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Expressing Your Love in ItalianLearn how to shout your feelings in one of the world's romance languages
Italian, which derives from Latin, is one of the world's romance languages. That's not just a title. With most of its words ending in vowels and all those rolling Rs, everything sounds like poetry. Really, it's melodic. I've mentioned before that just about anything sounds good in Italian, even an announcement that you have to go to the bathroom. "Devo andare in bagno." See? Magic.
So, when someone declares his or her love in Italian, you are likely to swoon. In fact, if you're looking for a way to conquer someone's heart, Italian wins. The first step, however, is understanding exactly what you want to say. The language is far more explicit about love than English.
Those who speak English use, "I love you," to cover a lot of bases. You say, "I love you," to your kid. You say it to your dog. You say you love lobster rolls and walks on the beach and trips to Disney World. And you tell your spouse, mother, and neighbor, "I love you." Granted, you interpret the sentiment (and you hope they do, too) in different ways for each. But the phrase – those three little words – are the same.
Italians actually have different sayings to match the people they are loving. Essentially, there are two primary phrases. The first, "Ti voglio bene," is reserved for your family members (other than your spouse) and close friends. It literally means, "I want you well." But Italians use it to express love for people for whom they care deeply. While they probably feel this way about their lovers, they reserve another saying to express that they are in love with someone.
If you want to let someone know that your love for him or her is on another level – something more than what you feel for your cat or even mamma – then you use the phrase, "Ti amo." Granted, some parents might say this to their children, especially when they are little and the bond between parent and child is overwhelming. (Let's be honest, the Italians have a – let's call it unique – devotion to mamma.) But it's really about having romantic feelings for someone. Literally translated, this phrase means, "I am loving you" or "I love you." It is in the present tense, and it indicates something more than "Ti voglio bene."
When said between lovers or potential lovers, "Ti amo," expresses sexual attraction. Certainly, you've heard the stories of Italy's Latin lovers and their prowess at flirting, entrancing, and bedding people. While there's some truth to the stereotypes, the Italians are actually quite guarded in their use of both "Ti voglio bene" and "Ti amo." They don't throw the words around like others do. This is serious business, and you really have to earn the right to hear those words from someone special. It's like finding gold, frankly.
Among friends in America, you might sign correspondence with "Love, So and So." In Italy, you almost never would do such a thing. Among friends and even close family, you might sign off with XO or baci e abbracci, which means kisses and hugs. They almost never use "Ti voglio bene" in writing. The same is actually true of "Ti amo" when you're writing to your lover. It's just not that common. They rarely write down the words. While they might say it more often, the idea that you should express your love for someone because you don't know what tomorrow will bring is not really a thing in Italy.
Actually, it's ironic because Italians are more aware of the reality of mortality than Americans. Indeed, Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini points out in his book, Ciao America, that Americans believe mortality is an option rather than inevitability. Still, Italians don't have this idea that you have to constantly share your feelings, so they don't.
At this point, you might be wondering if they are not constantly telling their beloved, "Ti amo," how is it that they keep this Latin lover reputation? It's a good question. Some of it has to do with their more guarded behavior. It leaves the other person wondering what the Italian is feeling and wanting to work for that "Ti amo." It also makes every time you say the words just a little more meaningful.
While I'm an American, who is all about the love – and saying the words as much as you can – I can appreciate the mother country's infrequent "I love yous" and the added significance they carry as a result. The lesson is if you want to make your beloved yearn for you, whisper "Ti amo" in his or her ear once every year or so, and you just might become a Latin lover yourself.
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