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Basic Italian

Greetings

There are several greetings in Italian:
  • Buon giorno/Buona sera = Good morning/Good evening.  Polite/formal; definitely use with people you might call "Mr." or "Mrs./Ms." in English (superiors, authority figures, older people).  People start saying buona sera between 2 and 4 in the afternoon; there is also the phrase buon pomeriggio (good afternoon) but it only used on TV/radio.
  • Salve = Hello.  A neutral greeting, used with social equals, sometimes with shopkeepers (less formal than buon giorno but more formal than ciao).
  • Ciao = Hi.  A familiar greeting, used for people you know or family.  Use with people you would call by their first name.
  • Pronto = Hello (telephone).  Literally means "ready" (as in, "I'm ready to listen to you...").
There are also several ways to say goodbye:
  • Arrivederci = Goodbye.  A standard/formal way to say goodbye.  (Arrivederla is another very formal goodbye)
  • Buona giornata/Buona serata = Have a good day/Have a good evening.  A nice way to say goodbye to shopkeepers.  You can also just say Buon giorno/Buona sera to mean "Goodbye, have a nice day."  Buona domenica, "have a good Sunday," can also be heard on Saturday afternoon/evening.
  • Ciao = Bye.  When used to mean "goodbye," it is less informal than as a greeting.  A standard goodbye to shopkeepers is Ciao, grazie!
  • Ci vediamo = See ya later.  Literally "we see each other."
  • A dopo = Until later.
  • A domani = Until tomorrow.

Useful Phrases

Some phrases not already listed under Bare Bones Italian.
  • Cerco = I'm looking for
  • Quanto costa...? = How much does ... cost?
  • Che peccato! = Too bad!  (Literally: "What a sin!")
  • Di dove viene? / Di dove sei? = Where are you from?  (Da also can mean "from" but implies motion...so Vengo da New York means, roughly, "I just came in from New York" but Vengo di New York means "I am from New York")
  • Come se dice...? = How do you say...?
  • Che cosa è questo?  = What is this?

Excuse me

...translates into (at least) four possible phrases in Italian:
  • (Mi) scusi = Excuse me/can I have a moment (like "Excuse me, can I ask a favor?"...for example if you're asking for directions).  Scuza is less polite, and scusate very formal or used if talking to more than one person.
  • Permesso = Excuse me/with your permission (like "Excuse me, can I get by?" in a crowd...note that Italians have a much higher tolerance for body contact so they will only say this if the other person must move for them to get by)
  • Mi dispiace = Excuse me/I'm sorry (like "Excuse me, I didn't mean to knock you over!", as noted above body contact must be fairly violent to warrant this phrase)
  • Attenzione = Excuse me/watch out (like "Excuse me, look out!", somewhat ruder way to ask someone to get out of the way, but also useful for pointing out hazards)

Basic Verb Conjugation

If you learn the basic conjugations in Italian, it will be easier to make yourself understood.  The main four forms that you'll find useful are the following, using the example verb parlare (to speak):
  • parl-o = I speak (remove the "re" and add an "o")
  • parl-i = You speak
  • parl-a = You/he/she/it speaks (remove the "re")
  • parl-iamo = We speak (remove the "are" and add "iamo")
Examples:  Parla inglese? (Do you speak English?)  Non parliamo italiano.  (We don't speak Italian)  Non parlo bene italiano. (I don't speak Italian well)  Voglio parlare italiano.  (I want to speak Italian)
 
The following verbs are irregular, but very important
  • avere = to have; ho = I have, ha = you/he/she/it has, abbiamo = we have
  • essere = to be, sono = I am, è = you/he/she/it is (accent doesn't change the pronunciation; e without an accent means "and"), siamo = we are
Examples:  Sono americano (I am American)  Il ristorante è vicino?  (Is the restaurant nearby?)  Abbiamo un problema (We have a problem)  È aperto il supermercato?  (Is the supermarket open?)

Note that to make questions, all you have to do is add an upward inflection (no need to change words around, etc.).

Other Useful Verbs

Unfortunately, many of these are also irregular:
  • andare = to go; vado = I go, va = you/he/she/it goes, andiamo = we go
  • mangiare = to eat; mangio = I eat, mangia = you/he/she/it eats, mangiamo = we eat
  • potere = to be able to; posso = I can, può = you/he/she/it can, possiamo = we can
  • sapere = to know; so = I know, sa = you/he/she/it knows, sappiamo = we know
  • stare = to be; sto = I am/stay, sta = you/he/she/it is/stays, stiamo = we are/stay  (for transitory stuff, like how you are doing and location--can mean "to stay/remain"...hence "how are you doing" is Come sta?  not Come è?)  For a lengthy discussion of stare versus essere, see Teach Yourself Italian or Tomsimo
  • volere = to want; voglio = I want, vuole = you/he/she/it wants, vogliamo = we want (note that you'll often hear the conditional tenses vorrei, vorrebbe, and vorremmo which mean "I would like", "you/he/she/it would like", and "we would like" respectively BUT it's probably easier for you to just use potere as a question for being polite:  instead of Vorremmo un vino rosso "We would like a red wine" you can just say Possiamo avere un vino rosso? "Can we have a red wine?")
  • avere bisogno = to need (so just conjugate avere like above and add bisogno...for example Ho bisogno d'acqua! = I need water!)
Note also that the "-iamo" tense (we) can also mean "Let's...":  Andiamo! = Let's go!  Mangiamo! = Let's eat!

Past Tense

The simplest way is just conjugate avere and then add "-to" to the end of the verb stem:
  • Ho mangiato = I ate
  • Abbiamo magiato = We ate
  • Ha parlato = You/he/she spoke

Some verbs (specifically action verbs like to come/go/ascend/descend/leave and "reflexive" verbs like to wash oneself/to get oneself up/to get oneself dressed) take essere instead of avere...so for example "I went" is technically Sono andato (not Ho andato).  Still, at this point don't get too worried about the distinction--if you use the wrong word it will sound funny to Italians but they'll probably understand you.

More Info/Resources

Between the present tense, past tense, and time markers (like domani "tomorrow": instead learning how to say "I will go" you can just say Vado domani  "I go tomorrow") you can make yourself understood in basic conversations.  Don't be afraid of "caveman Italian"--just start speaking, and don't stress out about the grammar!  For more information on verb conjugation (such as how to say "you-informal," "they" and "you guys," as well as all the other tenses so you don't have to talk like a cave man) there are several good websites including About.com's Italian Verb page.

Articles and Word Endings

Knowing how Italian changes based on "gender" and number, could avoid some confusing or embaressing situations:
 
Usually masculine stuff ends in "o" (amico = "(male) friend"), and feminine stuff ends in "a" (amica = "(female) friend").  Plural masculine stuff ends in "i" (amici = "(male or mixed gender) friends") and plural feminine stuff ends in a "e" (amice = "(female) friends").  While you don't have to memorize the gender of every word to make yourself understood, it is a good idea to put the right ending on stuff with obvious gender (so you don't embaress someone by saying that they are your male friend when they are female, or vice versa).
 
Two additional notes that will help you understand Italian:  These endings apply to adjectives as well, so it's il mio bello amico (my beautiful male friend) but la mia bella amica (my beautiful female friend).  Second, as you saw in the examples,  articles (the words "a" and "the") change as well:
 
  Masculine singular Feminine singular   Masculine plural Feminine plural 
 word ending  -o -a  -i  -e 
 "the"  il  la le
 "a"/"some"  un  una dei delle 

Extra Credit: Advanced Articles

If you want to learn all the Italian articles, check out the following; don't worry too much about getting this right (if you say il zucchero instead of lo zucchero it won't be a big deal):
  • l'il/la + vowel (L'anno nuovo = The new year)
  • lo = il + Z or S-c (Lo zucchero = The sugar; "S-c" means "s followed by a consonant" like gli Stati Uniti = the United States)
  • glii/le + Z or S-c or GN or vowel or the word Dei ("Gods," as in Il Sentiero degli Dei "The Walk of the Gods")
  • uno = un + Z or S-c
  • un' = una + vowel
To learn more, check out http://www.geocities.com/f_pollett/i-2-4.htm, which covers articles in some detail.  http://www.geocities.com/f_pollett/i-2-2.htm covers some exceptions and special cases of word endings  Wikipedia's page on Italian Grammar also discusses word endings (as well lots of info about verbs).

Useful words

Pronouns

  • me = me
  • lei = you/she
  • lui = he
  • loro = them
  • noi = us
  • mio/mia/miei = my
  • suo/sua/suoi = your
  • nostro/nostra/nostri = our

Question Words

  • Che (cosa) = What (as in Che cosa è questo?  "What is this?"  literally "What thing is this?")
  • Quando = When
  • Quanto = How much
  • Quanti = How many
  • Dove = Where
  • Come = How
  • Quale = Which
  • Chi = Who
  • Perché = Why

Place/Direction Words

  • qui/qua = here (as in Viene qua!  "Come here!"...note that qua is slightly less "precise" so qui means more like "right here")
  • lì/là = there ( connotes slightly farther away, a bit like "over there"...note that these words are practically interchangeable; there is even much discussion amongst Italians as to the subtle differences)
  • (in) vicino = close (by)/neighbor
  • lontano = far (away)
  • destra = right
  • sinistra = left
  • (tutto/sempre) diritto = straight
  • avanti = forwards/ahead
  • scendere = to go down/descend (e.g. Scenda, e poi a destra = "Go down and then to the right")
  • salire = to go up/ascend
  • di fronte a (or davanti) = across from (think "facing the front")
  • a fianco di (or accanto) = next to (think "on the flank")
  • dentro = in(side)
  • fuori = out(side)
  • sopra = over
  • sotto = under
  • dietro = after/behind
  • su = up
  • giù = down

Prepositions and other "Small Words"

These "connecting" words come in very handy...
  • questo/a/i/e = this (sometimes abbreviated to sta as in stasera = this night = tonight)
  • quello/a/i/e = that (extra credit: when used as an adjective, it combines with the article, e.g. quelle ragazze = these girls)
  • con = with
  • senza = without (as in Acqua con o senza gas?  "Water with or without gas?")
  • solo = only
  • più = more (or "most" as in la più bella  "the most beautiful")
  • meno = less
  • meglio = better
  • così = like this/that
  • per = for
  • ancora = again (or "still" as in Ho ancora troppo pomodori!  "I still have too many tomatoes!")
  • già = already
  • appena = just (Abbiamo appena mangiato!  "We just ate!')
  • niente = nothing
  • nessuno = nobody/no one
  • ogni = each
  • tutto/a/i = every(one)
  • quasi = almost
  • altro = (an)other
  • tra/fra = between (interchangeable words...the only rule is that it should "sound good" so one says tra fratelli "between brothers" not fra fratelli)
  • qualcosa = something
  • qualcuno = someone

Time Words

  • domani = tomorrow (the joke is that this really means "not today")
  • oggi = today
  • ieri = yesterday
  • dopo = after (in seguito = afterwards)
  • prima (di) = before
  • feriale = monday through saturday (often abbreviated "Fer")
  • festivi = sundays and holidays (often abbreviated "Fest")
  • ora = now
  • adesso = right away/now
  • un attimo = a moment/an instant (un attimo, per piacere = "just a moment, please")
  • subito = soon (when John Paul II died, people cried Santo subito!  "Make him a saint now!")
  • mai = never
  • sempre = always
  • spesso = often
  • giorno = day (think of a "journal," which you write in daily)
  • settimana = week
  • la prossima = the next...
  • il/la ...scorso/a = the last...
  • volta = time (as in la prossima volta "next time")
  • ora legale = daylight savings time (literally "legal hours")
  • tramonto = sunset (e.g. un'ora prima del tramonto = "one hour before sunset")
See other websites for numbers (pronounced), days of week (pronounced), and months (pronounced).

Adjectives and Adverbs

  • tanto/molto = a lot of
  • troppo = too many
  • basta = enough  (as in Basta pasta!  "Enough pasta!" ...a common phrase is basta così, literally "enough like that" )
  • grande = big
  • piccolo = small
  • stesso = same
  • poco (un po' di...) = a little (bit of)
  • buono/a/i/e = good
  • bene = well
  • male = bad
  • bello/a/i/e = beautiful
  • facile = easy
  • difficile = difficult
  • piano = slow(ly), quiet(ly)...also as a noun means "floor" (like quarto piano = fourth floor)...can also mean "plan" or "plain" (as in flat)
  • primo/a, secondo/a, terzo/a, quarto/a... = first, second, third, fourth
  • nuovo = new
  • vecchio = old

Fillers

The following words are used to fill in conversations, and thus are common to hear as well as useful to know.
  • Allora = Well then (a versatile word!)
  • Dunque = Therefore/Well then/So/Accordingly/Consequently
  • Poi = Then/Later
  • Dopo = After
  • Dopotutto = After all
  • Ma/Però = But (però is a bit stronger)
  • Anche = And also
  • Ebbene = Well then (literally "and well...")
  • Inoltre = Besides/Moreover
  • Invece = Instead
  • In qualche modo = Somehow
  • Comunque = However/Anyhow (unque is roughly "ever/any"...so dovunque = wherever/anywhere, chiunque = anyone)
  • Quindi = Then/Therefore/So
  • Ormai = By now
  • Oppure = Otherwise/Or
  • Eppure = And yet/Still/Nevertheless
  • Come stavo dicendo... = As I was saying...

Food Words

Car Words

Also on a separate page.
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