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LEARNING ITALIAN

Boh, mah, eh: Five strange noises Italians make and what they mean

Fancy vocab isn't the only way to impress your friends in Italy - these quirky interjections could actually be the key to sounding like a local.

A group of friends chat on a pier in Sorrento, Campania.
A group of friends chat on a pier in Sorrento, Campania. Photo by Jan Foster on Unsplash

For most Italian-language learners, it’s a familiar scenario: you kick off your learning journey with textbooks and courses to familiarise yourself with all the tricky grammar and vocabulary, but as soon as you start talking to a native speaker, you hear words you’ve never come across before, as well as some slightly confusing noises.

These funny sounds, which are usually referred to as interjections by language experts, can be used to express anything from exhaustion to anger to surprise, or even to check whether the person you’re talking to is listening.

Whether your ultimate goal is to sound like a native or simply add some natural flair to your Italian, it’s worth getting familiar with the most popular interjections and trying to incorporate them in your everyday conversations.

Boh

If you live in Italy, chances are there are a few things that you find slightly puzzling about the country and for which you may have no immediate explanation. 

For instance, why are Italians always so late? Or why are they so obsessed with cleaning

Your answer to both of the above questions may be boh.

READ ALSO: Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

Boh is a common way to say ‘I don’t know’ in informal situations, with Italians often underlining their point by thrusting their chin forward and pulling down their lips.

Remember: boh doesn’t rhyme with ‘oh’ or ‘so’ in English; it sounds more like a ‘buh’. Hear the correct pronunciation here.  

Beh

One vowel can make all the difference in the world in Italian, so be careful not to confuse the above-mentioned boh with beh

Beh (pronunciation available here) is actually a short version of bene, which is the Italian equivalent of the English ‘well’ and can, in most cases, be translated as such.

For instance:

Beh, potrebbe andare peggio. Potrebbe piovere.

Well, it could be worse. It could be raining.

Beh, e’ molto piu’ veloce di quanto pensassi.

Well, he’s way quicker than I thought.

You’ll often find beh followed by senti (‘well, listen…’) or insomma (‘well, not really…’).

Eh

Eh might not be the most beautiful word in the Italian language, but it’s certainly one of the most versatile as it can be used to express a huge variety of emotions – from astonishment to irritation to regret – depending on the tone of voice you use.

Unlike the English ‘eh’, the Italian eh doesn’t rhyme with ‘may’: it’s a short vowel sound, like the one in ‘meh’ (hear its pronunciation here). 

As for how to translate it, eh can be anything from ‘yeah’ to ‘right’ to ‘what?’ .

M’ha chiuso la porta in faccia!

Eh?!

He shut the door in my face!

What?!

Lo conosci?

Eh, e quindi?

Do you know him?

Yeah, so what? 

You can also use it to ask questions, either because you expect someone to agree with you or because you haven’t heard what they said.

Bella giornata, eh?

Nice day, right?

Uffa

If you ever find yourself irritated or annoyed by something in Italy (and you probably will at some point), uffa is one of the best ways to express it in everyday speech.

It means the same as ‘ugh’ or ‘geez’ in English, and is pronounced ‘ooh-fah’, with a very strong emphasis on the ‘f’.

READ ALSO: ‘I’m not Onassis’: Seven things Italian dads say and what they mean

It is very informal, but it isn’t vulgar and you’ll hear people of all ages use it. 

Uffa, ho dimenticato di comprare il sapone.

Ugh, I forgot to buy the soap.

Mah

Mah (hear it pronounced here) is one of the most popular ways to express doubt or uncertainty about something that may or may not happen in the future. Think of it as a short version of chi lo sa? (‘who knows?’). 

Come pensi andra’ a finire?

Mah…Non ho una palla di cristallo purtroppo.

How do you think it will pan out?

Who knows…I don’t have a crystal ball unfortunately.

You can also use it to tease someone.

Mi stai preparando una sorpresa per l’anniversario di matrimonio?

Mah! Vedremo…

Are you preparing a surprise for our wedding anniversary?

Who knows! We’ll see…

Mah can sometimes be used interchangeably with boh, though boh is more commonly used with things that the speaker doesn’t know about but other people may, whereas mah generally applies to situations or outcomes that no one can possibly know about as they haven’t happened yet.

Do you have another favourite Italian interjection that’s not on this list? Let us know in the comments section below.

Member comments

  1. Italians in Veneto often make a clicking sound with their tongue. This means “no’. And it can be very embarrassing until you learn it!

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LEARNING ITALIAN

11 Italian words that are originally Arabic

If you speak Italian on a regular basis, chances are that you're using Arabic words too – probably without even knowing it.

11 Italian words that are originally Arabic

Out of around 230,000 words making up the Italian vocabulary, over 23,000 are considered to be of foreign origin.

And though Arabic may not have had as big of an influence on Italian as other foreign languages, including Greek, English, Spanish and French, the Italian vocabulary still counts over 600 arabismi – words borrowed directly from Arabic which have become so integrated into everyday language over the centuries that most people don’t even know they weren’t Italian to begin with.

Here’s a look at some of the most common ones.

Caffè

Coffee is a quintessential element of Italian culture and identity, but the word for the drink actually comes from the Arabic word qahwa.

Qahwa first made its way to Italy in the 16th century, when Venetian traders brought it back from the Ottoman empire.

Coffeehouses started popping up in Venice in the late 17th century, and by the mid-1700s there were over 200 of them, with customers often including some of the greatest artists, writers and poets of the time.

Over the centuries, coffee became a staple of Italians’ diet and an integral part of the country’s social life.

Zucchero

If you’re not a fan of black coffee and tend to soften its bitter, earthy aroma with one or two teaspoons of sugar, bear in mind that the Italian word zucchero (which gave origin to the English ‘sugar’ by way of the Old French term sukere) also comes from an Arabic word: sukkar

READ ALSO: Nine of the most popular Italian ‘bottom’ expressions

We can thank the Arabs not just for the word, but also for bringing sugar to Europe after they settled in Spain’s Andalusia region in the 8th century and in Sicily in the early 9th century.

Tazza

Even the tazza (‘cup’) you sip your morning cappuccino out of is an Arabic borrowing, as it comes from ṭāsa, originally meaning ‘bowl’.

Porcelain coffee cups displayed in the Antico Caffe Greco in Via dei Condotti, central Rome

Much like coffee and sugar, the Italian word for ‘cup’ is of Arabic origin. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Azzurro

The national flag may be red, white and green, but when it comes to sports, Italians are all about a different shade: azzurro (or ‘azure’), a specific shade of bright blue which the Treccani Italian dictionary defines as being “the colour of a clear sky”.

Both the Italian word and its English equivalent come from the Arabic word lāzaward, which originally referred to lapis lazuli, a particular type of blue stone mined in what is now northern Afghanistan.

You can see the same root in the Spanish word azul and the French azur.

Ragazzo

The word ragazzo (which means ‘kid’, or ‘young man’ but is often extended to refer to friends or acquaintances of any age) is believed to derive from the Arabic word raqqa sò, which originally meant ‘messenger boy’ and is still used in some regions of northern Africa to mean ‘postman’.

READ ALSO: The essential vocabulary you’ll need for an Italian summer

Raqqa sò later evolved into the late Latin ragazium and then the Italian ragazzo, and the meaning got diluted so that now it simply means ‘boy’.

Alcol

Inhabitants of the peninsula now known as Italy have been fermenting cereals and grapes to make alcoholic drinks for millennia, but the word alcol is a more recent import.

The Italian word for alcohol comes from the Arabic word kohl, which was used to signify a “very fine antimony powder”.

In the 16th century, Spanish speakers took the term kohl and turned it into alcohol, which then meant “a very fine and pure element” of which the “essence was obtained through distillation” – which we today know as the magic little ingredient found in Italian wine, beer and a host of other tipples.  

Magazzino

Magazzino (‘warehouse’) is another word the Italians borrowed from the Arab world as it comes from maḵāzin, meaning ‘storeroom’ or ‘storehouse’. 

Albicocca

Apricots are a national favourite when it comes to mid-afternoon snacks (or merende) in the summer months, but the Italian word albicocca isn’t very Italian at all as it comes from al-barqūq, meaning ‘plum’ in Arabic.

Apricots pictured in the fruits and vegetables section of a supermarket.

Apricots are a popular mid-afternoon snack in Italy, but their name isn’t originally Italian. Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP

Giubbotto

The Italian word giubbotto, meaning ‘jacket’, comes from the old Italian word giubba, which in turn derived from the Arabic jubba.

Jubba originally referred to a long tunic worn by men in the Arab world. It is even mentioned in the Islamic Hadith, which contains the teachings of prophet Muhammad.

Divano

There are very few things as satisfying as slumping against the cushions of your couch after a hard day of work.

The Italian word for couch, divano, is also of Arabic origin. 

The word dīwān originally described registry offices in the Ottoman empire, where scribes would work while sitting on cushions.

Meschino

The word meschino exists in French and Spanish too as mesquin and mezquino, but comes from the Arabic miskīn, which means ‘poor’. 

Italians use it to describe something as ‘paltry’ or ‘scant’ (for instance uno stipendio meschino is a ‘meagre salary’) or to say that someone is ‘mean’ and ‘contemptible’ (for instance, un parente meschino is a ‘mean relative’). 

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