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CULTURE

‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’: Here’s what the nonsensical ‘English’ song actually means in Italy

In 1972, Italian singer Adriano Celentano wrote a song with nonsensical lyrics supposed to sound like American English. It went to number one - and is still being shared online today.

‘Prisencolinensinainciusol': Here’s what the nonsensical 'English' song actually means in Italy
Italian actor and singer Adriano Celentano wrote "Prisencolinensinainciusol” in 1972. Photo: AFP

‘The song was number one in the Italian charts despite the fact that it wasn’t performed in Italian – or in any language.

It went on to become number one in France, Germany and Belgium, too.

The lyrics to “Prisencolinensinainciusol” were intended to mimic the way American English sounds to non-English speakers, as Celentano is believed to have been trying to prove that Italians would like any song in English, despite having no idea what was being said.

The video for “Prisencolinensinainciusol” has been widely shared on social media. Screenshot: Youtube

More than that, he said the song has an “angry tone” because of his frustration about “the fact that people don’t communicate.”

“I like American slang – which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian. I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate,” he said in a 2012 interview on US radio station NPR.

“And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything,” he said.

He insisted that American English sounds “exactly like that”.

Whether you agree or not, you do have to listen to the song – and see the video – to appreciate it.

The video, which features singer Claudia Mori, who is also Celentano’s wife, was widely shared online on Thursday after resurfacing on Facebook.

 
Celentano said he never wrote the lyrics down, but recorded them over a looped beat.
 
Fans have since attempted to write down the nonsensical language used in the song.
 

Celentano was far from the first or only Italian performer to be heavily influenced by American culture and the English language at that time.

After World War II, the influence of US culture spread rapidly across Europe – and it was particularly strong in Italy.

The phenomenon was perhaps most famously captured in the 1954 film Un Americano a Roma (An American in Rome), in which actor Alberto Sordi plays a young Italian who becomes obsessed with American culture, starts wearing jeans and a baseball cap and ditches his red wine for milk. 

And of course, there’s Tu vuo’ fa l’americano (“You Want to Be American”) by Renato Carosone, a song written in 1956 about a young Neapolitan who is trying to impress a girl.

Since then, countless Italian songwriters have peppered their lyrics with English words and phrases – however, they are usually real words, even if the meaning sometimes gets lost in translation.

READ ALSO: Ten English words which will make you sound cool in Italian

Celentano’s nonsensical ‘English’ song may be almost 50 years old, but it remains popular today – perhaps because it still says something about the relationship  Italians have with the English language.

On Thursday the video resurfaced on social media, and was met with incredulity by younger Italians, as well as those from other countries who hadn’t encountered it before.

But it had never really disappeared. It remained instantly recognisable to many people, as it could often be heard on Italian television.

In 2016, Italian state broadcaster Rai produced a modern tribute to Prisencolinensinainciusol, with a dance routine performed to a remixed version by Benny Benassi.

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ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Italian expression of the day: ‘Può darsi’

This might be just the Italian phrase you need.

Italian expression of the day: 'Può darsi'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Today’s expression is one I learned courtesy of my Italian in-laws, who frequently use it as a non-committal response to my suggestions.

This isn’t a phrase that ever came up in Italian class, and at first I wasn’t sure what they were saying. But from the context it was obvious that it meant something like “perhaps” or “possibly”.

– Forse sono in ritardo a causa del traffico

– Può darsi

– Maybe they’re late because of the traffic

– Possibly

When può darsi is used alone as a response, it’s not always clear just how likely the speaker thinks something is.

In fact, it can mean anything from “maybe” to “probably”.

Literally translated, the phrase doesn’t make much sense to English speakers. It’s a combination of può (the third-person singular form of the verb potere, ‘to be able‘) and darsi (the reflexive form of the verb dare ‘to give‘). It could be translated literally as “it can be given”.

As well as being used alone, this phrase can be used within sentences instead of forse (maybe) or magari, which is altogether more complicated.

With può darsi you’ll need to pay more attention to the grammar. But it’s worth mastering, as the phrase is very commonly used in spoken Italian.

Unlike forse and magari, sentences using può darsi need to be constructed in a particular way.

The formula you’ll need is può darsi + che + a verb in its subjunctive form.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

– Può darsi che Gianni sia in ritardo.

– Maybe/it’s possible that Gianni is late

Compare that to the simpler structure of:

– Forse Gianni è in ritardo.

– Maybe Gianni is late

Both sentences effectively mean the same thing.

In the first example, the form of the verb ‘to be’ used is sia because we’re speaking in the subjunctive.

Understandably, language learners often want to run for the hills when they start hearing about the subjunctive mood (congiuntivo). But it doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Put very simply, it’s used whenever you’re not stating a fact. It expresses doubt, possibility, or uncertainty. It may also be used to talk about emotions, or when making suggestions – so for most normal everyday conversations, then.

So, while this is often taught as a more ‘advanced’ bit of grammar, you may want to get on friendly terms with it ASAP in order to partake in everyday chit-chat with Italians. Read a more detailed explanation of it here.

It pays to remember that with può darsi you don’t need to use the verb in the subjunctive form if you’re speaking in the future or conditional tense.

For example, you could also say:

Può darsi che Gianni sarà in ritardo

– Maybe Gianni will be late

Here, the verb refers to the future, so we used sarà – the future simple form of essere (to be).

And once you’ve got the hang of that, you can take things a step further by inserting the word anche (also) in between può and darsi to add emphasis.

Può anche darsi che sia un disastro totale.

– It may well be a total disaster

As mentioned earlier, this phrase is used for things you think are possible or likely.

If you’re a bit more certain about something, it would be better to use probabilmente or è molto probabile (‘probably’ or ‘it’s very likely’).

Will your Italian friends be impressed if you master the use of può darsi?

Sì, è molto probabile!

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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