Strangers in the Italian Language

Nov 7, 2010

Foreigners globe blog image

Gli stranieri

The foreigners

“Statunitense?” a hotel clerk in Italy once asked me. When I looked befuddled, he clarified the question: “La Sua nazionalità?”

“No, no,” I vehemently declared. “Sono americana.” He  kindly explained that he had thought that a “United States-er” was, in fact, an American.

Well, yes—even though we don’t identify ourselves as such. It may be a small world (un piccolo mondo), but we remain foreigners (gli stranieri) in other languages, including Italian.

Some countries—such as l’Austria, l’Australia, il Canada,  l’Iraq, and la Russia–go by the same names in English and Italian. But an Austrian is an austriaco; an Australian, an australiano; a Canadian, a canadese;  an Iraqi, an iracheno, and a Russian, a russo. (Italian does not capitalize the words for citizens of any nation, including gli italiani.)

Italian designates–for reasons unknown to everyone I asked–certain nations as masculine (il Brasile, lo Yemen) and others as feminine (la Tailandia, la Turchia). A man from la Spagna is a spagnolo and a woman a spagnola, a male Mexican, a messicano and a female a messicana. Regardless of gender, a citizen of il Belgio (Belgium) is always a belga; two or more are belgi.

La Francia is home of the francesil’Irlanda, of the irlandesi; and la Svizzera, of the svizzeri.   The giapponesi come from il Giappone; the coreani, from la Corea; the cingalesi, from lo Sri Lanka; the bengalesi, from il Bangladesh,  the vietnamiti, from il Vietnam; and the cinesi, from La Cina. The citizens of il Cile (Chile) are cileni; of il Perù, peruviani; of Il Venezuela, venezuelani; and of la Nigaragua, nicaraguensi

All the Scandinavian countries follow the same pattern, with norvegesi from la Norvegia, danesi from la Danimarca, finlandesi from la Finlandia, and svedesi from la Svezia. This is not the case for Africa, where the kenyoti come from Il Kenya, the libici from la Libia, the tunisini from la Tunisia, the marocchini from il Marocco, and the congolesi from il Congo.

English speakers refer to the birthplace of their mother tongue by three names: the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England. The Italian counterparts are il Regno Unito, la Gran Bretagna, and l’Inghilterra. In English, the Dutch come from the country known either as Holland or the Netherlands. In Italian, the olandesi come from l’Olanda or i Paesi Bassi (the low countries).

When Italians ask about my ethnic background, I explain that my grandparents came from la Polonia (Poland). But I was taken aback the first time one responded, “Ah, una polacca!” Although it sounds like the not-very-nice American slang for a Pole, “polacco” and “polacca” are, in fact, the perfectly respectable Italian terms for a Polish man or woman.

The combination of “alla"  plus a nationality refers to a characteristic of a particular country. “Un giardino alla giapponese," for instance, is a garden made in the Japanese style. The Italians call a pert little nose  a “naso alla francese” (in the French style) and  a placemat, a tovaglietta all'americana (in the American style).

When I heard one Italian say to another, "Non facciamo le cose all'italiana" (Let’s not do things in the Italian style), I asked  what this means. Her translation:  "Let's do things properly without improvising too much."

Words and Expressions

Paese che vai, usanza che trovi — Every country  you go to has its own customs

fumare come un turco — to smoke like a chimney

Tutto il mondo è paese ––  All the world is a village.

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

Click below for a classic song about Italians who want to "fare l'americano" (make or act the American):


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