If you want to joke, flirt, and make a proper toast in the south of Italy, you could certainly speak Italian. Or English — or Galician or Russian, for that matter, as Italians are generally only too delighted to carry on a conversation without the slightest comprehension.
But if you really want a truly local adventure, you must speak at least a little Neapolitan.
The Neapolitan language is spoken in the city of Naples, of course, but also in a range of forms across the south of Italy. It is not taught in schools and, even more than with most marginalized languages, it is seen as uncouth, even (especially) among those who speak it.1Some consider Neapolitan “only” a “dialect” — a rather meaningless distinction. If you care about that, see this rough guide to the difference between a language and a dialect. But speak it they do, and a lot of the best social/family/romantic/silly stuff happens in Neapolitan — all the more reason to dive in and learn a bit.
This site has long been encouraging travellers to learn a few ultra-local words, phrases and gestures anywhere you go; we call it the Minimalist Language Method. Skip the phrasebook bullshit about asking for directions to your hotel; if you’ve just got 20 minutes to study before your flight lands, you should learn to be funny and agreeable. This is the language that will allow you to continue an intriguing if minimally communicative conversation until pheromones/liquor/charm takes over. And this is the truly local language that offers an astounding level of insight into the culture.
We recently relocated to Naples for a few weeks, and good gosh darn was this a fun article to research. The following words and phrases aren’t just useful; they tell you a lot about Neapolitan culture and how to function in it.
- Even within the communities of the city of Naples there is a huge range of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. This is even more true of the variants (a.k.a. “dialects”) of Neapolitan in the rest of the south of Italy. Most of my sources were from the city of Naples.
- All of my sources were quite intelligent native Neapolitan speakers, but none of them were particularly literate in their mother tongue, thanks to the Italy’s failure to teach it in schools. So spelling will vary, depending on whom you ask…
- The audio recordings are hardly professional, I know.
- Additions/corrections are welcome in the comments! We frequently update posts based on reader feedback.
- 1. Toasting in Neapolitan: Aiz' Aiz' Aiz'...
- 2. Generic Neapolitan Nouns
- 3. Expressing Disaster and Dysfunction in Neapolitan
- 4. Neapolitan Exclamations of Surprise and Dismay
- 5. Navigating the Deadly, Chaotic Neapolitan Streets
- 6. An Enthusiastic Positive Adjective
- 7. Avoiding Conversation About Your Home Country
- 8. Backtracking
- 9. Not Knowing
1. Toasting in Neapolitan: Aiz’ Aiz’ Aiz’…
Let’s get right down to the business of raising our glasses. You may have already seen the Spanish language’s toasting calisthenics (arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro — up, down, center, inside). Neapolitan has something a bit similar, with just as much synchronized gesticulating with the glasses.
- Raise your glasses up and bellow: aiz’ aiz’ aiz’ (up, up, up)
- Lower your glasses for: acal’ acal’ acal’ (down, down, down)
- Bring the glasses together in the center: accost’ accost’ accost’ (near, near, near)
- Then say a salut’ vost’ (to your health) and down your drink.
You may also hear the last line said as a salut’ vost’ (to your health), and other variations.
Put all together, that makes:
Aiz’ aiz’ aiz’, acal’, acal’, acal’, accost’, accost’, accost’, a salut’ vost’. — Up, up, up, down, down, down, near, near, near, to your health.
Here’s the pronunciation (with in this case nost’):
And here’s a video with the gestures:
2. Generic Neapolitan Nouns
When speaking a language that you don’t speak, it’s important to have a couple of very general nouns. Neapolitan offers excellent options for vaguery.
- Robba — thingy, stuff
- A’ ggente — people
These, accompanied by pointing, can get you through almost any noun-requiring situation.
It’s also nice to have the all-purpose masculine vocative, that is, a word for addressing any man:
- Fra’! — Bro! (From fratello, or brother)
3. Expressing Disaster and Dysfunction in Neapolitan
Southern Italy is not known as the most functional and ordered corner of the world. The language provides some laid-back ways to describe an unfortunate situation, react to it, and take it all in stride.
- ‘A vott’ chien’ e ‘a mujer’ ubriaca. — It’s an impossible/unlikely/suspicious situation. (Lit., the barrel is full and the wife drunk, i.e., you come home to find a set of facts that don’t make any sense; or alternately, some speakers understand this as you can’t have everything you want, like “have your cake and eat it too”.)
- Jamm checazz’. — (Said sarcastically) We’re doing great, things are going fabulously.
- Facce sule’ strunzate. — I do only shitty things/I just fuck things up.
- Dicett’ ‘o pappece vicin’ a noc’ : “ramm’ ‘o tiemp’ ca t’ spertos'”. — The worm said to the walnut, “Give me time, and I will puncture you” (i.e., success will eventually come about in its own time, with patience).
- Vott o carr pa scesa. — Just go with the flow. (Lit., push the car downhill.)
- Nun c’ pensá. — Don’t even think about it/Don’t worry about it/Don’t bother even trying/Just give up/Your dreams are worthless.
4. Neapolitan Exclamations of Surprise and Dismay
- Azz! — Exclamation of surprise, in reaction to something either awesome or horrible, lit. the penis. A corollary to the infamous Italian cazzo.
- A’ facc! — Huh, that’s quite something (neutral as to whether it is positive or negative)
Ma staje pazziann? — Are you joking with me? (This can be accompanied by the classic Italian gesture of incredulity as in the video below.)
5. Navigating the Deadly, Chaotic Neapolitan Streets
For most visitors it’s shocking just how little regard the citizens of Naples express for life with their traffic habits. Traffic rules and signs function as mere suggestions, and most worryingly small children are piled onto and even allowed to drive scooters, often without helmets.
If you’re on foot in the old city center, don’t make any sudden turns. The motorists who speed down these streets and sidewalks tend to assume that you will continue walking in a straight line.
Generally this is all taken with nonchalance; the fact that there are a rather lot of dead and maimed children is a certainly a regional sore point, but the issue remains mysteriously intractable (similar to the USA’s situation with guns).
When Neapolitan motorists feel the need to set aside this insouciance and express themselves rudely in traffic, they shout:
Liev’t a miezz’! — Get out of the middle/get a move on/move it!
6. An Enthusiastic Positive Adjective
- checazz’ — awesome/very good
7. Avoiding Conversation About Your Home Country
If your Neapolitan accent is less than perfect, the delightfully friendly locals will probably switch to Italian and ask you “Di dove sei?” — some may even have enough English to sputter out a “Where are you from?”
Such a question usually steers conversations into disastrous boredom: “…oh, my friend’s aunt lives there”; “…oh, is this stereotype really true?”; “…oh, [insert national politics]”. And likely, it will no longer even be in Neapolitan, your new favorite language.
Stay on a more fun course by insisting simply and in spite of any obvious evidence to the contrary:
- Song e’ Napule — I’m from Naples.
Your first wobbly steps in any language may well send you headfirst into a wall.
If you notice halfway through a sentence that you’re getting some unsettled looks, you can change that sentence into an innocent question by tacking on a question tag at the end. (Question tags in English include “… isn’t it?” or ” … don’t you think?”.) A common one in Neapolitan is:
- … ti pare? — … it seems to you?
And when things really go off the rails, fob it off as a joke with:
- Sto pazziann’. — I’m joking.
9. Not Knowing
When all else fails, admit ignorance:
- Nun sacc’ niente. — I don’t know anything.
You can practice learning these phrases and a few more with a Neapolitan deck that I created for Anki, which is a great flashcard system for memorization. The deck seems to have been deleted from their site recently but contact me and I can email it.
If you want to go beyond these first 19 phrases, there are also a few Neapolitan teachers on Italki, where you can get both professional lessons (I do this and highly recommend it) as well as free language exchanges. There are also a few Neapolitan books available that can help you get some exposure to at least the basics.
A big thanks to my Neapolitan advisors on this, including Maria, Raffa, and my teacher on Italki, Noemi.
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Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||⇧||Some consider Neapolitan “only” a “dialect” — a rather meaningless distinction. If you care about that, see this rough guide to the difference between a language and a dialect.|