Italian language: Don’t Neglect Your Past. Use it!

Jun 15, 2019 503

We have already seen the difference between the passato prossimo and imperfetto indicativo, but those are not the only two past tenses you can use in Italian on a regular basis. There is also the passato remoto, a tense that it is not really taught to people who are trying to learn Italian, or at least only at higher levels. Why? Well, the explanation is quite simple – it is a hard tense to use for Italians as well. But you probably have encountered it before, you just didn’t know what it was. 

I must begin by saying that I live and grew up in the north of Italy, which means I am not really keen on using the passato remoto when speaking daily. To be honest, the use or not use of this tense is probably one of the main differences between northern Italian and southern Italian. In fact, in the north of Italy, as well as in other central regions of Italy, the passato remoto is almost inexistent and it is used in very specific cases, while in the south, it is very commonly used on a daily basis and, I must say, to me it’s sounds a little odd but beautifully musical at the same time.

Let’s get into it though. When should you use it? How? Passato remoto changes according to the conjugation of the verb that is according to whether the verb ends in “are,” “ere,” or “ire” as usual. If we look at regular verbs like mangiare, ricevere, and dormire, they follow a simple rule: mangi-ai, mangi-asti mang-iò, ricev-ei, riceve-sti, ricev-é, dorm-ii, dorm-isti, dorm-ì and so on. But if we really want to be picky, the verbs that end in –ere have two options: they can be io ricevei or io ricevetti, lui ricevé or lui ricevette, and loro riceverono or loro ricevettero. So, you can choose either one, they are both fine, but probably ricevetti, ricevette, ricevettero have an older sound to them. So, those are the regular verbs – and they already present some difficulties! – let’s look at the irregular ones now.

Here too, I must make a clarification – most Italians are either unsure about the irregular forms of the passato remoto, they are hard and sometimes they have very funny sounds too. They also are way too many and not too common. For example, both essere and avere are irregular: io fui and io ebbi. You got to learn them by heart, you have no other option because if you are using passato remoto, you’ll be using them a lot. Just like bere – to drink, leggere – to read, dire – to say, andare ­– to go, and many other very common verbs that are even regular in other tenses.

The real problem is when to use this tense. Technically, you should decide between passato remoto and passato prossimo. You should use the former for events that are in a distant, or to use the name of the tense, a remote past, something that isn’t really connected directly with your present, while you should use the latter to talk about a closer past, something that has just happened or has a direct impact on the present. Let’s take the sentence “I ate chocolate” if I add “yesterday” I should use the passato prossimo since it’s a closer past, but If I add “when I was 2 years old,” you might want to use the passato remoto. It becomes a lot easier when talking about people of the past like Shakespeare or Washington: you should use the passato remoto and it will be grammatically inaccurate to use the passato prossimo instead. There are cases in which the use of one tense or the other is functional to the meaning the speakers wants to convey and that is how they feel about that past, if they feel it is still relevant they will use the passato prossimo otherwise, if they feel it’s distant enough or they want to emphasize that aspect, they will use passato remoto.  So, you’ll probably understand that when talking about history it is crucial to use and understand this weird tense.

But let’s go back to the different use within Italian native speakers. As I said at the beginning, l’anno scorso andai a New York – last year, I went to New York – sounds pretty weird to me, but it can actually be the correct form. Why am I saying “can”? Because there is no rule that states the time in the past from which you should start to use the passato remoto, it’s very subjective. So when native speakers from the south say Ieri mangiai – yesterday I ate – it is not entirely incorrect. What it is incorrect though, it is to say non mangio perchè già mangiai un’ora fa – I won’t eat because I ate an hour ago. This time is clearly recent and it clearly has an effect on the present so you must use passato prossimo and therefore say non mangio perchè ho già mangiato. So sometimes there is an overuse of passato remoto by southern Italian. To sum up, northerners use it too little, southerners sometimes use it too much. So who in Italy knows how to use it properly? Probably the population the uses it pretty well is Tuscans – onece again! – but just not to make any northerners and southerners upset, let’s say that it’s too subjective to declare one people using it perfectly.

The problem for non native speakers is that passato remoto is used a lot in narrative, books of any kind, and other written texts. But you know what? At least now you know it exists, how and when you should use it, and maybe it will help you understand a little better next time you hear it. In any case, don’t neglect this tense. It didn’t do anything wrong!     

Delivered by Italian School NJ

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