Italian language: Italian is Musical
- WTI Magazine #118 Aug 19, 2019
Italian is known as a melodic and musical language all around the world: to foreign ears, Italians seem to sing what they are saying instead of speaking. Well, today I am here to tell you just how right you are, but not as you would imagine. Today, we are here to talk about how much music influenced the Italian way of speaking and expressions.
When I started learning English, I was surprised all musical terms are in Italian. As an Italian speaker it is normal that music is in Italian and I had never realized before that all music is Italian, not just in Italy. This made me very interested in the topic, so I did some research on the matter. Lately, I have come across an interesting study that showed how Italians use music every day, but not simply by playing or listening to it, but when speaking. I was amazed by how many expressions there are in the Italian language that have to do with music, so here it is.
There are countless expressions with references to music. Let’s start with a good choir. In Italian, you can “join the choir” – unirsi al coro – which means to support someone’s opinion and join them in the cause or “be a choir” – fare coro – which is only slightly different and means to approve of someone’s opinion. But you can say it “all in choir” – tutti in coro – which is to say all together at the same time.
Let’s add in some instrument and make an orchestra – which is by the way another Italian word. When you are the leader of a group you can say dirigere l’orchestra – that you are “conducting the orchestra.” Or you can “give the A” – dare il la – which means to start something since the A is the musical note that is used to tune all the instruments right before starting to play. And “Musica maestro!” – “Music, conductor!” – which used to be a way to let the conductor know they could start playing but now it became just a way, mostly ironically, to celebrate joy or something nice that happened.
Let’s move to the single instruments. Of course, in an orchestra, the first we meet is the violin. And of course Italian has no lack of expressions with such an important instrument. Essere il primo violino – “to be the first violin” – means to have an important role, to be under the spotlight even outside the music environment. Fare una sviolinata – “to play a violin refrain” – means to flatter someone, to give sweet talk. And you can also be teso come una corda di violino – “tense as a violin string” – because, well, violin strings are pretty stretched.
Moving to the brass section, we find trumpets and trombones. Dare fiato alle trombe – “to blow into the trumpets” – means to announce something that is really important or in a very loud or exuberant way, in musical terms a forte. As you can imagine, it probably comes from the old custom of playing the trumpets at court before announcing someone’s entrance. Then, you can be an “old trombone” – Vecchio trombone – usually a person who tends to talk a lot and in a pompous way, that is very much aware of their importance and exaggerates a bit about it too, that is a little braggart. Poor trombones.
Let’s now go to the woodwinds: the flute, or more precisely the Italian fife. In fact, we often find the word piffero – a type of Italian fife that resebles a recorder – in the expressions and not flauto – “flute.” Here, we have non mi importa un piffero which we can translate it with “I don’t give a fife.” Doesn’t it sound great? We also have spifferare una novità. Spifferare actually means to blow into a fife and play it, but here, it literally means “to fife around a piece of news” –and figuratively to tell tales.
We have seen choirs, orchestras, but there are also expressions about just music in general. In Italian you can say cambiare I suonatori ma non la musica – “to change the players but not the music” – which means to change only apparently a situation which in reality stays the same, because of course you might have different people (factors) playing a piece of music (situation), but they are still playing the same old music. It is mostly used in a negative sense. Talking about “old music,” we have essere sempre la stessa musica – “to be always the same (old) music” – which can also be la stessa solfa – “the same G-A.” It means that a situation keeps on repeating itself, or it is used to refer to something that never changes and in the end it becomes boring. It is used especially with apologies, excuses, speeches, recommendations. Or it can be “a completely different music” – è tutto un’altra musica – meaning the exact opposite of the previous expression. And this is exactly its meaning: to be something completely different from before. It is used to refer to situations and people, but usually to plans, suggestions, or speeches.
And as usual I am going to end in a crescendo on my favorite one: è musica per le mie orecchie – “it is music for my ears” – which is used to refer to something the hearer likes to hear, as a convenient proposal or a favorable speech or suggestion.
See? You were right, Italian was very musical!
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