many people don’t know that there are many, many ways to speak Italian (just as a unified “Italian cuisine” doesn’t actually exist). I’m not talking about slight variations in slang and accent, like the difference between New York, Georgian, Midwestern, and Californian versions of American English. Rather, in Italy, each regional dialect is distinctly different from the standard language, with its own heritage, culture, and unique set of meanings.
So what is a dialect anyways?
Languages go through complicated evolutions, particularly in countries like Italy which are separated by major geographical distances and features. Italy has a lot of mountains and islands, so its natural that in a time before low cost airlines ruled the world, very separate places developed language (and culture) very differently. In Italy, dialects (like the ‘standard’ language) are based primarily upon Latin, but some parts of Italy have dialects influenced by other languages as well, such as Greek due to a history of Greek civilization in southern Italy. Today, dialects have major social and cultural implications. In many places, speaking dialect is considered uneducated, while others (like me!) understand it as an important (and incredibly interesting) part of Italian culture.
Where does the Italian language come from?
As a land mass, Italy has a long long history (see the Etruscans, Romans, Venetians) but was only unified as a political state in 1861, creating the necessity for a common language. Getting a little sociological here, because I love theories of the nation, when a political state is formed (in this case, when Italy was unified) a shared culture must be imagined/created in order to unify people who may have completely different traditions and practices. Many believe that this is accomplished by using pre-existing cultures and traditions. In the case of Italian language, the Tuscan dialect (which signified culture, and was what Dante and Boccaccio wrote in) became the model for this ideal. (If you are interested in learning more about theories of nationalism, start with Smith’s work.)
What does this mean for people today?
In modern Italy, many people are able to speak both standard Italian and regional dialects, often conversing with their family and friends in dialect, but speaking standard Italian at work and school. In places like Rome, words, phrases, and intonations from dialect have crept into people’s day-to-day language to mix with standard Italian.
The Roman dialect is called either Romanesco or Romanaccio, depending on who you ask. My favorite Romans (husband and best friend) disagree on the distinction between these two terms, and online research is yet to resolve the debate. Romans, expats, and linguists, please feel free to fill the comments with your own debate on the distinction (or lack thereof) between these terms (and possibly some helpful links).
My husband, Flavio, is a testament to strength of regional identity in Italy. Not only does he consider himself more of a Roman than an Italian, he considers himself more of a Tresteverino than a Roman (meaning that he comes from the neighborhood of Trastevere). Italian unification may have worked politically, but the Italian nation is one of extremely divisive regional and local cultures.
It’s because of these powerful distinctions that Roman dialect is so fascinating, and necessary to any understanding of the distinct Roman culture. So, with no further ado, I present to you, our guide to Romanesco/accio (I’ll admit it, I’m not the expert here, so many thanks to the husband for all of his help and patience).
The basics of Romanesco
The following basics assume that you have a knowledge of the workings of the Italian language. If these grammatical nuances don’t interest (or make sense to) you, feel free to skip down to the ‘Important words and phrases’ section where we provide more in-depth explanation of phrases and their literal and cultural significance.
- Il becomes er. Example: Instead of “il formaggio” you would say “er formaggio”
- La becomes ‘a Example: Instead of “la pasta” you would say “‘a pasta”
- The letter “i” becomes an “e” in reflexive pronouns. Example: “Mi piace la carbonara” becomes “me piace ‘a carbonara”
- Non becomes nun
- When the letter “l” comes before a consonant it is replaced with the similar sounding “r”. Example: Dolce becomes dorce. Yes, this means is that Fellini’s film had it wrong – we’re really living “‘a dorce vita'” here in Rome.
The golden rule of Romanesco: shorten everything
Never use the ending of infinitive verbs:
- Andiamo a mangiare becomes nnamo a magna’
- Che film vuoi vedere becomes che firm voi vede’
Lose all unnecessary syllables:
- Andiamo becomes nnamo
- Facciamo becomes famo
- Mangiamo becomes magnamo
- Diciamo becomes dimo
More than a word, this is a multi-purpose series of sounds, which can be used to call someone, get a person’s attention, and depending on your intonation, can be either appreciative or a sign that you’re annoyed.
Chelsea is at the airport. Woman cuts her off with an enormous rolling suitcase, which she obviously (clumsily) runs into. The woman glares. Chelsea says: “AOH”.
Translation: “HEY watch where you’re going with your stupid rolly suitcase you jerk.”
Chelsea goes to a metal concert. She sees a friend who she has not seen for a very long time. Chelsea shouts: “AOH!”.
Translation: “Holy crap I haven’t seen you in forever how are you doing?!”
Chelsea is in bed watching an entire TV series in one day. Flavio is in the other room minding his own business. Chelsea shouts: “AOH!”.
Translation: “Please give me cigarettes/water/food/attention.”
Parolacce, or swear words, are an important part of Romanesco, many of which have become part of the greater Italian vocabulary. The most significant is “mortacci tua,” which basically means “damn the souls of your ancestors.” This phrase, like “AOH,” can be used to express appreciation as well as anger. Note that “mortacci tua” is incredibly offensive…so I wouldn’t recommend running around using it.
These phrases refer to the exhaustion brought on by the enormous amounts of food you ate for lunch at your grandma’s house (she probably served a five-course meal and insisted you take seconds of everything). This feeling of exhaustion leads to a pennichella – the Roman word for a nap.
A incazzatte fai du’ fatiche: te incazzi te scazzi
Italian: Arrabiarsi e’ doppiamente faticoso: prima ti arrabbi e dopo te lo devi far passare
English: Getting angry is doubly tiring: first you have to get mad, then you have to get over it
What does this actually mean: Lazy probably isn’t the right word to describe the cultural trait that drives Romans to take life with such unnerving calm. According to my resident Roman, this phrase illustrates that there is always a ‘right amount of energy’ to spend on something. Any more is a waste.
Si va bbene quanto basta lassalo perde sinno’ se guasta
Italian: Se funziona sufficientemente bene, non modificarlo altrimenti lo rovini
English: If it works well enough as is, leave it alone or you’ll ruin it
What does this actually mean: Basically, this is the Roman version of the American idiom “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. It’s used both metaphorically and literally. For example, after a long day of struggling to put together some complicated IKEA furniture, even if the desk is a little crooked, you should be satisfied and leave it alone, so you can’t make it worse. Also, see above phrase about ‘the right amount of energy for everything.’
L’unica cosa bbona de Milano e’ er treno pe Roma
Italian: L’unica cosa buona di Milano e’ il treno per Roma
English: The only good thing about Milan is the train to Rome.
What does this actually mean: Regional rivalry is particularly strong in Italy, and the north/south divide is a major part of the culture here. While Romans don’t consider themselves to be southerners (most believe that the south of Italy starts immediately after Rome) many people in Milan do, and a great deal of political and social conflict comes from the perceived differences in culture. This is probably best illustrated by the controversial separatist Lega Nord (Northern League) party, which was born from and fueled by old resentments and cultural conflicts, as well as the immense economic disparity between the north and south of Italy. Plus, this phrase is reiterating something that all true Romans believe: despite the city’s problems, Roma is the most beautiful city on earth, and no one in their right mind would want to live anywhere else (at least before the economic crisis).
Si nun strozza ‘ngrassa
Italian: Se non ti soffoca ti ingrassa
English: If it doesn’t choke you it will nourish you (and/or make you fat)
What does it actually mean: When eating an awful plate of pasta, one could use this phrase to state that even if the food itself is awful, at least it’s food. Roman cuisine comes from times of poverty, emphasizing the use of all parts of animals (lots of internal organs) and simple but filling dishes. Basically, this phrase is a combination of making the best of what you have and ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’
Morto ‘n papa se ne fa ‘nantro
Italian: Morto un papa se ne fa un altro
English: When the pope dies they’ll choose another
What does it actually mean: Romans have a complicated relationship with the Vatican, many feeling that the foreign state wields too much power in Italy’s (especially Rome’s) politics, while receiving far too many benefits. This phrase also refers to the cynical conviction that little ever seems to change in the daily life of an average Roman, especially when it comes to politics. It can also be used in a manner similar to the English phrase “When one door closes another opens,” indicating that when something goes wrong another way can always be found.
Great Roman culture
The best way to learn more about Romanesco is to experience it for yourself. If you aren’t ready to do so in the real world yet, you can
Read: The poems of Trilussa
Listen to: Roman singer Gabriella Ferri
Watch: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Accattone