AO! M’HAI SENTITO?! Roman dialect is the language within the language on the streets of Rome
People the world over swoon over the Italian language. Next to French it’s the most romantic language in the world, a conversational song seemingly written for lovers and poets. Nearly every word ends softly, with a vowel, like a feather landing on a four-poster bed.
But buried under the Dolomite-high pile of frothy adjectives and illuminating nouns sits a local dialect few outside the streets of Rome know. If you heard it, you wouldn’t swoon. You might cringe, just from the sound. Then you might gasp from the meaning.
Take this phrase that is creeping more into my daily conversation: Li mortacci tua!
That loosely means, “Your entire family is dead!” It even sounds evil, doesn’t it? The word mortacci sticks in my throat, like a dagger getting ready to be flung across a room. Where does the phrase come from? No, it’s not Italian.
It’s Roman. That’s the local dialect, one I often hear as much as classic Italian. It’s distinct, often crude with a sub-dialect that’s devoted entirely to profanity. No, “Your entire family is dead” carries no dirty words. But in Italy, where the nuclear family remains as tight as layers of lasagna, it is not good to say someone’s family got hit by a Fiat.
It’s part of a street slang that I’m picking up after five years living in the heart of Rome. Classic Italian is hard enough. Blend in dialects, ranging from regional to some varying from village to village, and it’s no wonder one part of the country doesn’t know what the other is doing.
When Marina and I travel around Italy listening to locals, she often has the same blank expression as when we were in Hungary. In Naples, the dialect seems so violent, added by the Neapolitans’ nature to scream when merely asking for the parmesan, every conversation sounds ready to end in a knife fight. The Sardo language in Sardinia has more apostrophes than commas.
The Trentino dialect of Alto Adige in the north sounds like you’re in Berlin. Sicilian in the south is so different, Italian is almost considered a second language.
In Italy, you can’t tell the language without a linguist. It wasn’t until 1861 when Italy became united did Italian become the official national language. Benito Mussolini went so far to further unite the people, he banned German names for road signs in Alto Adige. Fat good that did. All signs today in Bolzano, Alto Adige’s capital, are bilingual.
Here in Rome, it’s even more complicated. People don’t even know what to call their dialect which goes in lockstep with everything else in this chaotic city. Depending on whom you talk to, it’s either called Roman, Romanesco or Romanaccio.
Its original name was Romanesco. Once considered closer to Neapolitan than Florentine, the dialect became more northern with the election of two Medici popes from Florence. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, a large immigration moved south from Tuscany, now considered home to the most classic Italian. Many Tuscans today sound like graduates of the Rai School of Broadcasting.
Poets and writers made Romanesco famous, particularly Gioachino Belli (1791-1863) whose collection of poems in “Sonetti Romaneschi” became a huge source of pride to 19th century Romans and their culture.
Still, until Rome became Italy’s capital in 1861, Romanesco was only spoken inside the walls of the city. Read Romanesco today, and it’s a mind-bending collection of doubled identical consonants, mangled nouns and weirdly placed apostrophes. One of Belli’s lines is “Io so’ io, e vvoi nun zete un cazzo.” (I am me and you’re not a fucking thing.)
You don’t see this much anymore. In fact, many scholars say it’s a dying dialect. I sometimes heard it in my old neighborhood of Testaccio, where many locals are as old as some of Rome’s monuments. But I never heard it from anyone under 60.
What you hear in its place is a modernized version I simply call Roman or, in Italian, Romano. You know those pretty little syllables that hang off Italians’ words and their tongues? In Roman, they’re gone. Romans eat their words, like they’re pizza slices and their pausa (afternoon break) is ending soon. Baristas often call my cappuccino a cappucc (pronounced ka-POOCH). Andiamo (Let’s go) becomes nnamo. Mangiamo
(Let’s eat) becomes magnamo. Che film vuoi vedere? (What film do you want to see?) becomes Che firm voi vede’?
Some call the dialect Romanaccio. However, I consider Romanaccio the sub-dialect that’s laced with dirty words. It’s what you hear when you see two cab drivers in an argument. When two lovers fight, you’ll need a Romanaccio translator. Marina, a third-generation Roman, is fluent in Romanaccio and has made me a convert. Amazingly, while my comprehension of basic Italian still lags behind my speaking ability, I seemingly understand everything she says in Romanaccio.
There is “Cazzo!” (Fuck!), “Che cazzo!” (What the fuck!) and the ubiquitous “Che cazzo fai?!” (What the fuck are you doing?) Again, the word cazzo is the perfect sound for Roman profanity as it comes from deep in your throat, like bile.
There’s also “Pezzo di merda” (Piece of shit) and “Non me rompe li cojoni” (Don’t break my balls.), both coming in handy in Rome’s post office, cell phone store and your landlady’s presence.
In lieu of a completely x-rated blog, here are a few examples of basic Roman you’ll hear on the streets. Notice I accompany them all with the appropriate hand gestures. In any Italian dialect, hand gestures are as important as the tongue. After a while, they become automatic, subconscious body reflexes, like when I clench my fist when reading about Donald Trump. I’ve seen drivers talking through their cell phone’s mike pull their motor scooter to the side so they can use both hands while talking to someone they can’t even see. (Italian and English translations follow.)
The hands are placed in praying formation as if to say, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me?” Often seen in Olympic Stadium aimed at a soccer referee.
Don’t use this as a sarcastic gesture. Italians do not get sarcasm.
In a society based more on food than politics, this gesture is common.
The hand enclosed by the thumb and four fingers, up toward the mouth, has become common all over Italy. It’s also kind of a polite way of saying, “Well, fuck you.”
“Ao” is a common greeting on the streets although this gesture is not. Who can’t hear Romans?
Dress like a typical American in Rome, you’ll be sure to have this happen behind your back.
This is what I do behind Marina’s back.
This is as bad as it gets, something you say to the person who ax murders your family or what Marina would say if she saw what I gesture behind her back.
A simple agreement goes a long way in Rome.
I find Italians the nicest people in the world so I’ve never used this. Feel free to use it when you realize a cabbie ripped you off as he drives away.
March 6, 2019 @ 9:35 am
March 6, 2019 @ 9:37 am
Are the Roman language follow the same pronunciation rules as Italian?
Un po' di pepe
March 7, 2019 @ 12:01 am
Love the visuals!
March 8, 2019 @ 12:24 am
Thanks! They were a lot of fun to do. Didn’t know I could act that well. I’m working as a film extra. Maybe I’ll put those photos on my resume.
March 8, 2019 @ 12:25 am
No. As I wrote, there are apostrophes were consonants should be.
March 7, 2019 @ 1:48 am
As roman, I always find your articles intersting but funny too because I can understand which is the point of view of an american. Regarding the use of “Mortacci…” I suggest you to watch a clip in which Enrico Brignano (roman commedian you probably know) explain in a funny way , the several way of say “mortacci…”, here the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXoCXXZaDvQ .
Let me say how much I like the pictures you inlcuded in your articles, and let me thank you for giving me 5 minutes of good time, I forgot for a while the great dissappoint for yesterday Roma match.
March 8, 2019 @ 12:23 am
Thanks, Emanuele. I’m sure I could get a good lesson in Romanaccio by just sitting in the Curva Sud section a couple of games. You saw De Francesco got, as we sportswriters say in America, “the big haircut”? Sad. He spent all year one step ahead of the posse. Monchi, I thought, would be next to go but some of his young players are showing promise like Zaniolo and Under. But they’re just too inconsistent and so predictable on the road. I KNEW they’d blow it in Porto. See the game? I thought Schick dived. I don’t think he was touched. My problem was with Roma’s penalty. I thought the ball had passed the Porto player before Florenzi pulled on the guy’s jersey. And THAT guy dove. How do you fall forward if you’re being pulled from behind? Regardless, maybe the guy would’ve scored easily if Florenzi didn’t yank his jersey. I’m disgusted with Serie A. It’s become as predictable as the Scottish League with about as little depth. By the way, I left Lungotevere Fitness. I moved to Monteverde after I couldn’t take anymore of my dateless, evil, no-life landlady. I joined a small, no-frills gym with the boring name of Fitness Play. It’s five minutes from my apartment. It works. Your travels look great. How you like the job?
September 14, 2022 @ 8:02 pm
You had to ruin it by going personal with Politics !
March 9, 2019 @ 11:09 am
You have a very expressive face. You should do well as a film extra, old friend.
March 10, 2019 @ 4:11 am
Thanks, Reg. I sent you a long email.
March 17, 2019 @ 9:47 am
Great visuals! As someone trying to learn Italian it’s a little overwhelming to hear about the varied dialects. Although as someone originally from the Deep South, nobody could understand me when I was doing my internship in Oregon. Over time, I lost the drawl and now no one realizes I grew up in the South until I say y’all.
March 17, 2019 @ 11:24 am
The slang of every Italian dialect helps identify where you’re from. Friday night I was in an enoteca in Florence having a great time. Then it closed, seemingly early, at 11:30 p.m. I yelled kiddingly at the bartender, “LI MORTACCI TUA!” He yelled back, “Ah! Un Romano Americano!” The whole place laughed. It was one of my prouder moments speaking Italian. Then again, I haven’t had many. I was born, raised and educated in Eugene. Where in Oregon were you and why?
March 17, 2019 @ 10:17 pm
I lived and worked in Aurora, OR about 20 minutes south of Portland while completing a 1 year internship in veterinary medicine and surgery at aWillamette Valley Equine Hospital. The area was beautiful but I didn’t get to explore too much outside of Portland.
March 18, 2019 @ 2:00 am
You have to return. Go to the Oregon Coast in the summer. It’s beautiful and empty and glorious. Just don’t go swimming. I went in when I was about 5 years old and never went back. No one does except crazy surfers.
March 18, 2019 @ 10:24 am
Great information. A little daunting as I am working hard to be conversational by August when I move to Rome for a 15 month grad program. I had 2 years of Italian as an undergrad but I feel like it didn’t prepare me for conversation at all! I am a native Oregonian as well, living in Portland but grew up in Salem. Eugene to Rome must have been quite the experience!
March 18, 2019 @ 11:56 am
Actually, I moved from Denver to Rome. I haven’t lived in Oregon in 40 years. I left after I graduated from college, traveled around the world for a year, got my first job in suburban Seattle, moved to Las Vegas for 10 years and then Denver for 23. I tell everyone I’m from Oregon, though. I was born there, grew up there and educated there. Denver didn’t influence me as Oregon did. In fact, since I’m from Eugene and went to the University of Oregon, in 22 years I went exactly one mile. It’s one reason I travel so much now.
March 18, 2019 @ 10:32 am
Good to know! If a bit daunting though, as I am trying to be conversational by August when I move to Rome for a 15 month grad program. I took Italian as an undergrad for 2 years but am nowhere near conversational. I am also a native Oregonian, currently living in Portland but from Salem.
March 18, 2019 @ 11:54 am
Foreign languages are real hard. But if you’ve had two years of formal study, you should be able to pick it up once you’re here, especially if you’re young. I didn’t start learning Italian until I was in my 50s. It’s been REAL slow. The comprehension is the toughest part, especially coming from Oregon (Colorado is the same) where there are no Italians. Where do you hear Italian in Oregon? What high school did you go to in Salem? I went to South Eugene High.
October 16, 2022 @ 8:29 pm
OMG, I’ll never get it.