Eh might not be the most beautiful word in the Italian language, but it’s certainly one of the most versatile.
Just listen to the various things the dictionary says it can mean: “astonishment, dejection, resignation, reproach or threat”. And that’s not even all of it.
It all depends on tone of voice, so let’s start with how to pronounce it: unlike our English (or Canadian) ‘eh’, the Italian eh doesn’t rhyme with ‘may’. Instead it’s a short vowel sound, like the one in ‘meh’.
As for how to translate it, eh can be anything from ‘yeah’ to ‘hey’ to ‘well’ to ‘right’. And indeed, ‘eh’.
Bella giornata, eh?
Nice day, eh?
You can use it to answer questions, whether in the affirmative…
– Silvia, sei tu?
– Silvia, is that you?
… or only half…
– Come stai?
– How are you?
– So so.
… with a bit of an attitude…
– Non devi fare rumore!
– You mustn’t make a noise!
– Uh huh.
… or with a hint of regret.
– Già partito?
– Eh sì…
– Left already?
– Yes indeed…
And you can also use it to ask questions, either because you expect someone to agree with you…
… or because you haven’t heard what they said.
– Vai tu a fare la spesa?
– Are you going shopping?
Or perhaps to show you can’t believe what you’re hearing.
– M’ha chiuso la porta in faccia!
– He shut the door in my face!
Then there’s all the ways you use eh as an exclamation – too numerous to mention, but often as a sign of scepticism…
Eh! Ci credo poco.
Huh! I don’t believe that.
… or as a warning…
Eh! Bada a ciò che fai!
Hey! Watch what you’re doing!
… as a kind of exhortation…
Eh, via, non ci pensare.
Hey, come on, don’t think about that.
… or just as an expression of pleasant surprise.
Eh, che bel regalo!
Wow, what a great gift!
Even the dictionary gives up listing all eh‘s possible definitions and concludes that “different shades of meaning may be manifested in some cases”.
You’ll just have to listen out for how Italians say it – which, trust us, you’ll hear them do all the time.
Do you have a favourite Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.