Brainfood: Italian Plurals in English

Wednesday, July 24, 2013



Every once in a while I think I'll share something fun and interesting that I've learned or discovered. And it'll be about anything—the only requirement is that it peaks my interest and might possibly peak yours as well. I call this feature...Brainfood. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Today I'd like to share something I noticed in the English language that involves words borrowed from Italian. (Disclaimer: I've never formally studied Italian.) It makes for a sweet fun fact to bring up at dinner parties, I promise.

But before I get there, let me lay out for you two types of nouns in English (bear with me, okay?) Count nouns and mass nouns. Count nouns are just what they sound like—nouns that you can count when expressing quantity. For example, cat. One cat, two cats, the cat lady had 12 cats. You can apply regular pluralization to these nouns and attach numbers to them. They're your prototypical nouns.

And then there are mass nouns. These are the words that force us to use phrases like "some of," "a piece of," "a lot of," "a little," etc. Some of the wood, a piece of paper, a lot of salt, a little pasta. You see the difference?

Anyhow, I can think of a number of nouns that we have borrowed from Italian: broccoli, ravioli, spaghetti, paparazzi, confetti, graffiti. We use all of these as mass nouns in English; therefore we don't mess with pluralization when we use them. But did you know that these are the plural forms in Italian? (The "i" often indicates a plural.) That means, in Italian, these words have singular forms.

Long story short, observe:

broccoli. broccolo.
ravioli. raviolo.
spaghetti. spaghetto.
paparazzi. paparazzo.
confetti. confetto.
graffiti. graffito.

Bam.

These singular forms mean exactly what you think they do! A piece of ravioli is a raviolo. One strand of spaghetti is a spaghetto. And so on.


There are two more I can think of, only we treat them as singular nouns in English: panini (panino) and cannoli (cannolo). I dare you to use the "true" singular forms the next time you go to a café.

All I can think of now: "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." Was he talking about more than one? Do you know?

2 comments :

  1. I am so ordering a panino, with a single broccolo as my side.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Were I on Facebook right now, I would hit "like" (:

    ReplyDelete