Nose Knows Best: How Latin tricks Italians

Althea Sovani

If, like me, you are an Italian studying Classics outside your home country, you will most certainly have been told the same thing: ‘Latin must be easy for you!’ It’s a common idea that Latin should almost come as second nature to us Italians. As the heirs to Rome, speakers of a Romance language, we should learn Latin fairly easily.

Italy certainly trains quite a remarkable number of Latinists. Leaving universities aside, every year around a million students study Latin in Italian high schools. The Liceo Classico is the showpiece of classical studies in Italian secondary education. Originally designed by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile in 1923, its curriculum centres around the Humanities, primarily ancient Greek and Latin. There are more than 730 Licei Classici in Italy, mostly state funded. Latin is also compulsory in many other types of high schools, including the science-oriented Liceo Scientifico.

For a classicist like me, these numbers have always been a cause for great national pride. But the fact that Italy is one of the major cradles of European classicists in no way suggests that Italians are particularly gifted at Latin – although we sometimes like that idea! As a non-native anglophone struggling with the complexities of English vowels, I find it very tempting to show off by reading some Vergil to my British friends. While the English trip over trilled r’s, Italians can recite ancient verse fluently. Many Latin sounds, especially vowels, change in the passage to Italian, but there are no Latin letters that an Italian would have any trouble pronouncing. Although phonology is a source of great satisfaction and revenge against English alveolars, when it comes to understanding texts, it is obviously of little help.

Italians do not generally understand Latin without studying it, and studying it well. Nor does speaking a Romance language allow us to learn Latin especially quickly. In the Liceo Classico, Italian students spend five years (ages 14-19) learning Latin, focusing on grammar in the first two, and reading literature (both in the original and in translation) in the remaining three.

The advantages of speaking Italian are primarily lexical. Many Latin words look more or less familiar to an Italian speaker. Some words are identical: Latin panem > Italian pane ‘bread’; others are recognisable, L. bibere > It. bere ‘to drink’; a few have even entered Italian in exactly their original form as idiomatic expressions, such as ex novo, meaning ‘from scratch’. English, whose lexicon is heavily influenced by Latin, often via Old French, has a few Latin idioms too (think of ad hoc, or the true mark of English formal writing, i.e., which stands for the Latin id est ‘that is’ but, interestingly, is never used in Italian).

The Indovinello Veronese (‘Riddle of Verona’), the first text regarded as ‘Early Italian’ rather than ‘Late Latin’

To recognise the connections between Italian words and their more or less distant Latin ancestors is an invaluable skill. My Classics professor at high school called it naso etimologico, literally an ‘etymological nose’, by which he meant good linguistic intuition. Passionate about philology, he dreamt of turning his students into grammar hounds.

For those of us who merely aspired to survive Caesar’s oratio obliqua, having a naso etimologico sadly amounted to what we Italians call tradurre con la pancia, or ‘translating with your belly’, that is ‘by instinct’. This is never a good strategy, and invariably proved fatal, because vocabulary is a two-edged sword: words do not just change their shape, but they also often change their meaning. Latin is full of false friends – tempting traps for the incautious Italian.

In Italian testa means ‘head’, in Latin ‘potsherd’. The standard word for ‘house’ in Italian is casa, but in Latin, casa meant nothing more than ‘hut’. The Italian cavallo can refer to any type of horse, from the thoroughbred to the nag, while the Latin caballus was only the ‘pack-horse’. Unlike Italian cavalieri, no Roman would have ever mounted a caballus to go to war!

In truth, you will encounter casa and caballus fairly rarely in Latin, for the Rome of which we read is very infrequently the Rome of hut-dwellers. There are, however, also false friends that are ubiquitous in Latin authors. For example: mandare, which in Italian means ‘to send’, is ‘to commit’ or ‘command’ in Latin. As for sella: in Latin it means ‘seat’; in Italian: ‘saddle’.

Let us take a few lines from Vergil and make an attempt at ‘translating with our belly’.

Conspicit ingentem concursum, et litora lustrat,

desertosque videt portus classemque relictam. (Aeneid 5.611-12)

Now, a fairly literal, but correct translation could be:

She observes the vast assemblage, and surveys the shores,

and sees the harbours deserted and the fleet abandoned.

For an Italian, these verses contain quite a few false friends:

  Latin                                                                Italian

concursum = ‘assemblage’                                  concorso = ‘contest’

lustrat = ‘surveys’                                                lustra = ‘cleans’

classem = ‘fleet’                                                   classe = classroom

The Italian trusting her instinct would get quite another idea of the passage:

She observes the vast contest, and cleans the shores,

and sees the harbours deserted, the classroom abandoned.

In a bold change of scenery, we have introduced a seaside school and turned the goddess Iris into a teacher distracted by obsessive-compulsive cleaning.

Iris watches over the Trojan women burning their ships (Grüninger Master, 1529)

Such an interpretation is so odd that even the staunchest supporter of instinctive translations would have some doubts. Absurdity is a good shield against false friends. The more peculiar our translation looks, the more we will be alert. But sometimes the differences are more subtle. The most insidious of false friends tend to be those words that encode social or ethical values. The multifarious meanings of pietas and caritas, real scourges for the translator, are barely covered by the Italian pietà and carità, which are semantically much more limited and coloured by a Christian element absent from their Classical Latin equivalents. The list could be almost endless. There is hardly any word expressive of the code of values of Cicero and the Roman elites whose meaning did not change in its long passage into Italian.

At the end of the De coniuratione Catilinae (On Catiline’s Conspiracy), Sallust describes the death of Cicero’s great enemy, the political subversive Catiline, who lies paululum etiam spirans ferociamque animi … in voltu retinens, ‘not yet breathless and preserving his fierceness of spirit on his face’. Sallust’s Catiline is a man of many contradictions, a prodigious blend of cleverness, charm and corruption. Despite morally condemning him, Sallust occasionally betrays his admiration. The Latin noun ferocia conveys all this: its sense is deeply ambivalent, combining the negative quality of savageness and the positive virtue of courage. In Italian, ferocia only has negative connotations. If we read this word from an Italian perspective, the ambiguity of Catiline’s personality and of Sallust’s attitude is completely lost.

Language and culture are intrinsically connected. All the same, you could still think that, if your aim is to pass a test, these are relatively subtle differences. Perhaps, as a last resort, if you are careful enough to avoid the most blatant mistakes, tradurre con la pancia could still work. But a language is not only its lexicon. It results from how words interact with each other: their ‘morphology’, that is how words change their shape as they change meaning; and the overarching structure above these interactions, or ‘syntax’. Both Latin morphology and syntax changed radically in the transition to Italian, often in connection to one another. The Latin cases were lost; articles were introduced; and the verbal system was substantially modified. Above all, Latin is syntactically a much more rigid language than Italian, from its schematic sequence of tenses (the much-feared consecutio temporum) to the construction of most of its clauses.

Studying a language demands great commitment; for Italian students there is no exception. If anything, we must be more cautious not to fall into traps of similarity. Closeness to Latin may hinder Italians more than it helps us, if we rely on that proximity too carelessly. Only when our knowledge of Latin is solid enough on its own terms, can Italians overcome our belly with an ‘etymological nose’ and follow the many tracks that somehow transformed Latin into their everyday speech.


Althea Sovani is an undergraduate in Classics with Sanskrit at Somerville College, Oxford. She is also Secretary of the Oxford Latinitas project.