How to Hack the Italian Language (4th in a Series): Learn Family Words

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Learning Italian

Our Language Corner collaborator Rossella Vicidomini comes through in the clutch once again with a very enjoyable and entertaining article on the Italian family.  Just in time for Mother’s Day!  We kinda love this one… Thank you Rossella!

Learning vocabulary can be a tedious task and it´s always hard to know where to start. Do I really need to learn words like astruso or procrastinare? (Well, I think given my personality, the latter might very well have been my very first word!)  

And what about the fact that some words have more than one meaning? Like the word ”proprio” for instance: it could be used as ¨really¨, ¨right¨, ¨exactly¨, ¨just¨ or ¨own¨… (don´t worry, we´ll get to that at some point in a future article!)  


Thus, where should we begin? Ahh, like any self-respecting Italian, everything always starts and leads back to…LA FAMIGLIA / THE FAMILY!


So, today, we are going to find out about ¨family names¨ or ¨nomi di parentela¨. Buckle up, because in Italy family is huuuuuuuuuuge!


We´ll start with the head of the family, which in theory is ¨il padre / the father¨ but in reality is ¨la madre / the mother¨. Together they are ¨i genitori / parents¨ or simply ¨i miei¨ (literally it means ¨mine¨ but used by itself it implies ¨parents¨ because.. who else would we be talking about?¨).


– Vivi da solo o con i tuoi? – Do you live alone or with your parents?

– Eh, per il momento vivo ancora con i miei! – Heh, I’m still living with my parents for the time being!


Just like in English, we have 2 words for each parent, one is ¨formal¨, the other is ¨affectionate¨.


– Come si chiama tua madre? What is your mother‘s name?

– Che lavoro fa tuo padre? What does your father do for a living?


Mamma, non trovo i calzini!  Mom, I can’t find my socks!

Papá, posso avere 10 euro? Dad, can I have 10 euros?


As you can see from these (very silly and stereotypical) examples I just came up with, we use the words ¨padre¨ and ¨madre¨ when talking about them, and we use ¨mamma¨ and ¨papᨠwhen we talk to them.


To describe the kids in the family we have the words ¨figlio¨ and ¨figlia¨ which respectively mean ¨son¨ and ¨daughter¨. If the parents have more than one child, to talk about all of them they´ll use the plural masculine ¨figli¨, unless they are all daughters, in that case they´ll use the plural feminine ¨figlie¨.


Luca: Ho tre figli: due maschi e una femmina.  I have three children: two boys and a girl.

Mario: Io invece ho cinque figlie!  I have five daughters!

Luca: Cinque figlie? Complimenti! Contando anche tua moglie, hai sei donne in casa! Five daughters? Congratulations! Counting your wife too, you have six women in the house!


Did you spot the next ¨family name¨ in the last sentence? Well done! The words for husband and wife in Italian are ¨marito¨ and ¨moglie¨.


– Mio marito si chiama Fabrizio. – My husband‘s name is Fabrizio.

– Che coincidenza! Anche mio marito si chiama Fabrizio! – What a coincidence! My husband‘s name is also Fabrizio!


Another couple of words in the ¨parenti stretti / immediate family¨ category are ¨fratello / brother¨ and ¨sorella / sister¨. Just like for the word ¨figlio/a¨, if we need the plural, we´ll use ¨fratelli / sibilings¨ unless we only have sisters, in that case we´ll say ¨sorelle¨.

Another way is to be more specific. For instance, when describing my family, I usually say ¨Ho un fratello ed una sorella/ I have a brother and a sister.¨ It takes longer to say but I like it better this way.


Next we move outside of the inner circle to the rest of the family but mind you, for Italians it still count as close family. There is no such thing as ¨distant relatives¨, ask your grandmother or ¨nonna¨ if you don´t believe me.


Nonno, come stai? – Grandpa, how are you?

– Bene, grazie! E tu? – Fine, thanks! And you?


Nonna, com´é andata la tua giornata? – Grandma, how was your day?

– Bene, grazie! Tu hai mangiato? – Fine, thank you! Have you eaten?


And now we are going to see an interesting fact in Italian. Despite the fact that we have a lot of words for a lot of things, we only have one word for both ¨grandchild¨ and ¨nephew/nice¨.

The word ¨nipote¨ not only it is the same for both ¨grandchild¨ and ¨nephew¨ but it is also the same for male and female (but we do change the article, of course: ¨il¨ for masculine and ¨la¨ for feminine).


– Mia nonna dice che sono la sua nipote preferita… ma lo dice a tutti i suoi nipoti! – My grandmother says I’m her favorite granddaughter…but she says that about all her grandchildren!


– Quanti nipoti ha tuo zio, oltre te? How many nieces and nephews does your uncle have besides you?


– Oggi é nata mia nipote! – Today my niece was born!

– Auguri! É la figlia di tua figlia? – Congratulations! Is she your daughter’s daughter?

-No, é la figlia di mio fratello! Oggi sono diventata zia! – No, she’s my brother’s daughter! Today I became an aunt!


I guess, it could be a bit confusing and it takes a little longer to clarify but sometimes languages don´t make sense.


If you are still reading and you haven´t got an headache yet.. Ciao! Thank you for your patience! We only have a few words left to talk about. You probably already spotted one in the examples above, right? Well done! The next words we´ll see are ¨zio / uncle¨ and ¨zia / aunt¨ and related to those (get the pun? Related…) we have ¨cousins¨ which in Italian translates to ¨cugino¨ or ¨cugina¨ and their plurals of course ¨cugini¨ and ¨cugine¨.


– Luca passa sempre le vacanze di Natale con i suoi cugini. Luca always spends the Christmas holidays with his cousins.


– Sai che Francesca e Michela sono cugine? – Did you know that Francesca and Michela are cousins?

– Davvero? – Really?

– Sí, perché i loro padri sono fratelli.  – Yes, because their fathers are brothers.


Now, we´ve seen all the main family names but the list doesn´t really end here: we haven´t talked about the ¨in laws¨ yet and in Italian there is a word for every one of them but I guess we can leave it for another time and I will end instead with the most common question an Italian grandparent would ask to their grandchildren:


– Ce l´hai il fidanzato/ la fidanzata? Have you got a boy/girlfriend?

Just kidding, that is the second most common question! The first one is:


– Hai mangiato? – Have you eaten?

The MyBelPaese Language Corner is a collaborative series between an American learning Italian in New York City, and two Italian sisters from Ischia who work as Italian teachers and translators.  We aim to mix the perspectives of a person who has remotely learned Italian to a level of comfortable conversation, with the expertise of professional language teachers who are Italian native speakers.  It’s all about helping people in our community who want to learn Italian, get started with this beautiful language. 

If you’ve decided you’d like to learn Italian, you can swing by the Language Corner and add it to your favorites, we’ll keep you posted on new articles to help you stay on track!


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