November 6, 2009 | Italian

Some Grammatical Surprises

A few of the tougher things about Italian.

Because I am doing so much written work as part of my Italian studies, I can figure out the grammatical patterns of what I am listening to in Pimsleur much more easily than I could with Arabic or Russian. With those other languages, I was often memorizing individual sentences rather than gleaning patterns. Now I am able to spiral off other combinations in the pauses between Pimsleur sentences.

Tonight I did a Pimsleur walk (it was cold, about 41 degrees, but I really thought I should get out of the apartment), during which time I completed three more Pimsleur lessons. Before I went to bed I managed to do even more Pimsleur and actually got through lessons 1 and 2 of Level II. I can’t believe it.

I Really Like This Dictionary

Much time today was dedicated to the exciting subject of syllable stress. I did about two hours of flashcard drills, which took a long time because I had to look up so many words in the dictionary to make sure I was getting the stress right. Quite a few of them I had been practicing wrong without realizing it.

SparkNotes should put stress information on the flashcards, in my opinion. In Russian grammar books, accents are everywhere, even though native speakers don’t use them, and it really helps newcomers to the language. Anyway, as of now, I know slightly more than half of the words in the flashcards box, which contains 1,000 words. And a bunch more of the remaining words I almost know or am at least beginning to know.

Besides working on my grammar books, flashcards, and Pimsleur, I also spent time reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, which has a lot of Italian in it. I am enjoying the book only moderately, but I am feeling very pleased with myself that I have recognized almost every Italian word and phrase mentioned up to page 75 or so, where I am now.

Overall it feels as though Italian is just gluing into my head. I mean, practically any grammatical concept that comes up, I’ve seen some version of before in Spanish. And if I haven’t seen it in Spanish, I’ve seen it in French. Tonight I started learning past tense, thank god (present perfect, not imperfect). I learned among other things that the way you say “I have arrived” is sono arrivato for a man, and sono arrivata for a woman. It did not make me so happy to realize this, because from what I recall, this particular structure resembles French rather than Spanish, and it is noticeably harder.

Specifically, in Spanish you say he arrivado [oops! see comments at bottom of page] and he ido for “I have arrived” and “I have gone,” respectively. In French you say suis arrivé for a man or suis arrivée for a woman, and suis allé or suis allée, with the choice again depending on your gender. In Italian and French, the auxiliary verb for this construction is “to be” rather than “to have” (as it is in Spanish). Using “to be” creates other grammatical obligations: you have to worry about matching up the participles in number and gender to the subject. It is bothersome, and doesn’t seem helpful enough to me from a clarity point of view to justify spending so much time on it!

The one thing in Italian that is really not familiar, and that I am initially finding quite hard, is possessives. Italian generally requires a definite article along with the possessive. For example, instead of saying “my book” in Italian, you say “the my book,” e.g., il mio libro. My brain rebels against that.

Also tough are the plural forms of “the,” which include gli, pronounced ylee—or is it lyee?—and the diminiutive i, pronounced ee, which seems entirely too tiny to me to be capable of meaning “the.” It is also hard to make out the i in spoken sentences, as it gets buried amid other, more overbearing syllables. But I am making do.

I am finally learning the meanings of some of the stranger-looking (in my opinion) words in Italian. These are words that have kind of freaked me out previously when I’ve seen them in print. For example, nella is a contracted form that means “in the.” Another funny-looking word is oggi, pronounced OH-jee, which means “today.”

A final oddity for the day: il nipote can apparently mean either “the grandson” or “the nephew.” Also, if you change the article from il (masculine) to feminine, you have la nipote, which can mean “the granddaughter” or “the niece.” Yikes. How does that work? Those are radically different family relationships. Why would one use the same word to refer to the daughter of one’s brother that one uses to refer to the son of a daughter? It strikes me as very inefficient.

Comments (2)

Lillian Gladys Rivera • Posted on Thu, December 29, 2011 - 12:52 am EST

One of your examples is wrong, I’m a native Spanish speaker and ‘he arrivado’ is not a word nor has any meaning, the word for ‘I have arrived’ in Spanish is ‘llegué’.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, January 05, 2012 - 9:38 pm EST

Of course you are right about “arrivado.” Thank you. Oops. How embarrassing.

I must have written that under the influence of Italian, in which the past participle is “arrivato.” I do get confused sometimes between Romance languages. I appreciate the note very much!

What I meant to write - and what I WOULD have written had I never studied Italian for this project - was “he llegado.” I don’t actually want preterite for that example, but rather, am going for the present perfect.

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