Dilit Italian School

Italian words in the world

In this article I deal with Italian words which are used throughout the world, Italianisms, i.e. words borrowed from Italian to other languages.

Interest in Italian language abroad always arises. Italianisms are more and more numerous. From a recent study we have learned that there are more than twenty thousand Italian words that have had a second life abroad; there are very many languages involved. One of the reasons why studying this phenomenon is interesting, is that Italianisms show what has seemed remarkable and typical of Italy and Italians abroad, or they reflect aspects of the culture, the inventions and the products that originated in Italy. Luca Serianni, Lucilla Pizzoli and Leonardo Rossi are in charge of this ongoing research.


1. Italian words enter a communal lexicon in different ways.

One of them is the direct relationship between speakers. For example, in the case of the former Italian colonies in Africa, the Italian-origin words are linked to everyday life or manual activities, adjusting somehow to the language that hosts them - Somali, Amharic, Tigrinus.


2. The Italianism phenomenon is still very much alive.

As I have already said in an article, Federico Fellini launched the word paparazzo (used in 23 foreign languages) and dolce vita (16) around the world through his movies. The spreading of spaghetti western (which has also become western spaghetti) is due to Sergio Leone’s movies. On the other hand, Italianisms linked to football, such as  libero (18), tifoso (17) and azzurri (8), are due to Italy’s victory in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. But, as you can expect, cooking is the most dynamic sector. Words such as tiramisù (in 23 languages, among which Japanese, Indonesian, Thai and Laotian), pesto (16), carpaccio (13), bruschetta (13), rucola (11) together with ravioli (36), salame (32), espresso (31), risotto (27), cannelloni  (25). The most popular words are still spaghetti (54), pizza (50), and cappuccino (40). And how about Nutella?

Ciao (in 37 languages) and, unfortunately mafia (45) are widespread.


3. Italian words which take a different meaning in the world

It also happens that words enter a foreign language and take on a meaning which is different from the original Italian. As in the case of  pepperoni , which in English-speaking countries doesn’t stand for “peppers” but for “chilli sausage, or hot sausage”. In the Spanish spoken in Argentina, Polenta or pulenta in slang means “energy, physical stamina”. In Korean, Mandollin stands for “pregnant woman”.


4. Music

Musicians and music fans all over the world know very well that the terms to indicate tempo and dynamics are written in Italian. But also for musical instruments, for singing and the opera, for theory and compositions…


5. The Italian language is also used for many technical terms.

Moreover the diffusion started relatively early with the maritime lexicon with words such as corsaro, pilota, timone - corsair, pilot, rudder. Plus, since we have created the first banking and trading systems, we have exported abroad the first words of finance coining terms such as  banca, mercante, investire and valuta - bank, merchant, to invest and currency, plus academic vocabulary with terms such as università, accademia, scolaro and diploma - university, academy, school and diploma and in the art of war, with the spread of words such as imboscata, arsenale, cannone and soldato - ambush, arsenal, cannon and soldier. Italian has dictated the rules also in the fashion and clothing sector and has exported words such as cappuccio, pantalone, disegno and camicia - hood, pants, design and shirt.


6. Anglicisation

Interestingly, the word “manager”, frequently used by Italians to replace “supervisor” or “director”, is a “borrowed loanword”, because English has created the verb “manage” from the Italian “maneggiare”, which developed into manager and then management. Another example of Anglicisation is the term “mascara” , used in Italian as a loanword from English, is from the Venetian “màscara”, i.e. the mask worn by the people celebrating carnival to hide their face. Last but not least, the much used @. Until the last century, this symbol meant “at the price of”. In fact in Venice in 1500 it was used as an abbreviation of “amphora”, unit of measurement and price, for goods on sale.

Now you have information that most Italians ignore. Congratulations! Keep on studying Italian.

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