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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

From beer to hairdryers: 10 Italian words that come from German

Italian is widely known to be tied to its Latin roots - closer than any other language, in fact. So it might come as a surprise to know that the Italian language also has Germanic influences. Here are ten Italian words that come from German.

From beer to hairdryers: 10 Italian words that come from German
Bier, birra, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. Photo: Roman Kraft/Unsplash

From household objects to food and drink, you might notice there’s a Germanic ring to certain Italian words.

In fact, if you’ve learned one of these languages, you’ll likely pick up certain vocabulary and grammar of the second one faster. Although German and Italian are from different branches of the linguistic tree, the more you look, the more similarities you see.

READ ALSO: Five easy Italian words with a curious history

Certain northern regions in Italy are bilingual Italian and German, such as South Tyrol (Alto Adige/Südtirol). So, although they may look and sound very different, these are two languages that live in close harmony.

Germany and Italy have had a big impact on each other over the centuries – economically, culturally and, as you’ll see, linguistically too.

Birra

The Italian word for beer comes from the German, Bier. It derives from the 16th century, after which ‘Bier’ got adopted by not just Italian, but also French (bière), English (beer) and Dutch (bier). However, some linguists say that, go much further back, and you’ll find that German actually got this word around the 6th century from vulgar Latin, spoken Latin: biber from the Latin bibere – ‘to drink’.

Bier or birra. Which came first? Photo: Stephan Mahlke/Unsplash

READ ALSO: The top ten Italian words that just don’t translate into English

Trampolo

From the German trampeln, which means – not surprisingly in English – to trample or stomp, this Italian word means ‘stilts’. Well, walking in stilts isn’t exactly graceful. Having two great planks of wood on your feet is much more likely to involve stomping about instead of light tiptoeing. The Italian word can also be used figuratively to mean that you’ve got long legs: ‘Certo che sei arrivato prima con quei trampoli!’ (Of course you got there first with those stilts!).

Phon

It has a slightly different spelling and the vowel sound is a little more open than the German Föhn, but this is almost a direct loan to mean ‘hairdryer’. The origin of this word comes from nature, rather than a plastic household object. A Föhn is a warm wind that appears on the leeward side of mountains, that is the sheltered side, for example the northern side of the Alps in southern Germany. Now you can close your eyes and think about Alpine scenes every time you have a blow dry.

Schermo

Meaning ‘screen’ in English, this word comes from the German Bildschirm, which comes from skerm or skirm – Old High German words meaning protection. They’re believed to have evolved in the 14th century. Who’d have thought that a centuries-old Germanic word for a cover or protection would lead to a term that features in our daily lives in the 21st century?

READ ALSO: Ten Italian words stolen into English and reinvented

Sala

Surely this melodic Italian word for ‘room’ or ‘hall’ can’t come from German? Well, it actually does, but the modern day German translation, Saal, pronounced ‘z-ahl’, makes it sound a bit more logical. Sala comes from the Middle Low German word, sal, to mean room, home or dwelling. This was an evolution from much further back when it was sel, which meant calm or quiet. You can see how the two ideas are linked. A sala today is a room in the house where you unwind and relax.

The Strudel: German or Italian? Photo: Fugzu/Flickr

Strudel

Just like the German word, this is usually a sweet dessert filled with apple, raisins and cinnamon. The recipe is said to date back to the 8th century and is thought to have assumed a variety of names and forms. It was once a famous recipe of Hungary and, thanks to the relations between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, it eventually passed to this German speaking country. In Italy it’s traditionally prepared in Alto Adige, Trentino, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia and is recognised as a traditional Italian product.

Snello

Eat too many Strudel and you won’t be snello for long. This Italian word to mean ‘slim’ or ‘trim’ stems from the German snel. That’s an Old High German term that meant to be active and quick – the current modern version in German is behende. Compare snello with this and they don’t look at all related, but look at the German schnell, which means ‘quick’, and the origins are clear.

Speck. Pronounced “Sh-pek” in German and “Sp-eck” in Italian. Caption: Wright brand bacon/Unsplash

Speck

Another food in Italian that is like its German counterpart and also not great for the waistline. Speck is bacon, perhaps not in the way British people know it, but a type of raw ham from the leg of pork, smoked and matured for a fairly short time. You’ll typically find it in the Italian and German regions of South Tyrol and Bavaria.

READ ALSO: 19 of your favourite Italian words (and some of ours)

Slitta

The areas where German and Italian overlap is often associated with snow-covered landscapes and winter sports, so it’s not so surprising that the Italian word for ‘sledge’ comes from German. Schlitten in German comes from the Middle and Old German sliten, which became gleiten in modern German – ‘to slide’.

Rubare

It turns out Italian is a linguistic thief, pinching from other languages. Rubare means to steal and ironically, Italian stole it from German. Stehlen or, more clearly similar, rauben in German, comes from the Old High German roubon, which meant to rob or to plunder.

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ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Italian expression of the day: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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