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Emotions and Italians

Italians are said to be very passionate and as such very expressive in their speech. The first thing you notice when you arrive in the Eternal City is the spontaneous use of exclamations by everyone from toddlers to the elderly. If you head to other parts of Italy you'll discover that exclamations vary from region to region, just like the numerous dialects and accents of the Italian language. After almost a year in Italy, even when I talked to a Polish person I couldn't help but react spontaneously with Italian phrases such as 'ma dai!?' for disbelief, 'boh...' for feeling undecided or 'ahia!!!' when hurt. 

Then there is the very expressive style of Italian gesticulation, so familiar to anyone who has ever seen The Godfather or The Sopranos. My American friend, who is of Italian origin by the way, has gotten herself into some trouble when she tried to use the Italian gestures without fully comprehending their meaning. These gestures are also varied and carry with them a whole host of meaning that goes beyond mere words.


Emotions influence our actions and our speech, especially if they cause us to speak first then think. Hence the true maxim: Speech is silver, silence is golden. The act of speaking, being a linear time-sensitive process, is hard to control and at times that emotions are running high we may end up saying something we would rather have not. I bet many of you are nodding your heads now, remembering some horror stories you would rather never come to light. What I've noticed, for instance, is that when I speak English I use hedges (which are intentionally noncommittal or ambiguous statements like maybe you are right, I suppose I might, I think he is ok) and basically, appear to be a well-behaved, composed person, but when I start to speak Italian, get much more mouthy and loud. (This is a topic for a separate story - Are bilingual people schizophrenic???) Anyway, I felt the importance of this discrepancy most when during a job interview (in Italian), I started to bicker with my future boss. I then said that I preferred to speak in English to appear more polite. There is something about the Italian language that brings out the passion in me. If you're wondering, I didn't get the job. 

And when talking about expressing our feelings, especially the negative ones, we can't forget bad language. Oddly though, swear words tend to be the one and only element of a foreign language that are acquired with seemingly no effort at all and they stick the longest, too. When traveling abroad we often use foreign language swear words, often not being aware of the actual force of the expression, which may lead to many stressful situations, both for tourists as well as for the natives. Although, I must admit, I find the Italian language so melodic and pleasing that to my ears even the equivalent of 'f.. you' sounds like a poem.


As we said before, emotions often lead us to commit stupid blunders. Talking about slips of the tongue, this can also happen when using Italian words that we think mean what we want to say or awkward translations that can easily lead to unfortunate misunderstandings. After spending a few months in the States I started saying "whatever," which I'm sure we can all agree is a very useful emotional expression, at the end of almost every sentence. Having returned back home, I tried to shake the habit and found it increasingly difficult as there is no equivalent expression in Polish. That led me to producing such forms in Polish as 'cokolwiek' and 'coś tam' ("something"), which didn't seem quite right. After wracking my brain I came up with 'nieważne' ("unimportant"), which is probably as close as I was going to get. After spending some time in Italy with an American friend we realized there also wasn't an equivalent expression in Italian so we decided to start using 'cosamai', which continues to baffle our Italian friends.

So, if you're planning to travel of live in Italy be prepared for a land of strong feelings, loud voices and even bigger hand gestures. Sure, sometimes things might get lost--or garbled--in translation, but when in doubt just opt for a few hand gestures to get your point across.


By:  Ewa Niemiec

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