Category Archives: Italian fiction

Why you cannot forget ‘che’


Lately I’ve been reflecting on the effectiveness of how I teach myself Italian. I’m now into my tenth year of learning – there have been gaps along the way mind you, weeks, months where I haven’t studied. The longest gap was probably  a whole year following a holiday in Italy . During the trip I’d managed a few conversations in Italian and was thinking to myself I was making a bit of progress. We got back to the airport and I ordered a slice of pizza for lunch. The lady asked me if I wanted it heating up ( I think) and I completely failed to understand her. I was a bit frustrated, thinking the only way to get any better would be to stay there and practice….. The year later I got over myself and carried on!!!

So my approach is entirely scattered, and is not exactly following a syllabus (!!) – time is short and I’m not that disciplined. Some days I only learn (or only retain!) one word- for example the other day I learned lo scivolo ( pron. SHE-vo-lo) meaning ‘slide’ whilst I was playing in the park with the kids. Words for everyday things that I repeat often tend to stick better. Sometimes I label things round the house. That really works. Sometimes I give the kids instructions in Italian – lets go downstairs. Scendiamo per le scale! Let’s go- Andiamo!
As often as I can I listen to the language being spoken , I watch lucrezia’s videos on YouTube (learn Italian with lucrezia) – she is awesome, very clever at explaining things. And when I’m in the mood I read Italian novels very slowly : which brings me to the point at which I left off my last blog post “an astonishing lack of adjectives“…..
I am a few chapters into my book ‘Il Suggeritore’ translated in English as The whisperer, when I come across the following sentence :

“sono una che apprende in fretta.” (I’m a fast learner)

And because I am being perfectionist about understanding everything properly and not skimming along as I often do, I realise I don’t know why ‘che’ is being used here, in fact I’m puzzled why ‘chi’ is not in its place.
Which exposes a glaring hole in my grammar learning. Out come the grammar books.
I think this is the explanation: che is being used as a relative pronoun in this situation – it can be used to mean ‘who’ or ‘whom’ (in a statement); it can also mean ‘which’ or ‘that’ . And whilst it might be omitted from the equivalent English sentence, in Italian it cannot be forgotten.

another example : la prima volta che sono andata in Italia era nel 1996.  In English you can choose whether to leave out the equivalent of che or include it in the sentence – the first time (that) I went to Italy was in 1996. In Italian che cannot be left out. Shall I say that one more time?? Che has to stay.

I remember reading this same chapter about uses of ‘Che’ in my grammar book a few months ago and the ironic thing is that I clearly am not a fast learner because the subject was still a total blank.

Non sono una che apprende in fretta

Chi should not be confused with che. Chi is a question word, used to ask about people.
For example “Chi ha mangiato il gelato?” – Who has eaten the icecream?
In proverbs and generalisations it can be used to mean ‘he who, those who’, etc – for example “Chi va piano va sano e lontano “.

My favourite mix up of the past few weeks was regarding the word for chimney- camino– ten years of learning and I somehow hadn’t registered that one and had been translating it to myself as something to do with walking.
Cammino, I walk. Or, the path.
Il camino, the chimney.
Not the same, enough said.

An astonishing lack of Adjectives

imageFinally I am getting around to reading “Il suggeritore”  (translated in English as “the whisperer “) one of the books my friend brought back from Italy for me nearly a year ago. The pile of unread books by my bed is ridiculously high and there has been a lot of queue jumping in the meantime . This book should be labelled Rather too scary to read at bedtime – a team of police detectives is on the trail of a serial killer who has murdered 6 little girls and cut off their arms. Drafted in to help the team are the two main protagonists Dr Gavila , a criminologist with unusual methods, and Mila Vasquez, a specialist in the recovery of abducted children.

Progress has been slow even with the English translation alongside. When I say slow we are talking one sentence every 5 minutes whilst I stop to wonder about grammatical puzzles such as the following. Mila has just met 2 of the detectives from the team, one of whom is being distinctly unwelcoming to her. Mila tells her “sono  una che apprende in fretta ” (I’m a fast learner).and I need a grammar book to figure out why it isn’t “CHI apprende in fretta” ??? More about this in a future post.

The other thing which has become apparent to me is a total void in my knowledge of adjectives. From only  ONE page I learned two new words for “startled” – spiazzata and  Stordita.

Also ammirato (impressed) and indurita (describing the unfriendly look that the lady detective gives mila). I might stand a chance of remembering this as it contains Duro in the middle, the word for ‘hard’…

on the subject of adjectives I looked up the word for Sharp as in the context of Sharp teeth, and came up with  “affilato ” – but then whilst I was learning that I got 5 adjectives  for the price of one.

a sharp pointy nose or muzzle could be ‘aguzzo’ or ‘appuntito’.

a sharp cutting remark to somebody would be ‘tagliente’.

a sharp pain is un dolore acuto.

A sharp bend ” una curva brusca”

and sharp teeth are ” denti affilati ” or a sharp knife “un coltello  affilato “.

A sharp as a noun is un ago ( a needle)  plural Gli aghi

meanwhile back to my book one sentence at a time, estimated finishing time Natale !!!

a fox and a snake (and the meaning of ‘mica’)

Today I have learned a whole bunch of new words, some more likely to be useful in conversation than others – they include magnaccia (pimp), biscia (grass snake) and ‘mica’ which I will come back to in a minute. I am currently halfway through reading Gianrico Carofiglio’s “Testimone Inconsapevole” – in Italian- without an English translation to hand. It is one of a series of books about the lawyer Guido Guerrieri – SO, depending on the time of day I can follow it quite well (morning reading), or alternatively whole paragraphs can go by where I fail to understand a thing (bedtime reading!). I appreciate his writing style which is quite simple, but his books are clever and funny.
Anyways, after days of slooow progress all of a sudden (all’improvviso) I realised that I was reading quite fluently without having to stop and consult a dictionary every two minutes. The scenario was that a lawyer and a lady magistrate were chatting – neither one likes the other very much. the lawyer has told a ‘funny story’/ una storiella to the lady magistrate and made some disparaging remarks about lady magistrates. so the magistrate takes her turn to tell her storiella:

A fox and a grass snake are wandering through the forest (separately) when it starts to rain. they both happen to take shelter in the same tunnel (cunicolo) but it is buio pesto (pitch black) in there so they can’t see each other only sense that the other is there. the tunnel is too narrow to get past each other but neither wants to give way and move. Neither will risk attacking the other one because they don’t know how dangerous the opponent is. They decide to play a game where they each take a turn to guess what kind of creature the other is by feeling each other, and the loser will have to be the one to move. the grass snake goes first and easily guesses the fox’s identity (orecchie lunge, muso aguzzo). but the fox still wants a turn to even things up. so the fox has a feel of the snake and says:
“che testa piccolo che hai, non hai le orecchie, sei viscido (slimy), lungo. Non hai I coglioni?! E non sarai mica un avvocato?” The punch-line I attempt to translate as “You’re not a lawyer at all, are you?” This word ‘mica’ is a negative expression kind of like the word “affatto”… ( all). But I might need to acquire the English translation to check – and so I can cheat a bit at bedtime 🙂 I gather that ‘mica’ has quite a colloquial usage. a couple of common phrases where it is used:
mica male! – not bad!, not bad at all!
mica tanto – not really (for example someone asks you if you would be interested in reading a certain book. you’re not interested in the book, so you might reply “mica tanto” – not really (not interested).
In conclusion to the story, the lady magistrate is the winner. the lawyer tries to laugh but only manages a ‘ghigno forzato’.

Lost in fiction

When it comes to mental workouts there is nothing quite like trying to read a novel in another language for a real test! Being sleep-deprived makes it even more of a challenge. whilst on holiday I read “L’ecume des jours” by Boris Vian which has recently been rediscovered and made into a film titled “Mood Indigo” – I loooove reading in French but it severely tested my vocabulary and my knowledge of grammar structures. and it required so much concentration – sometimes I read a whole page before realising I had no clue what was going on; made my brain hurt!! I felt like I got the overall gist but missed the fine detail and some of the quirky little jokes and episodes were lost on me. after a break during which i read a few amazing novels in English (best of which was “We are all completely beside ourselves”) I have discovered an Italian novel “Those who leave and those who stay” (Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta) – not sure if it is going to be totally beyond me, but certainly it should rapidly help to increase my vocabulary. the novel is the third in a series by Elena Ferrante, tracing the friendship of two women Elena and Lila from their schooldays in the 1950s to the present day. Being the third in the series the book has a section at the beginning listing all the characters and relevant details about them….. Just reading this part showed up the limitations in my vocab instantly. For one character, Don Achille Carracci I failed to understand a SINGLE word in the sentence. His description was as follows : “L’orco delle favole, borsanerista, strozzino. E stato ammazzato” – After some investigation with a dictionary this translated as “The fairy-tale ogre, dealer in the black market, loan shark. He was murdered.” We’re really on the slow train here – let’s see how long it can take me to reach the end!! Ten years?? it might help to start on the first novel of the series but that would be making it too easy….. I will try to update my progress.