Some time ago, I published a very personal essay (which I’ll link later) which I simply titled “Italian Is the Best Language; All the Others can Get Stuffed”.
In a world of generic listicles and AI-generated drivel, I wanted to share not just a from-the-heart personal (and mostly tongue-in-cheek) essay about how much joy I have in learning and speaking Italian, but also a general story about how you should really love any language you’re learning.
Let me make something clear: There’s no “best” language, and every language has unique virtues that make it special. I’m a language lover. I speak many languages and am constantly learning more (or brushing up one of the rusty ones). In the past, I’ve fallen (and remain) in love with multiple other languages, for different reasons — French, Egyptian Arabic, Chinese, and more. Each of them has brought me in touch with new friends and new cultures.
Però, to me, out of the many languages I speak, Italian is my favourite language for its linguistic merits alone. It has the most going for it. It has rich dynamic range that spans casual everyday sonority to an irate taxi driver’s invective (plus a load of words that are just fun to say). It includes a rich non-verbal lexicon — Italian is spoken with the hands! And it’s a language that lets me talk about etymology or order food with a mixture of wisdom and snobbery.
So compared to Italian, all the other languages can actually, quite frankly… well, take a back seat, for now.
With that tongue-in-cheek introduction aside, let’s begin!
The Sweet Sound of Italian
Firstly, Italian just sounds nice. Here’s why.
Italian forsakes consonant endings for vowels. It’s extremely rare for an Italian word to end in a consonant. Plurals change from one vowel to another. “One fruit” is un frutto; “all fruits” is tutti frutti.
As an example of Italian’s sweet sound, consider these sentences, riddled with harsh-sounding consonants in English:
- Her black dog does flips and licks chips off the bricks.
- Turns out, cats in hats spark laughs, not trends.
- His quick trick with the stick was slick.
Now consider their Italian equivalents:
- Il suo cane nero fa capriole e lecca patatine dai mattoni.
- Si scopre che i gatti con cappelli provocano risate, non tendenze.
- Il suo trucco veloce con il bastone è stato elegante.
Most Italian words and sentences glide off the tongue. Italian doesn’t have any guttural sounds — no coughing, gurgling, or spluttering mid-word. Italian is smooth and gentle.
Some make claims that other major Romance languages share the same traits. But they’re very different.
French has a reputation for sounding nice. It can, but the combination of nasal vowels and the French guttural r can be pretty unpleasant. “Les renards errants reniflent les restes des repas dans le parc. Hein, Roger ! Ton ragout sent vraiment le renfermé !”
And Spanish is very vowel rich, which is nice, but it’s also likes Italians withes a whollys unnecessaries numbers of “s”s. ¿Pero cuantas veces tenés que pronunciar las eses para que sepamos lo que querés decir? (Yes, that’s intentionally in Argentinian Spanish, which is my preferred mode. Because it reminds me of Italian.)
There are, of course, exceptions to Italian’s sonority. But they’re fun in their own ways. The words that do have some “consonantiness” to them are just fun to say.
Here are a bunch of words that are entertaining to say in Italian and of which I just can’t get enough, and enjoy saying for the hell of it:
And that’s ignoring most of the many, highly entertaining food words to say. Tagliatelle! Stracciatella! Saltimbocca! I could go on. And I will. Pasticcini! Schiacciata! Cantuccini! OK, I’m done. For now.
Even Italian’s grammar is fun when pronouncing it! It keeps you on your toes, because the abundance of spoken vowels mean you can hide nothing.
French speakers may accidentally get a conjugation completely wrong, but nobody notices, because manger, mangé, and mangeais (and many other everyday variants) all sound the same — despite having totally different uses. Not in Italian, where they’re mangiare, mangiato, and mangiavo.
And sometimes, like a verbal game of chess, you have to be thinking a couple of moves ahead. Going to use a participle? Better make sure it agrees with the subject (e.g. le chiavi? Non le ho viste), which is not necessary in Spanish, and not audible in French.
Or perhaps you want to express an opinion? You had better be ready to conjugate the subjunctive, which the Italians use more often than do their European counterparts. And maybe it’s time for a ci or a ce. Does it mean “us”, “to/at a place”, or is it because there’s a reflexive verb? Or is it there just colloquially, to extend a brief phrase, like in “Ce l’hai?“ Let’s find out.
(Oh and by the way, “check mate” is scacco matto. Scacco matto, m-fer!)
From Opera to Cosa Nostra
Let’s move on to Italian’s dynamic range. If there’s one thing people equate with classic Italian personalities, it’s emotiveness. The Italian language matches this, with its range effectively spanning the whole gamut high-end classical music lyrics to ruffians of Italy’s clichéd and storied crime past. (Well, somewhat present, but in a different form.)
From the bel canto of Pavarotti in “O Sole Mio” to the mumbling threats of Il Padrino (the original novels by Mario Puzo that were the basis of The Godfather films), Italian has range. It’s like Sophia Loren in linguistic form.
I know, you can say many languages have “range”. To me, one of the most notable examples is French, which many people know as the “Language of Love”, but which I also appreciate for its huge hip hop indusry (at least, I did, when I was young and more up-to-date) and rich slang lexicon.
But Italian is definitely up there in range. It can sound elegant and beautiful in one moment, to staccato and abrupt in the second, particularly if the second moment is when you’re stuck in traffic in a taxi with a cantankerous driver, probably also gesticulating wildly out the window (see the section on gesticulating wildly below).
Italian can take the most mundane of sentences and transform them into a dramatic monologue.
Take, for instance, the simple phrase “Good luck!” In English, it’s quite literal. In Italian, it’s: “In bocca al lupo!” Literally “In the mouth of a wolf”! I wonder what an Italian’s idea would be of bad luck.
Or to be caught in the act is to be caught “with your hands in the dough”, or avere le mani in pasta. OK, so I like that one just because it has “pasta” in it…
Some consider French an easy language to learn for the English-speaking first-time language learner. French is not too hard, no, in the scheme of things. But be warned that French, with its nasal tones and bizarre fascination for long strings of silent letters, can be almost unintelligible to the language learner. N’est-ce pas ? (Which, in the Italian writing scheme, would be written as a much more friendly “Nes pa?”)
Consider this French sentence: Le beau Rochambeau marchait lentement dans le couloir, admirant les choux dans le jardin de la cour. Try to get your head around how much of that sentence is written but not pronounced.
Then there’s Spanish, another commonly suggested first second language. Aside from getting ready to start making some hissing sounds for all las esses in Spanish, you also need to be prepared to have an accent wherever you go.
Learned Spanish in Spain? Prepare to be considered a conquistador in parts of Latin America. Learned it in Argentina? Get ready to learn the voseo, a whole level of everyday conjugation that feels like the only natural one. Pensálo bien, boludo. Learned in Chile? Prepare to be wholly unintelligible.
Even in the well-known realm of curse words, Italian has some unique features. The poetic invective of Italian swear words is a testament to their creativity. It’s not just about shouting profanities; although, it’s partly that.
But in what other language is cavolo, the word for “cabbage”, a casual curse word? Or in what other language is the phrase “Go and stick it up your arse”, which is also a whole sentence in Italian, slurred into one single word, (delicate readers be warned): Vaffanculo?
In fact, Italian swearwords are so diverse, that people are even familiar with dialectic variants. You can use the Sicilian expression Ma non mi scassare la minchia! the whole country over, and everyone will know you’re telling them not to “break your balls”.
“Ma parla Italiano,” he said, gesticulating wildly
The colour of Italian language doesn’t even stop at the verbal. There’s also the gestures. And it’s not that Italians randomly gesticulate wildly (though they do); there are set expressions for a very diverse range of things.
Commonly used hand gestures include, for a small sampling:
- Hand up in the air, fingers together: “What do you want? / What the hell?” (See image above)
- Like the closing gesture at the end of a symphony: “That was perfect!”
- Poking at cheek, twisting finger: “That was/is delicious!”
- Thumb sliding down side of cheek: “How mischievous/ devious / cunning.”
- Open hands, near pelvis, shaking up and down: “What nerve!” (Literally: Che palle! / “What balls!”)
- Holding open hand up, closing fingers together: “There are loads of people there / it’s really packed” (“Pieno, pieno, pieno“)
- One hand knocking on door: “Sex?” (I admittedly haven’t seen this one in person)
And there are literally dozens more. Learning Italian gestures is to learn a whole language itself.
All these qualities of Italian, the musicality, the physical expressiveness, and even the fun of the grammar, seem to be hardwired into the people themselves. Italian conversation is a central part of society; so much in Italy has do be done through verbal negotiation. If you find a good, up-to-date website (for anything other than a huge business), it’s a small miracle.
Italian Makes You a Better Person (Objectively)
Italian, of course, draws heavily from Latin. Like other Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and some smaller regional languages in Western Europe, most directly), it has many words with which English speakers will be familiar.
So this means that learning Italian is an excellent way of improving your English. For example, once you learn that the word osso (in osso bucco), means “bone”, it helps you learn the meanings of “osteopaths” (one who treats bones), “to ossify” (to become bone-like), or “ostrich” (some kind of beast that presumably has bones).
Oh, and of course, you don’t just speak Italian with people — if they don’t speak it, you speak Italian at them. Italian is the language that affords you the most opportunities to be snobby.
Every time you go to dine at any establishment with something Italian on the menu, you get to casually mention that you know Italian. “I’ll have a piadino, please. No, lol, I don’t want piadini, which is the plural. Yes, I speak Italian,” for example. Or “Yes, I would like a biscotto with my coffee, which is the singular for the biscotti that you offered, but actually, did you know that it’s a cantuccio? That’s right, I speak Italian,” both providing business and educating a non-consenting public simultaneously.
Or you can just unhesitatingly proclaim “I’ll have the tagliatelle al ragù di salsiccia e funghi porcini and the costolette d’agnello alla griglia con salsa di rosmarino with a contorno of melanzane a funghetto con aglio, prezzemolo e peperoncino and, er, some sparkling water, I mean, acqua frizzante. Oh, I meant this one, this one, and this one,” pointing at the menu helpfully. Service staff will sure to be impressed, despite any eye rolling.
So, there you have it. Convinced yet? Italian sounds good, it’s fun to speak, it has massive range, it even transcends the spoken word, it helps you know your own language, and it can be inflicted upon non-speakers.
Once you’ve learned Italian, it opens up a whole world to you — all 60 million Italians! Plus you get a small part of Switzerland.
Oh, bear in mind that in Italy, you may be speaking the less preferred language of people in some regions of Italy, including Northern Italy (the “Lombard” region), the German-speaking Northeast, Sicily, Naples, Piedmont, Abruzzo, and a few others. And when they speak back to you, you might not understand because of their local accent.
But don’t let that deter you. It’s worth the effort. In the mouth of a wolf!
This article was adapted from a post I originally wrote on my personal blog.