Monday, 20 January 2014

Italian lesson numero due - the signs of the zodiac

Now it may seem that star signs are a rather unusual topic to dive into on only our second Italian lesson, but there is actually a good reason for this: interestingly, and to my surprise, one of the questions I was asked most frequently shortly after meeting a new acquaintance was "di che segno sei?" - "What (star) sign are you?" I say that I was surprised because I had imagined that being a country in which religious doctrine is so firmly ingrained (Catholicism is taught as a compulsory subject in all state schools from kindergarten right up to the final year of high school), that enthusiasm for astrology would have been scarce.


As my knowledge of the culture grew, however, I came to realise that this was not as strange as it first appeared.  I learnt that Italians (at least in Sicily, where I lived for the most part) are superstitious in nature. On the bookshelf in the kitchen on my mother-in-law's house, in amongst a large collection of recipe books, she also kept a well leafed-through book titled How to Interpret Dreams to Win the Lottery. Also, when she saw that my daughter had a visible little vein on the top of one side of her nose (as many infants do in the first months after birth) she told me that meant that if I were to have another child, it would also be a girl. This vein has a specific name in the Sicilian language, a musculedda, and if it is present on an infant, it is said to signify that the next child in line will be of the same gender. A particularly superstitious person would put down any faults in this theory to miscarriage between full-term pregnancies. The topic of Italian superstitions is so vast that it merits an entire blog post all for itself and indeed, entire books have been published on the subject. One that I particularly marvelled at though was a little pearl of wisdom from one of my partner's cousins, who advised me to cut my daughter's fingernails on Mondays to prevent her from ever suffering from teething pain.

I also realised after a while that many habits and rituals that appear religious are, in fact, based more on superstition than on profound faith. My mother-in-law, for example, would make the sign of the cross every time we drove past a cemetery, regardless of whether or not she knew anyone buried there, however she did not go to church except for ceremonies and told me herself she was not religious. At first I viewed her crossing herself as a sign of respect, but later came to understand it more as a little ritual done, on her part, out of both habit and the fear of what might happen if she did not do it.

Some of the people I met in Italy, particularly women, seemed to believe so deeply in astrology that, for them, it was almost like a religion in its own right. This was so far removed from my own upbringing and belief system that it at first seemed ridiculous, but over time I learnt to respect it more. One reason for this gradual change of heart was that I learnt, through my partner and his friends, what an enormous role the moon plays in terms of agriculture. Many of the Sicilians that I met had a much more practical and productive relationship with nature than anyone I had ever met before; not through years of study, but through knowledge passed down orally across the generations - they understood (and if they did not fully understand, they at least respected) that the phases of the moon are an incredibly powerful force that cannot be ignored and that balance can be achieved, on the land and within oneself, by becoming attune to its waxing and waning.  What I found most intriguing about the moon was how it affects women: a woman with an irregular menstrual cycle can learn to regulate her periods by following natural lunar rhymes. In ancient times, before the invention of artificial lighting came and interrupted women's connection with nature's own periods of light and darkness, it is said that a group of women living together would all get their periods along with the new moon and would all be fertile when the moon was full. I have even heard that the phases of the moon can be used to time intercourse depending on whether a couple wishes to conceive a boy or girl.

So eventually, with more cultural insight, I understood the Sicilian's preoccupation with the signs of the zodiac and I appreciated that, having had such a practical connection to la luna - the moon - over so many centuries, that it stood to reason that they would likewise trust that the stars could be equally utile.

I never got to the point where I chose my friends based on their star sign, but I did start to enjoy conversations on the topic. In fact, from a linguistic point of view, it's not actually a bad question to ask someone you've only just met. For someone with a limited knowledge of the language, the question "di che segno sei?" it can lead to further questions, such as "Allora sei nata a marzo?" - "So you're born in March?" and for someone with a more advanced grasp of the language, it could extend a conversation with something like: "quindi sei compassionevole e creativa?" - "So you're compassionate and creative?" (if you wanted to be kind) or "quindi sei troppo sensibile e pigra" - "So you're over sensitive and lazy?" (if you did not). Or, if you really wanted to cut to the chase, you could always say: "Allora, saremmo molto compatibili insieme!" meaning: 'Well then, we'd be very compatible together!"

The signs of the zodiac are an Italian lesson within themselves since, unlike in English where the names we use derive from Latin but do not actually mean anything else in everyday language (other than 'cancer'), most of the Italian names for the signs directly translate to commonly used nouns.

Allora, guardiamo un po' - So let's take a little look ...


Sono del segno dell'Ariete - My star sign is Aries

Un ariete = a ram

Il nostro ariete è ammalato - Our ram is sick.


Sono del segno del Toro - my star sign is Taurus

Un toro = a bull

Il toro è arrabbiato - The bull is angry 





Sono del segno dei Gemelli - my star sign is Gemini

I gemelli = the twins

La mia amica è incinta di due gemelli - my friend is pregnant with (two) twins.


Although in English in wouldn't be grammatically correct to say "two twins", in Italian it is said like this because tre gemelli (literally 'three twins') means triplets and quattro gemelli (literally 'four twins') means quadruplets, etc.



Sono del segno del Cancro - my star sign is Cancer

Cancro = cancer

La zia di Angelina Jolie è morta per cancro al seno

Angelina Jolie's aunt died of breast cancer.



Sono del segno del Leone - my star sign is Leo

Leone = lion

Il leone è triste - the lion is sad




Sono del segno della Vergine - my star sign is Virgo

Vergine = virgin

Maria Vergine - The Virgin Mary

Sono del segno della Bilancia - my star sign is Libra

Bilancia = Scale

Stamattina, mi sono pesata sulla bilancia e sono quasi svenuta!  - 

This morning, I weighed myself on the scale and I almost fainted! 


Sono del segno dello Scorpione - my star sign is Scorpio

Scorpione = scorpion

Gli scorpioni hanno otto gambe ed almeno sei occhi

Scorpions have eight legs and at least six eyes eyes.



The 'e' at the end of scorpione has changed to an 'i' in the plural.

Sono del segno del Sagittario - my star sign is Sagittarius

Sagittario does not mean anything literally, but sagittaria is a type of aquatic plant. The species sagittaria latifolia is known in English (among other names) as 'broadleaf arrowhead'. An interesting comparison can be made between the English name of this plant and the fact that the astrological symbol for Sagittarius is an archer with a bow and arrow (or - as in the picture above - simply a bow and arrow).

Non eravamo compatibili perchè lui era Sagittatario - 

we weren't compatible because he was a Sagittarius. 


Sono del segno del Capricorno - my star sign is Capricorn

Il Tropio del Capricorno - The Tropic of Capricorn 

Capricorno does not have a literal definition, but the word capra does mean 'goat', which is easy to remember if you know your star signs since the symbol for Capricorn is a goat!

Mi piace tanto il formaggio di capra - I really like goat's cheese.


Sono del segno dell'Acquario - my star sign is Acquarius

Acquario = aquarium (acqua means 'water').

Il mio acquario è pieno di alghe - My aquarium is full of algae. 



Sono del segno dei Pesci - my star sign is Pisces

Pesci = fish (plural) and pescare = to fish 

Papà è andato a pescare, ma è tornato sette ore dopo senza pesci -

Dad went fishing but he came back seven hours later without any fish. 

I may just have to keep this phrase in my back pocket to use one day when my daughter's old enough to understand it :)

Or, if you were feeling romantic, this phrase could come in handy:

Senza di te, la mia vita sarebbe come un acquario senza pesci - 

Without you, my life would be like an aquarium without fish :) 


Well, that's enough from me now.  Adesso tocca a voi - now it's your turn ...

Allora, ditemi- so tell me - di che segno sei? - what star sign are you? 


I hope you can join us again next Monday for lesson number three ... we'll be talking about some of the finer points of pronunciation (with some examples of how not to mispronounce words to avoid embarrassment, based on personal experience!)