Italian word of the day: ‘Eh’

One little syllable can say so much.

Italian word of the day: 'Eh'
Photo: DepositPhotos

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.

READ ALSO: 12 of the most useful Italian words you need to know

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?
– Eh! 

– Silvia, is that you?
– Yep!

… or only half…

– Come stai?
– Eh.

– How are you?
– So so.

… with a bit of an attitude…

– Non devi fare rumore!
– Eh.

– 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…

Carina, eh?
Cute, right?

… or because you haven’t heard what they said.

– Vai tu a fare la spesa?
– Eh?

– Are you going shopping?
– What? 

Or perhaps to show you can’t believe what you’re hearing.

– M’ha chiuso la porta in faccia!
– Eh?

– He shut the door in my face!
– What?!

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.

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Italian expression of the day: ‘A meno che’

You might want some help mastering this phrase, unless your Italian is already advanced.

Italian expression of the day: 'A meno che'

It’s always helpful to have a little caveat up your sleeve when making plans – just in case something crops up and you need to change course.

In English, there’s a pretty simple way to express this idea: we just use the word ‘unless’ followed by the present simple.

Italian, however, is a bit more complicated. We need to add a non after a meno che – something that can trip up anglophones – and then follow this with a subjunctive, since we’re talking about a hypothetical situation.

Potremmo andare a fare un giro in bicicletta, a meno che tu non abbia da fare?
We could go for a bike ride, unless you’re busy?

La festa si terrà all’aperto, a meno che non piova.
She’ll have the party outdoors unless it rains.

To wrap your head around this addition of a negative, it can help to think of the Italian translation less as “unless XYZ is the case” so much as something along the lines of “as long as XYZ weren’t the case.”

A meno che is the most common variant you’ll hear, but if you want to mix things up a bit, you could instead use any of salvo che, tranne che, or eccetto che.

Il rimborso sarà effettuato entro 24 ore, signora, salvo che Lei non cambi idea prima di allora.
The refund will be processed within 24 hours, madam, unless you change your mind before then.

L’intervento chirurgico non è necessario, tranne che i sintomi non causino dolore.
Surgery isn’t necessary unless the symptoms are causing you any pain.

Unless you’ve been watching TV throughout this explainer, we’re sure you’ll be confidently using a meno che and its equivalents in no time.

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.