December 10, 2009 | Italian

Italian: Weird Words, and Practical Applications

One way Italian is weird, and one way Italian is useful.

The Italian plural of the word “the” shows up in various forms in Italian: le (plural feminine), i (plural masculine), and gli (too complicated to explain right now, but it is pronounced more or less as lyee). I find the last two forms, especially i by itself, strange. These two words have been among the hardest things to get used to seeing and saying. And they were, I am pretty sure, among the most important things that made Italian foreign to me before I started this project. I seem to remember seeing gli a lot and having no idea what it was or how to pronounce it.

I am currently reading Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book Eminent Victorians, which contains four highly subjective and irreverent biographies. I was surprised and delighted to discover Italian quotes in it. (All the French quotes I kept encountering in novels, and not understanding, were a major motivation for me to study French in college.) Anyway, it is not so surprising that there would be an Italian quote in a biography of Cardinal Manning, but I did not expect there to be any Italian in the biography of Florence Nightingale. However, there was, and I understood it perfectly, and here it is:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.

Strachey quoted this in reference to the hospital at Scutari, where Nightingale was based during the Crimean War. I believe this is usually rendered in English as, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” Yikes.

Hmm, I just googled the Italian sentence and learned that it was inscribed above the gates of hell in Dante. I didn’t remember that.

Fortunately, Nightingale turned things around.

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