The Italian Language

The Italian language is considered one of the Romance languages. Latin was spoken in the Roman Empire until the Roman Empire fell. From there, the language evolved into different dialects imposed on the Italian people by their rulers. The current formal language, which is really the Tuscan dialect, still resembles Latin more than any other Romance language. The Italian language is considered one language with many different dialects specific to different regions of Italy. The dialects may be very different from one another, or may be quite alike. Many seem to resemble the formal language very little.

Click here to see a map of the dialects of Italy:

When many of the Italian immigrants arrived into the United States, they wanted to assimilate. They were made fun of and called illiterate by many in power. Some who could not communicate were not allowed to stay in the United States. The Italian immigrants wanted their children to learn English to be accepted as Americans. Many Italian families did not want their children to learn or speak Italian because they wanted them to easily assimilate and gain acceptance in the United States. Oftentimes, the second generation Italian children in the United States heard very little Italian at home. For example, they may have heard one parent speak to another in Italian when the parents did not want their children to know what they were saying.This is not to say that some terms and words were not spoken in the households every day, they were. Many Italian-Americans could tell you about their early experiences with the Italian swear words they heard their parents speak. Of course, the words for food and some slang were passed on as well. In addition, many Italian immigrants from any given particular region often moved to the same town or city in the United States, so, their slang dialect was understood by all of the "paesans" or villagers in that area.

Many generations of Italians still use words and phrases from their parents' dialects today. Or, they Americanize the Italian words. Hearing the language from The Godfather, Goodfellas, and the Soprano's is not foreign to many of today's Italians. Perhaps "Uncle Leo" still talks like that today. For example, many second, third, and so on generations grew up thinking that "three" was pronounced "tree" because they heard it at home. A common occurrance in most Italian dialects is to leave off the last vowel sound.

By the way, the Italian alphabet only contains 21 letters:


Those in black are not included in the Italian alphabet.

Interestingly, the formal form of Italian is what many English-only speaking people of today use when they refer to Italian foods. Rarely does an Italian-American who heard their parents and community use some dialetic slang pronounce the words as they actually sound in the formal language, even today. Many Italian-Americans can tell that a person is not of Italian descent by the formal way they pronounce Italian words.

Some examples of dialect:

Formal: Mozzarella

Dialect Pronunciation: Mootszadell

Formal: Calamari

Dialect Pronunciation: Colamod

Formal: Marinara

Dialect Pronunciation: Modinod

Formal: Cannoli

Dialect Pronunciation: Canole

Formal: Ziti

Dialect Pronunciation: Zeet

Formal: Pasta Fagioli

Dialect Pronunciation: Pasta Fazool

Curious about a definition?

Want to translate something?

I searched for several Italian-English dictionaries and translation sites. I found some that weren't worth a grain of salt. The ones I included are pretty good. Italian is a phonetic language. The words sound just like they are spelled. has two guides for pronouncing Italian letters:

This site. Freetranslation, will translate large pieces of text for you:

Some Common Words and Sayings

Mangia!: Eat!

Bella: beautiful

Ciao!: hello or good bye

Buona notte: goodnight

Buona sera: good evening

Grazie: thank you

Per favore: please

Parla l'inglese: speak English

Paesano: friend in the neighborhood (actually means villager) *some think this is derogatory

Goombah: "a combination of a good old boy, good family guy that just enjoys life — and not a gangster" as defined by Soprano's Steve Schirripa:

Mama Mia!: Mother of mine!

Fascination with Italian Insults and Curses

In many films and shows about Italians, the Mafia and organized crime, foul language abounds. There is a growing fascination with Italian insults and curses amongst non-Italians due to the popularity of "The Sopranos." Yes, some Italian-Americans really do swear like this in real life. I'm providing some examples, but use them at your own risk, especially if you are talking to an Italian or about an Italian. Many of these are considered offensive and if used in the wrong situation.... In Italian, the worst swear words are not those that are vulgar in the English language (such as the f*** word) but those that have to do with God and religion, and those that imply you are a fool because your wife is cheating on you. I'll leave out the more vulgar ones, but provide you with links to sites with access if you wish to explore a bit more.

Some examples of common exclamations,curses and insults:

allocco: a jerk

boccalone: a big mouth

cafone: slob, low class person

capodoste: hardhead

cazzata: a worthless thing

Come si chiamo: actually means what's his/her name- used in a derogatory manner to mean "What's her name" as in "He's with his come si chiam."

fa Napoli: get the hell out of here (literally means go to Naples)

faccia brutta: ugly face

faccia di culo: but ugly person

faccia di merda: sh**head

fannullone: a good for nothing person

fessacchione: really big idiot

leccapiedi: a brownnoser, a feet-licker (literally)

mannaggia!: damn!

merda: sh**

occiataccia: a dirty look

puttana: whore

saccente: a know it all

scassacazzo: pain in the ass

stunare: out of tune, idiot (this one's pronounced stoonod)

volente o nolente: like it or not

Here is a link to an interesting story about an American who learned to swear in Italian when she moved there:

Here is a link to "The Alternative Italian Dictionary" if you want more vulgar stuff:

and's Italian Slang Dictionary:

Go to this site to hear "Hooked on Paesanics." It's on the left hand side at the bottom. Very funny.