I’m out of town taking care of a post-surgery mother, so I decided to republish an older piece this week. Here’s a blast from the past, in case you missed it when it was published originally in 2014! I’ll be back to new articles next week when I get home.
We’re led to believe that we’ve got a handle on the Italian language before we even get off the plane in Rome. I’m guilty of this – I used to tell my Italian students they would never starve, having ordered many a meal at an Italian restaurant before. But the truth is that although some Italian words won’t sound so foreign to your ear, there are cultural nuances in the language that you can’t know unless you know the culture.
Take, for instance, the word ciao. It can mean “hello” and “goodbye.” It’s crossed borders, becoming a greeting used all over the world. And yet? You really shouldn’t be saying it when you go to Italy.
I know, right? Let me explain.
The word ciao (pronounced CHOW) is, today, thought of as very much Italian, but its origins are in the Venetian dialect. (That dialect has proven to be a rich source of words we use in English, too, but that’s a subject for another article.) In the Venetian dialect, the phrase s-ciào vostro means “I am your slave” – and over time, the phrase was abbreviated to simply s-ciào, while retaining the same meaning. Although the connotation even among Venetians was more akin to “I’m at your service,” or “holler if you need me,” that old phrase eventually morphed into the word still used in Italian for “slave” – schiavo (pronounced sk|YA|vo).
Because of this history, Italians – even those who aren’t Venetian and can’t speak or understand the Venetian dialect – seem to instinctively know that ciao isn’t an innocuous greeting to be thrown around to anyone you meet. They’ve been brought up thinking it’s incredibly informal – too informal – and not to be used in polite company. You’ll find this to be especially true with older generations.
What does this mean for you, the traveler? It means that if you want to offer a polite greeting to a shop owner, a waiter, or just someone you pass in the street, you’ll need to have an alternative to ciao.
Sadly, the all-purpose application of ciao – being used for both hellos and goodbyes – doesn’t apply to any of the alternatives. For these options, it depends usually on what time of day it is.
For the record, I usually go with salve or whichever of the buongiorno/buona sera options is appropriate for the time of day.
Here’s the thing – you’re going to hear ciao being said all the time when you’re in Italy, and then you’re going to wonder why I made such a fuss about it. If you’re paying attention, though, you’re likely to notice that the people using it with one another are very familiar – they’re not casually passing in the street or exchanging money for goods – and they’re typically in the same peer group. An Italian teenager who waves goodbye to her friends with a ciao and a couple of cheek kisses will still turn around and use one of the other options listed above on a stranger or an elder.
Italian is a living language, and some of this is changing. It may not be too far in the future when ciao is perfectly acceptable and carries none of its former “slave” connotations. Even if that happens, however, Italian remains one of the languages that has a formal and informal version, and it’s never a good idea to start with the informal. I’ve gotten more than a few unappreciative looks from Italians to whom I said ciao before I realized what was going on.
Will you make mistakes? Sure. We all do. And if you can avoid it, if you can say salve instead of ciao, you might end up on an Italian’s good side, getting compliments on your language skills along with extra big smiles. They genuinely appreciate it when we try – and succeed – with their language, and there’s nothing like that look of gratitude.