By Pattie Giordani
Note: A version of this article originally ran in the Pocono-Lehigh Romance Writers’ newsletter under my Grammar Goddess byline.
A few years ago I took two Italian courses at my local community college. They were non-credit courses, which means there are no exams and homework is “optional.” However, we used a college-level textbook and homework was not optional if you want to learn anything.
Similarities (Le Parite)
During the first class of Italian I, Maria, our teacher, told us we already know a lot of Italian words due to our affinity with the culture’s food, music, and art. Think about it—words such as minestrone, risotto, frittata, spaghetti, opera, sonata, solo, trio, finale, fresco, gesso, and stucco. Since we already know such words, we also know a lot about Italian pronunciation.
And, even though English is considered a German language, many English words and Italian words originate in Latin. Lucky for me, I had another edge in having studied Spanish for four years and having retained a bit of that language 30+ years later!
Differences (Le Differenze)
Isn’t it interesting that the Italian word for differences is similar to the English word and the word for similar is different?!
OK, back to the point—grammar. The differences between Italian and English can help draw attention to the English rules. In Chapter 1 (Capitolo 1) of our text, we learned “the indefinite article (a, an) has the masculine forms un, uno and the feminine forms una, un’, depending on the first letter of the noun that the article precedes.” All right! Confused yet?
Then, “the definite article (the) agrees with the noun it precedes in gender (masculine or feminine) and in number (singular or plural). The masculine forms are il, l’, lo, gli, and the feminine forms are la, l’, le, according to the initial letter and the number of the word the definite article precedes.”
As you can imagine, countless classes and hours of studying later, I still had trouble keeping all those articles and the usage rules straight. It ain’t easy! Non facile!
Also in Chapter 1, we learned the verb essere, meaning to be. Compare essere with to be, both conjugated in the present tense:
- io sono—I am
- tu sei—you are (familiar)
- voi siete—you are (familiar)
- lui e—he is
- noi siamo—we are
- lei e—she is
- loro sono—they are
- Lei e—you are (formal)
- Loro sono—you are (formal)
As you can see, there are five variations of the verb in Italian (sono, sei, e, siamo, siete) as opposed to three in English (am, are, is)!
Conjugating Italian verbs in the present tense is challenging, and in Italian II we moved on to the passato prossimo—present perfect tense, which indicates an action completed in the recent past. But (of course, there’s a “but”), many Italians use this tense informally to indicate an action or event that occurred in the recent or not-so-recent past.
So I was not surprised that during that second course, I found myself tossing and turning in the middle of more than one night—trying to conjugate Italian verbs in my sleep! And all this started because I wanted to include some Italian words in my novel in progress…
Happy writing! Buon scritto!