In Italian pronouns are a monster.  They wash up on the beach like that horrible dead fish in the final scene of La Dolce Vita and we all stand around in class, like Marcello Mastroianni’s crew, discussing how damn gross it is.


Tiny little words innocently fill adorable, perfectly symmetrical little charts.  Surely, they must be easier than the more insidious mighty Latin variety?  No.  They aren’t.


They seem innocent enough.  They even sound like a song; lo li la le, mi, ti, ci, and it gets positively operatic with  glielo, gliela, glieli, and gliele.  Good luck with the “gli” sound in this aria.


What kills me is that I can get by in almost all Italian conversations these days, but I have the horrible foreign habit of just repeating the subject and the object.  You have the book for me?  Yeah, I have the book for you!  Rewiring my brain to avoid “it” is blazing new trails through the gray matter.  The problem with Italian pronouns is that they roll off my fast-talking take no prisoners New York tongue too quickly for me to catch the mistakes in my mouth.


Italian sympathy for this problem is empathy.  None of the native Italian teachers that I have had are quite able to explain the rules clearly.  The pronouns just are what they are.  “You just have to listen”, Lavinia told us in a determined tone this morning.  She knows a student is good when they have the verbs down, she knows they are VERY good when they use pronouns with ease.  But it was nothing to worry about.  She told this story because of the wide-eyed, frustrated, abjectly fearful faces that glared at her when she walked into class at 9am and asked if we had done the homework.


The entire class, except for me, is Swiss German speaking.  I’m the kid at the end of the lunch table.  Pleasantly tolerated, but not really a part of the club.  “Whatever”, I told myself.  “I don’t like chocolate anyway”.  When they asked me if I had difficulty with the homework and I responded that I did not just have difficulty, it was impossible, I was in.  Welcome to the club! German and English work one way and then there is Italian. We needed a common enemy to unite under a common flag.


Lavinia patiently and sympathetically fielded questions for two hours. She sent us off into the world to sit in a coffee shop and listen.  There is no other way.  Perhaps because she feared that none of us would show up in class tomorrow and she would be alone, she promised a day of verbs. Basta pronomi!


I set off into the world looking for sympathy.  On my way home from class I heard “Cristina, Cristina!!” from down the piazza.  It’s always exciting to run into a person I have known in the city for a decade.  In this case it was a delightful woman who knew me, and put up with me, when I could count the useful Italian phrases that I knew on one hand.  Elisabetta came tearing around the square on her bike.  “Welcome back! How’s the family?”.  I mentioned that we were studying pronouns in class today and her face automatically crinkled in empathetic pain.  She apologized like it was her fault.  To lighten the mood, I told her that, if worse comes to worse, I would watch Peppa Pig daily until I sorted it out.  Toddlers right? Surely they had to teach this stuff to toddlers?


Or maybe caffeine would help me to see it all clearly.  Making my daily appearance in Caffe Giubbe Rosse, the new owner asked how I was.  An innocent question, but I gave him an earful about the insanity of his language and we laughed through a “lo” bevo.  He obviously spent extra time making that cappuccino perfectly and spared me the lecture about how it was too late in the day for one.  I am not sure if this extra effort was to brighten my mood or to keep me from cracking.  It might have been the latter.


I haven’t received words of wisdom, but when aspects of a language don’t make sense to its own people you can rest assured that it is all going to be okay.  Peppa Pig it is.


  1. Jim

    Also you have been cursed with your dad’s DNA. I must be missing the language gene, I’ve tried my hand at a bunch, but to no avail. Soooooo….. Great job on your success so far??

    • Christine Contrada

      That explains it. The Contrada curse, or at least one of many curses, ha! Too bad that our genetics don’t help! 😉

  2. Paula

    And then there is Chinese. All context. No clear pronouns. Simpler for us going from English to Chinese, but throws them into chaos going from Chinese to English. And now that younger Americans are asking for more complex pronoun usage – a gender neutral person wanting to be referred to as “they” – or a woman who looks like a man wanting still to be referred to as “she” – well my Chinese friends are struggling. And I am struggling to explain it. Have never mastered another language although I love languages. It is clearly not going to happen. But I do so admire those who can do it. And you can. I am impressed!

    • Christine Contrada

      Oh, wow. Yes, gender usage defies what students learn in textbooks. Sometimes I think with languages that you just have to hit the streets and be okay with making mistakes left and right. I am SO impressed that you tackled Chinese. Talk about bravery! Major kudos. And thanks so much for reading about my escapades. 🙂

    • Christine Contrada

      I KNEW you would understand! 🙂 At least we can laugh about it. These things are so perfectly Italian and timeless. Thanks so much for reading and for the kind compliment!

Leave a Reply