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Italian Language Lessons: Conversation Bookends

Steve Cohen

This very basic Italian lesson covers phrases which are most often the first and last things said in a conversational encounter. Additional language topics will be posted from time to time covering phrases which will be useful "between the bookends" in a variety of common situations.

Conversation Openers

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
hello buon giorno bwohn JOHR-noh

This is the universal greeting when people encounter each other. Translated literally as "good day", it is used from morning through late afternoon after which you say "buona sera" instead. Particularly in the countryside and small towns, you can say this to almost anyone you pass and receive a similar greeting in response.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
hello buona sera BWOH-nah SEH-rah

This is used in the same way as buon giorno (above), but from late afternoon (around 5:00pm, after the shop closing or "siesta" period) onward.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
hi ciao chow

A casual greeting used among young people, close friends and family. Although you will frequently hear this used, as a visitor to Italy you will not often have the chance to use it yourself. If an Italian uses "ciao" to greet you first (an honor), you may use it in return; otherwise, unless you are speaking to a child (or pet), the safest rule is to use buon giorno and buona sera as much as you like and not to use "ciao" at all.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
excuse me mi scusi mee SKOO-zee

This is used to gain a person's attention, for example if you wish to ask directions or you are ready for attention and really haven't been noticed yet in a shop (see "mi dica" below). It is also a polite way of acknowledging a minor mistake or sneeze, cough, etc. as in English. However, it is not interchangeable with "permesso", meaning "excuse me" in the sense of "may I?", indicating for example that you wish to reach across someone or ask someone to move aside so you may walk past. If someone in a narrow space has their back to you, you might say "scusi, permesso" (first gaining attention, then indicating you wish to squeeze by).

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
may I help you? (mi) dica (mee) DEE-kah

Literally, "tell me". This is often the way in which a shop attendant or waiter will indicate that you now have their full attention. In shopping situations in Italy, you may sometimes feel you are being ignored, especially at first. More often, you are experiencing the practice of giving full attention to one person at a time in turn and it is not yet your turn.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
what would you like (to drink)? cosa desidera (da bere) KO-sah deh-SEE-deh-rah (dah BEH-reh)

Commonly this is the first thing you will hear from a waiter in a restaurant. If it is evident you aren't ready with your complete food order (a serious set of decisions), you may first be invited to order something to drink in the meantime. This may also happen if you have ordered food but not yet mentioned anything to drink (mineral water and wine are the standard meal accompaniments); in this case, you may hear just "da bere", meaning "and to drink?".

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
OK, so allora ahl-LOR-ah

This is a very frequently used verbal warmup which can be used in a wide variety of situations. A waiter may say this on first appearance (what'll it be?) or at the point where you have finished the main meal and might be interested in dessert or coffee ("allora, caffé, dolce?", meaning so - coffee, dessert...?). A shopkeeper may say this at the point when you have assembled your purchases and he is about to calculate your total.

Conversation Closers

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
thank you grazie GRAH-tzyeh

One of the very first Italian words you should learn. As in English, expresses appreciation for a service or kind act you have been on the receiving side of. This is, of course, used frequently at times other than at the very end of a conversation. It is often combined with one of the "goodbye" words below upon completion of a small transaction (buying a newspaper, say); for example, "grazie, arrivederci".

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
you're welcome prego PREH-goh

The customary, almost obligatory, response to "grazie" (If you say "grazie" after completing a transaction such as making a purchase in a shop, paying a bill in a caffé, etc., a common alternative reply is "grazie a lei", meaning "thank you" with an added emphasis on the "you"). You will also hear "prego" used to mean "please" in the sense of "if you please", for example to indicate that you may go ahead of another person through a doorway or to invite you to sit after you are shown to a table in a restaurant.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
goodbye buon giorno bwohn JOHR-noh

This universal greeting also serves as a cordial goodbye upon completion of a conversation or business transaction. You might, for example, use this greeting both on entering a bakery to purchase your morning bread and upon leaving after completing the purchase.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
goodbye buona sera BWOH-nah SEH-rah

This phrase serves as both hello and goodbye in the same way as buon giorno (above), but from late afternoon (around 5:00pm, after the shop closing or "siesta" period) onward.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
'bye ciao chow

A casual "see ya" to be used in the same situations where it is acceptable as a greeting.

ENGLISH ITALIAN SAY IT LIKE THIS
goodbye arrivederci ahr-ree-veh-DEHR-chee

Although this phrase carries the literal meaning "until we see each other again", it is the one you most often use in situations where you probably won't see the other person again, for example upon leaving a clothing or crafts shop where you have spent some time and possibly made a purchase. You may hear "arrivederla" from the shopkeeper, suggesting "until I see you again" - a little more formal and subtly less presumptuous.

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