Che? Che Cosa?
In any language “what” makes the world go round. We always want to know “what’s that?” (che cosa è quello?), “what’s happening?” (che succede?), “what for?” (per che cosa?) and “what’s the matter?” (che cosa c’è?).
In Italian the pronoun che or the noun cosa (thing) can be used alone or together. “Come vanno le cose?” (How are things?) you may ask or be asked. If you don’t know what to do, say, “Non so che cosa fare.” People may offer you the philosophical advice, "Che sarà, sarà" (What will be, will be). And if they break into the classic Doris Day song, that would be un bel che (a fine thing)!
When travelling, here’s what you should know:
What Do You Need?
Forgot your toothbrush (spazzolino da denti)? Don’t have a power adapter (adattatore)? Want an aspirin (aspirina) for your headache? The Italian phrase to use is “avere bisogno di ” (literally, to have need of). In the first person singular, you say “ho bisogno di…” For instance, ho bisogno di una forchetta pulita (I need a clean fork).
What do You Want?
"Cosa prende?"( What are you having?) a waiter may ask. “I want” translates as “voglio,” a phrase one of my first Italian teachers dismissed as “only for babies.” A polite grown-up says “vorrei” (I would like), as in “vorrei un menu”(I’d like a menu). My instructor, insisting that I learn to ask for what I want “come una signora, come una duchessa” (like a lady, like a duchess), taught me an alternative to use in formal circumstances: “Mi piacerebbe” (it would be pleasing to me). Like “Open Sesame!” it has worked magically to produce whatever I’ve desired.
What Do You Mean?
This question translates as “Che cosa vuoi dire?” (literally, what do you want to say?) If you understand someone’s words, say “ho capito” (Italians use the past tense, “I understood,” to indicate comprehension). If you don’t, say, “non ho capito.” If you’re stumped by a word, ask, “Che significa questa parola?” (What does this word mean?)
What Are You Doing?
“Che fai?” (What are you doing?) you often hear Italians ask their children or friends. To ask a stranger the same question, use the polite form: Che cosa fa? What do I do in Italy? Mangio (I eat). Vado (I go). Vado a piedi (literally I go by foot) or walk. Guardo (I look). Nuoto (I swim). Compro (I buy). Mi diverto (I enjoy myself).
Just like the English what, che does double-duty as an exclamation. To sound thoroughly Italian, make liberal use of phrases such as “Che bello!” (how lovely), “Che carino!” (How cute), “Che confusione!” (what a mess) and “Macchè!” (not at all).
Words and Expressions
Che avete? -- What do you have? What’s the matter with you (plural)?
È una cosa da nulla –- it’s nothing
Fare la cosa giusta -- to do the right thing
Ogni cosa a suo tempo -- there’s a time for everything
Da cosa nasce cosa –- one thing leads to another
Non è cosa -– It’s not the right time; it’s not a good idea.
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.