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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

The Italian vocabulary you’ll need to follow the elections

Italian political goings-on are famously unpredictable, but they don't have to be impossible to understand. Here's a guide to the words and phrases you need to know ahead of Italy's crucial elections this Sunday.

The Italian vocabulary you'll need to follow the elections
League party leader Matteo Salvini (R) signs a campaign poster reading "I believe in it and I'll put my signature on it". (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Italian politics is hard enough to follow even for those with a lifetime’s experience of the political system and fluency in the language. For foreigners trying to follow events, it can be extremely confusing.

But once you’re armed with a bit of background knowledge and some specifically Italian political language, Italian politics does get easier to understand (at least, most of the time).

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

With Italy preparing for crucial general elections on Sunday, September 25th, it’s especially important to be able to at least get the gist of what’s going on.

From vocabulary basics to the peculiarities of Italian ‘politichese’, here’s The Local’s guide to the language you’ll need when following the election and political news in the coming weeks.

The basics

You may already have a good grasp of some basic political vocabulary, such as partiti politici (political parties) and i sondaggi (opinion polls).

L’elezione is ‘the election’, but Italians use the plural form (le elezioni) for general elections since voters will be choosing representatives in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

The names for the two parts of parliament are la Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies – the Lower House) and il Senato della Repubblica (the Senate of the Republic – the Upper House).

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Italians vote on September 25th in elections expected to bring easy an victory for far-right and right-wing populist parties. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

The system is anything but simple: it’s a mixed voting system with some seats allocated via proportional representation (‘un sistema proporzionale‘) and others by first-past-the-post (uninominale secco).

Don’t be alarmed if, on election day (il giorno di voto), you hear people talking about urns, or urne. Like its English equivalent, an ‘urna‘ is a kind of vase or container, but in Italian it’s used to refer to the ballot box, rather than anything to do with funerals. In Italian, andare alle urne means to ‘go to the polls’, or to cast your vote.

You do this using a scheda elettorale, or ballot paper – in fact, voters get two ballot papers – one for each house of parliament – at the polling booth (cabina elettorale). Or you might not: abstaining from voting (astensionismo) is increasingly common in Italy. 

As soon as voting ends, we’ll get an exit poll (this one’s easy – ‘gli exit poll’) and by the early hours of the morning, we should have the early results (risultati preliminari)

The parties – and campaign slogans

Italy has a large number of political parties and an ever-shifting political landscape, meaning some of the bigger names in this election may already be familiar while others were previously unknown.

Here’s a quick rundown of the main parties in the mix this time, their names in both Italian and English, and the slogans they’re using:

Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, or FdI).

Slogan: ‘Pronti’ – The hard-right party expected to take the largest share of the vote has the single word slogan pronti, meaning ‘are you ready?’

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

Is Italy ready for election season, and a new government? – A campaign poster shows hard-right Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni, who is likely to become the next prime minister. Photo: Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

The League (Lega)

Slogan: ‘Credo’ – meaning ‘I believe’. Matteo Salvini’s right-wing populist party was told off by Catholic bishops for using a slogan with religious themes in attempt to appeal to the country’s conservative, religious voters. Posters have since featured various longer slogans, including ‘credo negli italiani‘ (I believe in the Italians).

Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S)

Slogan: ‘Dalla parte giusta’ – The populist party now headed by former PM Giuseppe Conte has chosen a simple slogan meaning ‘on the right side’.

Democratic Party (Partito democratico, PD)

Slogan: ‘Scegli’ – another one-word campaign slogan, this one means ‘choose’. Political analysts say it’s being used by Italy’s second-biggest party as a way to highlight its opposition to Brothers of Italy.

Italian Democratic Party (PD) leader Enrico Letta is asking voters to ‘choose’ his party over the ruight-wing coalition. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Azione + Italia Viva (Action and Italy Alive)

Slogan: ‘Italia, sul serio’ – These two small centrist parties are running together for election, presenting themselves as the sensible, moderate choice with the campaign slogan ‘Italy, seriously’. 

Forza Italia (Variously translated as ‘Go Italy’ or ‘Forward Italy’)

Slogan: none. Silvio Berlusconi’s party has chosen not to use one particular slogan this time, though some campaign posters feature the words ‘oggi più che mai‘, meaning ‘now more than ever’.

Find our complete guide to who’s who in the Italian elections here.

Italian ‘politichese’

Political-speak (or ‘politichese’) can be as dense and impenetrable in Italian as in any other language. 

But it can also be illuminating to learn a few of the words and phrases used in political discussions (and by journalists in particular) to describe the peculiarities of the Italian system.

Here are a few examples:

Toto-nomi

The prefix toto- is used in Italian news reports wherever speculation abounds: it comes from the football pools or totalizzatore calcistico (‘Football totalizer’, or football sweepstake), known as Totocalcio for short.

Totonomi then translates as something like ‘name sweepstake’. It’s an adaptation of toto-nomine (‘nomination sweep’) – which at election time is used for speculation about the most widely-tipped candidates for various offices.

You’ll also see toto- in totopoltrone (‘parliamentary seat sweep’), or totoministri (‘minister sweep’, referring to who will make the cabinet in a newly elected government).

A variation on this is fantapolitica, which similarly comes from fantacalcio, or Italian fantasy football. This word is used to talk about hypothetical election results, government coalitions, and future cabinet members, whether these are realistic or improbable: fantasy politics, if you will.

Former Prime Minister Matteo in parliament. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Ipotesi

An ipotesi is, as you might guess, a hypothesis or theory. When used in newspaper headlines, it fulfils a similar role to toto~, allowing journalists to speculate as to what may have happened or be about to happen.

In the context of election news, you’ll usually see ipotesi followed by the last name of a potential nominee, e.g. ‘l’ipotesi Melonii‘ or ‘l’ipotesi Conte‘, along with discussion of the likely success of that person’s policy or candidacy.

Trasformismo

A time-honoured Italian tradition, this is the act of switching your political allegiance depending on how the wind blows.

Gattopardismo

Un gattopardo is a leopard, so what is ‘gattopardismo‘? Not too distant from trasformismo, it’s a word used to describe the act of adapting your attitudes to the changing political climate in order to maintain a position of power and influence – something political figures in Italy are regularly accused of doing.

The concept was described in the book Il gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the most frequently-quoted line of which is: “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi” (If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change).

Poltrone

Why would a power-hungry politician be keen to deny that he is “hunting for armchairs”? In this case, such a statement has nothing to do with furniture shopping. Una poltrona does of course mean “armchair” or “seat” and it can be used to talk about a job or position within a company, or in this case, a government. 

READ ALSO: Q&A: Your questions answered on how Italy’s elections work

In a political context, a politician on the hunt for poltrone is attempting to gain important ‘seats’ or positions for his party members within the government. Expect to see this word in news reports following the election.

Political nicknames

Some politicians and political parties in Italy have well-known nicknames.

For example, the League is sometimes referred to as ‘Il Carroccio’, the name for a medieval ox-drawn altar used for pre-battle church services. This was used as a symbol by the party back when it was called the Northern League.

And League leader Matteo Salvini is often referred to by his supporters as ‘Il Capitano’, or ‘The Captain’, which seems to be a reference to his preferred policy of leaving migrant rescue ships stranded at sea.

Meanwhile, Italia Viva leader and former PM Matteo Renzi is known as “il rottomatore” (“the scrapper”, or “the wrecker”) due to his unpopular habit of destabilising coalition governments.

Silvio Berlusconi meanwhile is often referred to in media reports as “l’immortale” (the immortal) because of his long political career, which continues today despite numerous sex scandals, a tax fraud conviction, regular health scares, and his advancing age.

There are of course plenty of other, more insulting nicknames used in Italian politics, which we won’t list here.

Is there another word or phrase you think we should add to the list? Please get in touch by email and let us know.

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For members

ITALIAN LANGUAGE

Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

Learning Italian can be tricky to begin with, but there are ways to help smooth the path to proficiency.

Five tips that make it easier to learn Italian

The journey to fluency in Italian can sometimes feels like it’s all uphill. Here are some tips for making things a little easier.

1. Practice speaking Italian as soon as you can

Speaking in Italian can feel daunting when you’re a beginner, but the best strategy is to throw yourself in at the deep end and not worry too much about making mistakes, as this is one of the quickest ways to get comfortable with the language.

  • If you live or work with someone who speaks fluent Italian, try to switch the conversation to Italian just for a few minutes a day to start with.
  • Set up a regular language exchange with a native Italian speaker. In Italy you’re likely to find plenty of Italians keen to practice their English and willing to correct your Italian in exchange. If you’re somewhere more remote, you can arrange online sessions through platforms like Tandem.
  • Look for places that hold language events, such as cafes or the weekly gatherings such as those held by the Koiné – Italian Language Centre in Rome where you can chat to other people learning Italian.
  • Join conversation groups through the Meetup app.
  • Look up ‘fare volontariato’ along with the name of your town to find volunteer opportunities in your area, where you will get to practice your Italian.

2. Language schools

There are a plethora of private language schools in Italy for foreign students wanting to learn Italian, with a wide range of prices and time commitment levels to choose from.

You may also be eligible for a free or heavily state-subsidised course at your local CPIA (Centro provinciale per l’istruzione degli adulti, or adult education centre). While most often most widely attended asylum seekers and refugees, in theory all foreign nationals over the age of 16 with a valid residency permit have access to these language programmes.

The advantage of language school is that it gives you a structure to your learning, and gives you skills in the four areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as learning about Italian culture. The class times are often flexible and you can choose between online and classroom lessons.

The downside is that with large class sizes, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to practice speaking, which is why supplementing language school with speaking opportunities can really help.

3. Italian media

Watching Italian TV with subtitles is always helpful. If you don’t have a TV, you can watch some Italian channels online, including programmes by national broadcaster Rai.

On Netflix there are popular Italian series including Zero, Baby, and Suburra: Blood on Rome.  

Italy’s podcast industry is currently growing rapidly, with new programmes popping up all the time – you can find a list of some of the best podcasts to get you started here.

READ ALSO: Some of the best podcasts for learners of Italian

Listening to Italy songs can help with pronunciation. The famous song Con te partirò, with its slow tempo, is a good one to get started with. Here are some other songs that can help you learn Italian.

4. Graphic novels and books

When you first arrive, reading children’s books out aloud can help you learn how to make your mouth form those tricky words, as well as give you confidence when you can read and understand the whole of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Il piccolo bruco maisazio) in Italian.

If you want something more targeted towards adults, books which have the Italian one page accompanied by an English translation on other, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole/In Other Words, are a good option as they allow you to easily and quickly check the meaning of words or phrases you don’t know.

Graphic novels by popular Italian writers and cartoonists like Zerocalcare and Gipi are also a great way in to the language, as you’ll learn more colloquial Italian while having pictures to tell you what’s going on.

You can borrow books from your local library or buy them from second hand shops and mercatini (markets), as well as at bookstores like Feltrinelli.

5. Creating new daily habits

Forming small but regular new habits will keep up your language learning without it feeling too overwhelming.

  • For example, keep a little notebook or a place on your phone where you can write down new words you come across in your daily life. During the week, while on the bus or waiting to meet a friend, keep looking at those words to get them stuck in your head.
  • When you’re caught off guard in situations, such as someone asking in a shop, “Posso aiutarla?” (‘can I help you?’), and you automatically blurt out English, don’t feel too disheartened. Instead, write the scenario down, find out the different ways to respond, and memorise them, so that next time it automatically comes out. “Sto solo guardando, grazie” (‘I’m just looking, thank you’) is always a useful one.
  • Add some Italian accounts to your social media so when you scroll, you’re seeing and hearing Italian. Italian news sites are a good place to start, then seek out the profiles of Italians who specialise in the kinds of things that naturally interest you, whether that’s cooking, fashion, football or something else.
  • Listen to Italian podcasts or audiobooks on your way to work or when doing the washing up, whether it’s about a topic you’re interested in, or a specific language learning podcast like ‘Coffee Break Italian’.
  • Plan out what you’re going to say in a new situation before you say it and commit to it in Italian, for example booking an appointment, ordering food, speaking to your neighbour or language teacher.

Italian language learning can be a slow process but keep going, take the small wins and one day, we promise, you will be understood. 

Find more articles on learning the Italian language here.

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