Back when I was a Category 2 Dreamer, I was on a bike trip in Umbria when I realized that I loved Italy enough to revisit it many, many more times, and if that was the case, the very least I could do was learn some Italian. If you’re traveling with someone who knows the language of the country you’re visiting, or if you’re only in the large cities where you can usually find someone who speaks English, you really don’t need to know much more than their “hello”, “thank you” and “where is”. But this particular day, we came across a shepherd with his flock of sheep in the middle of the road, and it would have been such fun to have been able to say a lot more than “where is”, and to understand a lot more than “thank you”.
There were many, many 2-week vacations after that day, and I’ve now been a 6-month part-timer for 4 years. I’ve listened to countless Italian tapes and CD’s. I have had private lessons as well as 3 stints of multiple-week courses in Siena and Orvieto. I have Italian friends. I deal with Italian shopkeepers and restaurant staff. The outcome of all this is that I have learned that I will never ever master the Italian language unless I die and am reborn somewhere on the Italian peninsula. However, this lack of aptitude on my part will in no way prevent me from passing on to you what I consider some truly valuable information.
Here’s your first lesson: Unlike us, Italians pronounce each letter the exact same way every time. So first, you must learn the difference between how Italians say a couple of their letters versus how we do — for instance their “i” sounds like our “e”. This is so simple that even I could do it. The good news is that once mastered, you probably can pronounce any word just by looking at it because they pronounce every letter, unlike the French who only pronounce half the letters, but you’re never sure which ones to leave out.
The bad news is that they pronounce every letter – including double letters. And they’re very sensitive about this. If you are saying anno meaning “year”, you must pronounce both “n’s”, or they will think you’re saying ano, meaning “anus”. When my father died, people asked how old he was. I was told that when they heard my answer, they believed I was telling them that he had 92 assholes. The possibilities for embarrassing errors are endless. How about penne for pens (or the pasta dish), versus pene for a man’s private part?
Some letters, like “m” or “n” or “s” lend themselves to being held a bit longer to get anno instead of ano, but what about those of us who have trouble making “dd” sound different from “d”? I once asked a woman: “Is this the road to Radda?” But I didn’t pronounce the two “d’s” and she had a devil of a time figuring out what I was saying, although “rada” means a harbor, and we were at least 100 miles from a body of water that might have a harbor, while the town of Radda was about 3 miles away.
The only exception to the “pronounce every letter” rule is “h”, which is never pronounced. And yet it has a vital role in the language because it lets you know how to pronounce the letters around it. The most familiar word to think of is Chianti. “Ch” is always a hard “k” sound, like king, and never our “ch”-as-in-church sound. If you also want to remember that “h” does the same thing to “g” – making it hard – as in spaghetti, that’s fine, but I think we should start with the “ch” – especially if you’re going to be in the Chianti region of Tuscany, or even more important, if you’re going to order a bottle of their wonderful Chianti Classico wine..…two things I highly recommend. By the way — let’s not forget to pronounce both of those “t’s” in spaghetti!!! After all…..you don’t want someone to think you ordered spagheti, do you???
And please – no more mispronouncing bruschetta. Didn’t we just go over the fact that “ch” is always a “k” sound? If you get the “k” right, I promise I’ll let you slide a bit longer before insisting you also master the double “t”.