Pasta Fagiole

This post is dedicated to my dear friend, Alisia Potente, who was the first person I ever heard besides Super Mario cry out, “Mama mia!” in all seriousness 😉


Everyone knows you can’t speak Italian without getting your hands involved. A language so melodic and dramatic in nature it practically requires a person to involve their entire body in the output of the simplest sentence.

Isabella Troggi, a professor in Rome, claims that Italians use around 250 hang gestures per day! By hand gestures, I don’t just mean talking with your hands – these gestures are set gestures that are used when saying one word or expression in particular. Below are some examples.

Screen Shot 2013-07-05 at 8.48.10 PM

Screen Shot 2013-07-05 at 8.48.03 PM

The Guardian

Researchers have theorized that hand gestures became prevalent amongst Italians in the busy, throbbing southern Italian cities, where bartering in a marketplace became easier if you could draw more attention to yourself using your body, not just your mouth.

He goes on for a bit too long, but this old Neapolitan man is quite thorough in his video, The Language of Gestures. He also has an amazingly stereotypical accent that I love! If you listen in the beginning, his theory is that because so many people came across the sea to the ports of Italy, of Napoli, that it was easier to communicate with gestures than by learning the Italian language. This goes along with the theory that “Italians developed them as an alternative form of communication during the centuries when they lived under foreign occupation — by Austria, France and Spain in the 14th through 19th centuries — as a way of communicating without their overlords understanding.”

“To Italians, gesturing comes naturally. “You mean Americans don’t gesture? They talk like this?” asked Pasquale Guarrancino, a Roman taxi driver, freezing up and placing his arms flat against his sides. He had been sitting in his cab talking with a friend outside, each moving his hands in elaborate choreography. Asked to describe his favorite gesture, he said it was not fit for print.” (NY Times)

I remember Alisia’s Italian friend, Sarah, remarking to me one night after I’d told some story, apparently throwing my hands around quite a bit, “Oh, wow, you Americans gesture too!” Yes, we do, but it’s more just talking with our hands, using them for a bit more emphasis on certain parts of a store, it’s not an intrinsic part of the language experience as it is in Italian. The only gestures I can think of in English that really speak for themselves are:

Screen Shot 2013-07-05 at 9.24.08 PM



Interestingly, there is no hand gesture for please, but there certainly is one for imploring the heavens above. Apparently among the young generation, they have begun using finger-quotation marks to suggest irony, which we do in English.

Hand gestures are synonymous with politics, and Berlusconi notably once made a hand gesture signifying WOWZA when he met Michelle Obama. The old horny bastard…the article also mentions another former prime minister, Guilio Andreotti, who famously kept his hands clasped together, displaying amazing self-control and the will not to bed 17-year old prostitutes.

But be warned – if you are gesturing all over the place and whack someone in the face, you could be liable for damages (looks like they sue in Italy too!):  Last year, Italy’s highest court ruled that a man who inadvertently struck an 80-year-old woman while gesticulating in a piazza in the southern region Puglia was liable for civil damages. “The public street isn’t a living room,” the judges ruled, saying, “The habit of accompanying a conversation with gestures, while certainly licit, becomes illicit” in some contexts.”

The NYTimes video below complemented their article on all this, and asks your normal, everyday Italians why they think they speak with so many gestures, and what their favorites are.

I particularly like the old lady with white hair, who says “It’s true, because not everything can be spoken. To make known what you really think, you have to help yourself.”

And I think I’ll end on that note 🙂


This post is entitled “Pasta Fagiole” because it’s a something in Italian that my dad can’t say without trying to say it like an Italian person. “We’re having PASTA fa-JO-li tonight, Al!”, doing “the classic fingers pinched against the thumb” (which actually means “Whaddya want from me??”, having nothing to do with what’s going to be eaten for dinner).

He also told me that the other night he went to some place to eat and ordered some pasta fagiole. The girl behind the counter goes, “What do you want?” and Dad’s like, “The pasta fagiole” and she’s like, “Oh, that’s how you say that? I thought it was pasta faggy-ole.” And then the other girl behind the counter was like, “Dang, me too!” Sigh.

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Language, Uncategorized, Untranslatable and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Pasta Fagiole

  1. I love the 10-minute video of the Italian man teaching gestures. I laughed out loud because I saw my father in so many familiar gestures. Thanks for posting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s