September 26th is the European Day of Languages celebrating the rich diversity across Europe and promoting learning. And few countries have more dialects to celebrate than Italy where each town and village has its own particular language. So, as the first thing that a new language student usually learns is how to greet someone – to say hi, good morning and good day for example – here’s how to say hello in Italian to get you off to a great start!!
What does Ciao mean?
Probably the best-known Italian word for hello is Ciao (pronounced chow) which, confusingly, also means goodbye! The word came from the Venetian dialect word s‘ciao a shortened form of Sono suo schiavo or I am your slave.
It was originally the equivalent of At your service in English and was used as a reverential, slightly haughty greeting by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni in his comedies of the 1700s before being introduced into Italian in the 1800s.
Unfortunately, however, although the phrase was originally spoken in formal situations, the word is now used informally between friends, family or with young people and is more like hi than hello. On the positive side ciao can be used at any time of the day and also means goodbye either as a simple ciao or ciao ciao meaning bye-bye.
In formal circumstances, therefore, where you do not know the person you are greeting, when presented to new people or when greeting older people with whom you should use a formal greeting out of respect, you should not use ciao as it is too informal and could cause offence. Or worse, mark you out as an ignorant tourist!
Confused? Don’t worry, it gets easier!!
Buongiorno, saying Good Day
Literally good day, buongiorno (pronounced bwon-jor-noh) is used for formal, polite greetings. It can be used in the morning or afternoon, ie during the day(!), and is a polite way to greet both friends and family and also strangers or new acquaintances. You’re on safe ground with buongiorno unless, of course, you slip up and use it in the evening! Easy eh!
Another couple of ways to say good day are buona giornata (pronounced bwona jornahta) or buon di (pronounced bwon dee) although these are less common.
Note : Buona giornata is also a way of saying good day when, for example, leaving a shop but we’ll get into that another time!
Buon pomeriggio means Good Afternoon
As a variation on buongiorno, buon pomeriggio (pronounced bwon pomereejoh) means good afternoon and should be used, unsurprisingly, in the afternoon after lunch and before dinner – ie after 1pm and up to around 4pm. Told you it got easier!
Buona sera, Good Evening
Buona sera (pronounced bwona seh-rah) is another variation on a theme meaning good evening. This one is a little trickier though, as it can be used after lunch or mid afternoon onwards and throughout the evening.
Some regions seem to use it from as early as 2-3pm onwards whilst others appear to use it later from 4pm onwards. Either way, it’s safe to use in the evenings and is a polite greeting that can be used with everybody!! Phew!
Salve – another suggestion for how to say hello in Italian
And finally we come to salve (pronounced salveh), probably one of the least known Italian greetings. Salve comes from the Latin salvere, meaning to be in good health, and is a useful friendly and polite way to say hello, even in reasonably formal situations. For example, if you are out for your evening passeggiata or stroll around town and want to great someone you don’t know, you could use Salve instead of Buona sera without being too informal or causing offence.
One final point to note if you are learning how to say hello in Italian. If you are presented to someone, say a friend is introducing you their sister or parent, it is polite to shake hands and say Piacere (pronounced pee-ah-chair-eh) which is the equivalent to the English Nice to meet you. You’ll score several brownie points for knowing that one and as Italian life is all about making a good impression you’ll be off to a good start!
Normally, in this situation you wouldn’t be expected to go in for the double air kiss as that’s considered a bit forward on a first meeting. Also, some cities seem to kiss left, then right, as in Venice, or right then left so to play it completely safe, take the lead from the person you’re meeting!
OOOh, and one very last point…..
Italians are a very polite people and always say hello when meeting anyone. This includes when you pass someone in the street (although don’t just greet everyone unless you’re in a small village and trying to make friends otherwise that would be a bit weird!), buying tickets for the train or shopping, for example.
To an Italian, entering a shop is similar to entering a person’s home, something that you’d never do without a greeting. So if you want to make a good impression when travelling in Italy, always make sure to greet the shopkeeper when you enter, even if they’re serving someone, and make sure to say thanks and goodbye as you leave, although I’ll save that lesson for another post!!!
Ciao for now!
European Day of Languages website – http://edl.ecml.at/Home/tabid/1455/language/en-GB/Default.aspx
The European Year of Languages 2001, jointly organised by the Council of Europe and the European Union, was successful in involving millions of people across 45 participating countries. Its activities celebrated linguistic diversity in Europe and promoted language learning.
Following the success of the Year the Council of Europe declared a European Day of Languages to be celebrated on 26th of September each year throughout its 47 member states. The general objectives of the European Day of Languages (EDL) are:
- Alerting the public to the importance of language learning and diversifying the range of languages learnt in order to increase plurilingualism and intercultural understanding;
- Promoting the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, which must be preserved and fostered;
- Encouraging lifelong language learning in and out of school, whether for study purposes, for professional needs, for purposes of mobility or for pleasure and exchanges.
Information on the EDL sourced from the EDL website.