No, the title of this post hasn’t become mangled in transmission. 🙂 There are a few of these almost-a-word expressions in Italian that are used quite frequently in informal settings. This is the kind of thing that isn’t (normally!) taught in language class and can only really be picked up properly when talking with Italians.
To use the grammatical jargon, these words are all interjections, so you can use them on their own to form a complete sentence, a bit like ‘hello’ or ‘hey’ in English.
Let’s start with ‘boh’, which probably sounds like something a toddler might say. 🙂 You typically use this in response to a question or statement that you don’t have an answer to or don’t feel like talking about. So, for example, you may be asked “Vuoi andare al cinema?” (Do you want to go to the cinema?). You’re not sure, so you reply “boh,” accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders or a downwards twist of the mouth.
Another version of ‘boh’ is ‘mah’, which is also sometimes used to express a deeper uncertainty about something, perhaps with a touch of boredom. If you replied ‘mah’ to the cinema question, it might mean that you’re not really in the mood right now to see a movie (but perhaps you might be later on).
Next up is ‘beh’. This can basically be translated as ‘so’, ‘well’, or ‘actually’, and is often used when starting an explanation that requires some clarification or demands a bit more attention from the speaker. For example, you may be asked “Cos’e’ successo ieri?” (What happened yesterday?). You might reply, “Beh, e’ una storia lungha…” (Well, it’s a long story). Or you might say something like “Sono andato al museo…beh, non era veramente un museo…” (I went to the museum, well, it wasn’t exactly a museum…)
Hope you get the drift…
Then, we have the hillarious ‘uffa’. This is used to express boredom or annoyance about something. For example, you might say “Uffa!” when you are made to wait a bit longer in a queue to be served.
Last but not least, there is the much loved ‘eh’. The uses for this simple expression are countless. My favourite is something along the lines of “Vai a quella piazza, eh…”, which would mean “Make sure you go to that piazza…”. Another use would be a simple “eh”, with an appropriate tone to express inquiry or surprise. For example, if someone made an unexpected announcement, you might say “Eh! Ma non ci posso credere…” (Oh, but I can’t believe it…). If you heard something confusing, you might say “Eh?”, with a deep frown.
Yet another example might be “Sei gia’ arrivata, eh…”, as in “Oh, so you’re already here…”
Adding an ‘i’ at the end of ‘eh’ gives us ‘ehi’ (pronounced EHYEE), which is the Italian equivalent of calling out ‘hey’ to someone from a distance.
Be warned that these expressions are all highly informal and should only be used amongst close friends or family. If a waiter asks you which wine you prefer and you say ‘boh’, it could be interpreted as you being rude to them, almost as if you don’t really like the wine list or you’d rather be someplace else.
Beh, use with caution, eh. 🙂