Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ugly Italian words

Let’s face it, Italian is not the world’s most useful language. It’s only spoken in Italy (and even then not by many grandmas or fishermen), San Marino and parts of Switzerland. Oh, and let’s not forget the 826 people who live in the Vatican City. And yet it seems that everyone wants to learn to speak Italian.

Why? Because it’s beautiful. Italian is the top model of languages, with its unblemished vowels, lean consonants and confident catwalk rhythm. Its sound is so intoxicating that once you become half fluent, you’ll want to make love to the Italian language all day long. You’ll want to let it roll off your tongue every waking hour. You’ll want to make a running commentary of your own life. To anyone who’ll listen, you’ll want to tell stories and jokes and comment on their cooking, speculate on their love lives, dole out unsolicited advice. You’ll be loving it so much that you won’t even notice when your front door closes behind you or the line goes dead.

I’m going to tell you something that you won’t find in any Italian phrasebook – there are two basic secrets to reproducing the typical Italian pronunciation that we find so delicious.

The first one is gymnastics of the mouth. I’ll explain. In order to faithfully reproduce Italian vowels – which are considered pure and unadulterated by diphthongs or weak sounds – you need to open your mouth wide. And when I say wide, I mean over-the-top wide. Like you’re trying to catch flies with your mouth. Or get the corners of your lips to reach your earlobes. Or huff and puff and blow the house down.

The second key to beautiful Italian pronunciation is constriction of the throat. It may seem paradoxical to do so when you’re trying to catch flies with your mouth. But it works for frogs, who after all croak. Tightening your throat is absolutely necessary if your consonants are to come out without any actual air. If you say “piece of paper” in English, a sheet of A4 in front of your lips will move with the air you exhale on each “p”. But if you say “passami i peperoni” (pass me the peppers), not a single hair would be put out of place even if you whispered this into your lover’s ear. As you do.

If you can achieve these two tasks at once, your Italian will likely sound as luscious as the Pope’s (oops, he’s German). However, it may surprise you to hear that not all Italian words are beautiful. I swear it’s true. I will give you some examples of ugly Italian words:

1. Sdrucciolevole (meaning “slippery”). There is a whole series of Italian words with, frankly, too many consonants in a row. Other words that fall into this category are sberleffo (sneer) and sfregare (rub). This is gymnastics of the tongue, not the mouth. It’s so preposterous that it’s quite nearly Germanic. When I try to pronounce sdrucciolevole, my tongue is literally sent into shock. Help, quick, inject me with a vowel or I’m dead!

2. Practically any word with two many combinations of “gli”. Somewhere between a “g” and a Spanish “ll”, this is perhaps the only truly difficult sound to pronounce in the Italian language. For example, the somewhat dialectal phrase Pigliagli l’aglio (Get him the garlic). Try saying this ten times fast and you’ll see what I mean.

3. Tuorlo (yolk) has that “uo” combination that is simply too much for my poor mouth, forced to stretch into an embarrassing yoga posture. Try tuorlo d’uovo (egg yolk) and you’re practically flashing your panties to the whole class. Same goes for baule (trunk), museruola (muzzle) and even uomini (men), saved only by its oh-so-cute “mini” ending.

4. Guardingo (wary). This just sounds silly.

So you can see that “ugly Italian” is no oxymoron. Even top models have a few moles. Perhaps they are the Italian language’s way of saying “Don’t love me just because I’m beautiful.”

Don’t worry, Italian, I understand. It’s something I struggle with too.


  1. I loved this one! I completely relate to feeling the urge to speak Italian all the time, once you have learned and spoken even un po!!! Since coming home I have slipped out far to many 'grazie's and 'si's, 'ciao's and the urge to continually say 'molto' is almost overwhelming!

    tutti bacci mia sorella


  2. hahahah Heddi! I loved this one too :D :D Can't stop laughing hihihih "pigliagli l'aglio" you're totally right! (hemm, sorry for my english...)

  3. I am on the floor laughing. I can't wait to try these new words on the consuaceri. I can just see their faces.... Molti Bacionetti Fleezia

  4. Sharon, you should definitely give in to all those urges to speak Italian! Life is short so why not enjoy every minute of it?

  5. Dear Noemi, I'm glad you - as an Italian - were not offended! The Italian language is so very beautiful that I actually had a hard time thinking of those ugly words, believe me. Your English seems amazing, by the way!

  6. Dear Barbara, yes it's consuoceri - and what a useful word it is, someonething we have no equivalent for in English (co-parents-in-law?). When you speak to them, however, don't forget to add one of the 'ugly' words I forgot to put on the list: "aiuola". I believe that's a record - four vocalized vowels in a row!

  7. Did you know that you are the only person in the entire internet that talks about ugly-sounding Italian words? I did some searches:
    "ugliest italian word" - 1 hit (referring to the meaning of the word)
    "ugliest italian words" - 0 hits
    "ugly italian words" - 70 hits (1 actual document (yours), all others are references)
    "ugly italian word" - 7 hits (5 are nonsense, 2 refer to the meaning of the word)

  8. Wow, Max, that's so cool! I do love it when you get only one hit for your search; I believe there's a word for that too. Anyway, I can see why 'ugly' and 'Italian' just don't go together - the language is beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the food too.
    Hope my post helped you find what you were looking for.

  9. I was looking for a comeback to the Italians making fun of German words :)

  10. Oh fantastic, Max! You just might be my linguistic soulmate.