Transgender words in Italian

Transgender words in Italian

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

Ok, this has nothing to do with actual sex. During this period of lock-down and being largely confined to the house I have been reading a lot and I always come across curiosities of the Italian language. So with a lot of time on my hands I thought that I’d write about some peculiarities of the Italian language as I sit here in my uniform of sweatshirt and sweatpants.

As many (most?) of you probably know many languages other than English have nouns that have a gender; masculine (maschile) or feminine (femminile). This really complicates the grammar because the corresponding article and adjective needs to have the same gender. One of the challenges for a native english speaker such as myself is getting used to this fact. Almost all nouns that end in an “o” are masculine and then the plural ends in an “i”. Most of the words that end in an “a” are feminine and the plural ends in an “e”. If the noun ends in an “e”, it can go either way, someone told me that about 60% of the time it’s masculine and otherwise feminine. Then there are those that change from masculine in the singular to feminine in the plural which really drives me crazy. A lot of the parts of the body are “transgender”. Examples are:

Il ginocchio , le ginocchia – the knee, the knees
l’orecchio, le orecchia – the eye, the eyes
il dito, le dita – the finger, the fingers (by the way there is no specific word for toe. They are just the “finger of the foot” (“il dito del piede” with the plural “le dita dei piedi”- crazy eh?)

And there are a bunch of others – the words for “eyelash”, “eyebrow”, “bone” that follow the same pattern as well as non-body parts such as “l’uovo, le uova” – egg and eggs.

And of course changing the vowel at the end of a word can completely change the meaning. One example that always comes to mind is: il mento (chin), la mente (mind) and la menta (mint – the herb) and you can add to that the vowel “menti” (you lie) from the verb “mentire” (to lie). This example is only scratching the surface of this change in meaning by changing only the final vowel.

I’m sure that I make errors all of the time but the italians cut me a lot of slack. They understand from context that I didn’t mean an “herb” when I meant to say “mind” just as I understand an Italian that uses an incorrect word in english. And of course from my accent they know that I’m not Italian as soon as I open my mouth and sometimes even before I open my mouth.

And oh,yes. There is the whole thing about pronunciation of words. Italians will often tell me if you see a written word then you can always pronounce it correctly. Well, that too has lots of exceptions. “Ancora” and “ancora” – one is an “anchor” and the other is ” again” or if used with a negative, i.e. “non ancora” it means “not yet” and of course the two words are pronounced differently as are “leggere” and “leggere” one is the verb “to read” and the other is “light” as in light in weight and pronounced differently. Ah the exceptions make life interesting in the world of italian language.

As I read more and more Italian books I find more and more idiomatic expressions. An english example would be “I lost my train of thought” that is; it doesn’t make literal sense since nobody has lost a means of transportation that runs on rails but we all understand it. In italian that would be “ho perso il filo di discorso” which would literally be “I lost the line of conversation”. The more that I learn the Italian language the more aware I am of how much we use idiomatic expressions in english. One example is an expression that I used above “cut me a lot of slack” It seems that I can’t speak more than one sentence without using an expression which makes no sense when translated literally and Italian is much the same – and probably all languages are the same.

Well, I hope that this post hasn’t been too boring. Let me know.

BTW it just came to mind that one relief from the isolation of lock-down is conversations with friends with the app WhatsApp. You can make calls to anywhere in the world with video if the other person has WhatsApp on their smart phone. If you’d like to try it let me know and we can arrange a chat.

Stay safe, wear a mask, stay away from crowds – the vaccine is on the way and hopefully by next fall the world will be approaching normality.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot a saying from a Bacio:

Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.
Alcuni causano felicità ovunque vadano; altri ogni volta che se ne vanno.

Oscar Wilde

And I love comments, you can subscribe, blah blah blah.

4 Responses to “Transgender words in Italian”

  1. Peter Hillen Says:

    HI Joe,
    Very interesting blog post. Ann is teaching an ESL class for San Jose library via Zoom. One of her classes in on idioms and slang. Since its Zoom, her students are from all over the world (SJ doesn’t limit attendance). Class members have a lot of trouble, but often in different ways because they come from different cultures. A thrill a minute.

  2. Joe Says:

    Hi Peter. The more Italian that I learn the more interesting it becomes. I envy Ann being able to do something in the volunteer realm. The volunteering that I have done here for more than 5 years has been completely shut down since last March and I really miss it. Some of the people that I talked with became friends, at least when we were talking together in the library. I hope that it starts up again next fall and I am able to see them again.


  3. Natalie Says:


    Just discovered your blog – not that many people are blogging these days. 🙂 It is a rarity. Learned a lot from this post, thank you! Do you have a list of your favorite Italian words? Currently, mine is “la mucca.” 🙂

  4. Joe Says:

    Hi Natalie, that’s a difficult question. I am really most fascinated by the idiomatic expressions. Like “dare per scontate” which means “take for granted”. Idiomatic in both languages.


    P.S. I just did a new post today.

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