So, what does language reveal about Roman values?
Romans are full of phrases and sayings, which they use multiple times a day in all types of contexts. One cannot help but to hear an ‘allora’ or ‘va bene’ added into a conversation with an Italian, even if the dialogue has been primarily in English. Two of these types of phrases, however, are especially distinctive in Rome. Both the saying, “in bocca al lupo,” and the utterance, “pronto,” are integral parts of Romans’ daily lives, and speak to the city’s specific culture and values.
“In bocca al lupo” – translates to “into the wolf’s mouth,” to which one responds “crepi il lupo,” or “may the wolf die.” In a way, one can draw a parallel between the American phrase, “break a leg,” and this one. Along these same lines, Italians utter this when someone is preparing for an important instance for which they are nervous and feeling uncertain about.
Here is an example of how one would see this exchange take place:
- A friend of someone preparing for a big soccer match or exam will say, “in bocca al lupo!” – basically, “take care as you enter into the wolf’s mouth” – before they go warm-up or head to the classroom.
- In response, that person will then say, “crepi il lupo” – essentially, exclaiming that the wolf will be defeated.
- Under no circumstances will the friend respond with a “thank you” or “grazie.” That would be extremely bad luck. Similarly, no one would ever wish another Italian good luck with a more direct translation, such as “auguri” or “buona fortuna. (Tylus, 2010)
But, where did this saying come from?
Though the phrase is used all throughout Italy and no one is certain of its origin, many Italians believe it to have begun in Rome. This is due to the myth surrounding the founding of ancient Rome. In an article in La Gazzetta Italiana celebrating Rome’s birthday, Diana Hayes elaborates on the myth. Hayes is the author of La Bella Lingua, a book on the long history of Italian culture and language.
- In short, Roman mythology states that the city was founded on Palentine Hill by two twin-brothers, Romulus and Remus, sons of the god Mars.
- The king of the then Latin town Alba Longa, tried to kill the boys, placing them in a basket on the Tiber River.
- The reason the brothers survived, was because of a she-wolf, and subsequently they came back to defeat the king. (Ancient Rome, 2012)
- This story of Rome’s origin, involving a she-wolf, points to the use of the term “wolf” in the saying.
Clearly, “wolf” is a dominant theme in Roman culture in general. Note the symbol of the animal that is plastered all over Rome, displayed in the above image. Many Romans believe the phrase to have stemmed from the two boy’s good luck in finding the she-wolf. (Hales, 2012)
There is definitely a common symbolism and history to this phrase – but why is “in bocca al lupo” so integral and its use so widespread?
The Italian culture emphasizes luck and superstition. The people can be very superstitious about certain things. If you want to hear more about Italian superstitions, listen to NPR’s Scott Simon talk with Martin Stiglio, director of the Italian Cultural Institute.
For instance, the number seventeen is unlucky, and one should never call an Italian’s baby beautiful. They also have a lot of thoughts on what brings people good fortune, as well. Therefore, wishing danger, or the mouth of a wolf, upon someone when intending them success in their venture is a ritual in which Italians have come to place a lot of faith. “In bocca al lupo,” demonstrates a cultural value of superstition, and whether it is truly believed in by the majority of those who say it or not, it has become a well-known, almost unanimously practiced social ritual.
“Prego!” – This word falls into a category all its own in the Italian language. The way the translation is taught to English-speakers is that “prego” means “you’re welcome.” Thus, one is to say it following “grazie,” or “thank you.” This simple utterance is deceiving, however, because Italians – Romans in particular – use the word “prego” in so many more contexts than in response to “grazie.”
“Prego” is a word with multiple purposes. To start simply, there are about four direct definitions for the word based on the context in which it is used:
- “You’re welcome” – as we already covered.
- It can additionally mean, “How can I help you?” – if for instance a waiter is ready to take your order.
- The world can invite you to “come in,” if someone is gesturing for you to enter inside his or her home.
- Finally, it can mean “after you” or “excuse me.” (Eggleton, 2010)
Though this is often referred to as the magic word of Italy because foreigners can utter it, and usually be correct, it can also be a cause of confusion, especially for those who have been taught its meaning as strictly “you’re welcome.” Thus, it is crucial that one be aware and receptive of the CONTEXT in which it is used, for that changes the meaning.
- Italians love to speak dramatically, with gestures and hand movements to articulate points. One can uses these as indicators of how “prego” is being used in the situation. Pay attention to tone of voice, inflection, context, and nonverbal cues to see the meaning behind the word.
- “Prego,” is not limited to the four rough translations provided above. It can really be used for any means of acting as an attention-getter.
- “Prego” can be used as an untranslatable reprimand or sign of affection.
- It is also a conjugation of a verb, meaning, “I pray.” Italians will use this in religious contexts of course, but also in exclamation, almost as sort of a sigh or with a “woe is me” type of connotation.
- If one rolls their eyes upon stating, “ti prego,” they mean, “give me a break.” If, rather, they simply place their hands out in a prayer formation, they are insinuating, “I beg” or “have mercy.” (Cardini & Falcone, 2008)
Wait, will this word really be used that much in Rome?
Si si si! “Prego” will be asked of individuals everywhere from waiting in line to order gelato, to when one needs to speak-up, even to when one needs to listen closely. The Sistine Chapel guards use it to reprimand tourists talking and taking pictures inside – which is not allowed. (Arlow & Rooney, 2010)
It is nearly impossible to master “prego’s” use until one has spent a great deal of time interacting with native Italian speakers. Even then, though one may know what context to use it in, they most likely will not know exactly how it is being translated in all cases, just that it is at least being used appropriately. Essentially, the key to understanding “prego’s” usage is to listen to how it is being expressed.
Why is this such a special word?
I think “Prego” is so special because of how I saw it adapted to suit the many needs of Romans and Italians as a whole in their cultural lives. So, why has this become such a majorly used utterance?
- On a larger scale, the Italian culture and its language seem to not be confined to a set, strict structure, in contrast to certain other culture’s linguistic styles. It appears there is room for creation of these all-encompassing terms, and the presence of less formal, “slang,” responses. Just because a word is not being utilized in the way in which it was originally intended, does not tend to make its usage in that context incorrect to Italians.
- Additionally, it makes sense to me that Romans especially would create a multipurpose word centered on getting people’s attention. Social interaction and conversation is crucial to the culture from my own experience, and so developing a word that is easy to use and immediately transmits a recognizable message works within this cultural framework. For example, on a busy mornings when swinging by a cafe on my way to class, I knew when the employee nodded at me and exclaimed the word, he meant, ‘ready?’ It was apparent based on the context, and his nod and gesture. I couldn’t attribute any of the word’s other meanings to this exchange. The reference was unmistakable.
- Italian’s pride themselves on the beauty of their language. The ability to make such a trivial word lyrical, based on how it is stated, is a tribute to their love of their native tongue. (Cardini & Falcone, 2008)
- Finally, since Italians culturally are so expressive with their dialogue and nonverbal indicators, a word like this does not seem to cause confusion in meaning amongst them, as it may for cultures less prone to this type of communication style.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway for what language reveals about Roman and Italian cultural values is that the people are great communicators, verbally and nonverbally, and place high importance on this skill. They have a desire for the elaborate. Everything from architecture, to history, to dress, to food, to art reflects this quality. Thus, language must also be extraordinary.
Ancient Rome. (2012). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507905/ancient-Rome
Arlow, S. & Rooney, J. (2010). Let’s Go Rome, Venice & Florence: The Student Travel Guide. Boston: Harvard Student Agencies, Inc.
Cardini, L. & Falcone, L. (2008). Italian, It’s All Greek to Me: Everything You Don’t Know about Italian Language and Culture. Oakland: RDR Books.
Eggleton, P. (2010). Prego – A Useful Word. Italy. Retrieved from http://www.italymag.co.uk/italy-featured/language-tip-week/prego-useful-word
Hales, D. (2012). Rome’s Birthday is April 21: A celebration in Italian Phrases. La Gazzetta Italiana. Retrieved from http://www.lagazzettaitaliana.com/romebirthday.aspx
Simon, S. & Stiglio, M. (2004, October 23). Italian Superstitions. NPR Broadcast. Broadcast retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4123771
Tylus, J. (2010) Class of 2010 Convocation: Remarks from Jane Tylus, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. Retrieved from NYU Silver School of Social Work: http://www.nyu.edu/socialwork/students/graduation.tylus.html