In the last Useful Notes post, I talked about some episodes of Italian history that I thought could be interesting for authors. This time I’d like to give you a few tips on how to make your Italian characters sound more real. Just like the other post, this one is merely a primer, not a full guide to Italian speech patterns; however, I hope it’ll manage to at least guide your research in the right direction. 🙂
So, about making those character more well-defined…
Use double negatives
In standard English, two negatives make a positive: “I didn’t do nothing” literally means “I did something.” The same isn’t true in Italian, though: “Non ho fatto niente” translates word for word as “I didn’t do nothing”, but actually means “I didn’t do anything“. That’s because, apparently, the two negatives reinforce, rather than cancel out, each other. If your Italian character doesn’t have a perfect grasp of English, having them negate something twice is a good way of showing it.
… or some common slips of the tongue
Words like grazie (“thank you”) and prego (“you’re welcome”) are second nature for most polite Italians. It would be easy, for a speaker of that language not well versed in English (or simply not used to speak it conversationally), to use them by instinct. For the same reason, an Italian character may use sì (don’t forget the accent) instead of “yes”, or the Italian pronunciation of “no” (which sounds closer to the French non) in lieu of the English one. This doesn’t necessary implies ignorance on the character’s part: the person may just be nervous or in a hurry.
Don’t forget to put articles (almost) everywhere
Unlike English, the Italian language makes ample use of definite articles, even when referring to generic things. For example, Italians “go to the work” instead of going “to work”, drink the milk instead of drinking milk, and so on. This isn’t universal: we have sex, not the sex, for example. But it’s a general speech pattern that you can keep in mind to make your characters sound more realistic, especially if they have a very basic comprehension of English.
Play with gestures
That the same gesture may have completely different meanings in different cultures is widely known. You can employ this to your advantage by having an Italian character use the wrong gesture in a given situation or misinterpret someone else’s. For example, the so-called sign of the horns has positive implications in the American culture, as well as in several Norther European ones; in Italy, making this gesture at someone (especially men) means you’re calling them a cuckold. The same goes for the V sign, which in Italy is considered to have less to do with “victory” than it has with female genitalia. Just remember to do a very thorough research, or things could get embarrassing.
Do not make them Sicilian
Alright, we all know that that the South is where most Italian immigrants came (and still come) from. But you can do better. Make your Italian characters from Veneto, Friuli or Piemonte, the three Northern regions that produced more than 47% of the Italian emigration between 1875 and 1900. Veneto (yes, that’s the region where Venice is), in particular, used to have a lot of poverty in certain areas; my late father, a History teacher in high school, used to say that veneti (people from Veneto) used to be called terroni del nord (“Northern terroni“, the latter being a slur to indicate Southern Italians) because they were so poor. Piemonte (Piedmont) also used to heave sacks of heavy poverty, particularly in the country area of the Langhe. If you have the opportunity, do a bit of research about the part of Italy your character is from, focusing on the local dialects and some words that a person from those areas may be likely to use often in their daily life. Nothing like having your character from Brescia call their friend vecio (lit. “old man”), or babao (lit. “idiot”) when they screw up, to make them sound authentic. Although your readers might need notes. 😛