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English words in Italy

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I remember listening to an Italian radio news programme a couple of years ago on the introduction of whole body scanners to European airports. Apart from the topic itself, it was interesting to hear the commentators repeatedly using the untranslated phrase “body scanner” (pronounced in the Italian way). It wasn’t a one off occasion either. The use of English words and even phrases, particularly those related to technology, politics and entertainment, has become increasingly widespread in the Italian popular and mainstream media in recent years.

As an example, one current buzzword used in Italian magazines and newspapers is “il privacy”. It was so bizarre reading this for the first time. What’s wrong with just saying “riservatezza”? Possibly because it’s too long and also doesn’t really reflect the exact meaning of the English word. Riservatezza is more accurately translated as “reservedness”, as in somebody who tends to be reserved in nature. I think the lack of an exact word for privacy is partially a reflection of life in Italy–the idea of ‘privacy’ doesn’t generally figure as highly in people’s consciousness as it does in Anglo-American culture.

Another phrase that has entered widespread use in the English speaking world over the last few years is “social network”. In Italian, this could easily be “rete sociale”, which is shorter and rolls off the tongue a whole lot better. Indeed, some people do use this phrase and you will occasionally find it in articles. However, the most common way of referring to a social network is to say, erm, “social network.” In your typical Italian pronounciation, it goes something like “SOSHAAL NEETWORK,” which sounds awful in my opinion. Oh, and the phrase “social network” is masculine (I have no idea how this is decided), so you might say “I vantaggi dei social network.”

Staying on the technology theme, another widespread word is “computer” (masculine), whose meaning doesn’t have to be explained. The word “mouse” (also masculine) is also used as-is to refer to the pointing device, but funnily enough not “keyboard”, which is translated as “tastiera.” I suppose, the pronunciation of keyboard, including the ‘k’ at the start, just makes it too inconvenient to use as-is. “Email” also stays the same (pronounced as in English), and is considered to be feminine (again, no idea why). So you would say “ti ho inviato una email.” One possibility is because the translation would be “posta elettronica”, which is of course feminine.

While on the topic of email, the ‘at’ sign ‘@’ is called a ‘chiocciola’ in Italian, which is the word for snail.

Moving on to entertainment, the biggest catchphrase of the last decade and a half has been “reality TV.” This is translated as, erm, “reality” or “reality show.” This is a masculine noun in Italian, so you might say “non mi piaciono i reality.” That’s true, by the way. 🙂

One other word that surprised me the first time I heard it being used is “location”. This is used to refer to bars, pubs, and other places where you might go out socially. So you might say “Ho trovato una nuova location nel centro.” Yes, it’s feminine.

Finally, there is a word that is probably quintessentially Anglo-American: ‘stress’. Maybe Italians never get stressed, so the translation of ‘stress’ is simply ‘lo stress’. Of course, stress is masculine, what else could it be?

Why have all these English words come into such common use? I suppose it’s partially due to globalisation and the dominance of English as an international lingua franca. However, I believe it’s also because there is a perception that using new words and phrases from English makes speech or writing feel more modern or trendy. I always find it a great shame when I read Italian magazine articles spattered with English words–why doesn’t the writer have the confidence to use Italian words?

It’s also interesting to contrast Italy with France, where there is an increased emphasis on language purism. In French, there are translations for many modern words such as email and computer. The idea of using English words in French writing or speech is anathema to many French people. However, in Italy, there seems to be little problem in this respect.

Although it does feel a bit strange reading English words interspersed in Italian sentences, ultimately languages change and evolve, often in unexpected ways. After all, the only languages that don’t change are the ones that are dead.

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4 Comments Join the Conversation

    • I can’t believe I forgot to mention ‘weekend’! Two other words I recently came across are ‘killer’ and ‘happening’.

      Reply

  1. My favourite is laser, pronounced lahz-zer!! I had an attack of the giggles in Italian class when I first heard it!!! Great post, thanks!!

    Reply

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