Tag Archives: Italy

Italian Tongue Twisters

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.


Original Text (1): Sopra la panca la capra campa, sotto la panca la capra crepa.

Transliteration: On top of the bench, the sheep/goat is singing, under the bench, the sheep/goat is dying.

Original Text (2): Apelle, figlio di Apollo, fece una palla di pelle di pollo. Tutti i pesci vennero 

a galla, per vedere la palla di pelle di pollo fatta da Apelle figlio di Apollo.

Transliteration: Apelle, son of Apollo, makes/fetches a ball of chicken meat. All of the fish came to the surface to see the ball of chicken meat that Apelle, son of Apollo, made.

Original Text (3): Trentatré Trentini entrano a Trentino, tutti e trentatré trotterellando

Transliteration: Thirty-three people from Trento enter the region of Trentino, all thirty-three of them trotting.

Context of Use

Italian tongue twisters are used for sport/entertainment among peers, often during social gatherings. Peers challenge each other to see who can speak the phrases fastest, without mistakes.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.


AG: *speaking quickly* Sopra la panca la capra campa, sotto la panca la capra crepa!

BK: *laughing* What on earth is that?

AG: *laughing* You know how here we have “how much wood could a woodstuff stuff”—  no wait, what is it— “how much… wood could a woodchuck chuck! If a woodchuck could chuck wood.” Or like “how much stuff could a stuffy stuff if a stuffy could stuff stuff,” right?

BK: Sure, “Sally sells seashells down by the seashore.”

AG: Yes, exactly! Uh, we have one of those in italian, and it’s… *enunciating* Sopra la— oh we have two! I’m think of two right now. Oh we have three! Trentatré… okay. Ok, so first one is *enunciating* Sopra la panca la capra campa,  which means on top of the bench, the sheep, or the goat, is singing. Sotto la panca la capra crepa, under the bench— it’s crepa the same word from the wolf [phrase] [See _________]— the goat is dying… or dies.

AG: And then we have, uhh, oh yeah! *AG claps and speaks to the rhythm* Apelle, figlio di Apollo, fece una palla di pelle di pollo. Tutti i pesci vennero a galla, per vedere la palla di pelle di pollo fatta da Apelle figlio di Apollo. *laughing* It’s Apelle, son of Apollo, fece, made or got, palla di pelle, a ball of… chicken meat? All the fish went to the surface to see this ball of chicken meat that Apelle, son of Apollo, made.

BK: So the tongue twisters, much like those in English, don’t make a lot of sense. When do you use these tongue twisters?

AG: I think just at parties to see who can do them fastest.

BK: So they become competitive?

AG: Sometimes, yeah. Especially the capra one because that’s really hard.

BK: How widely known are these tongue twisters?

AG: Everyone knows them. Even the trentatré… Trentini tutti trentatré trotterellando

*At this point, AG‘s father EG (52) interjects to correct her*

EG: Entrarono a Trentino

AG: What is it? I forget.

EG: Trentatré Trentini entrano a Trentino, tutti e trentatré trotterellando.

AG: Trentatré, so 33, Trentini… What is Trentini?

EG: People from Trento, where I used to live. Entrano

AG: Entrano… entrarono? Or is it entrano.

EG: I don’t know.

AG: Entrano Trentino… what’s Trentino?

EG: It’s the region that Trento’s in.

AG: Oh entro Trentino… OHH!! Tutti e trentatré trotterellando.

EG: All 33 trotting.

AG: So how do you say the full thing in English?

EG: 33 Trentini, like people from Trento, enter Trentino, which is the region around Trento, all 33 trotting.

BK: That’s almost a tongue twister in English! So when/where do you learn these?

AG: From cousins, peers, usually from cousins and among young people.

Collector’s Reflection

The culture of tongue twisters in Italian society is similar to that among Americans, particularly American school children. Nonsensical, yet difficult to articulate phrases are developed informally and shared orally by peers. These tongue twisters are used for entertainment in groups, where at least two participants will challenge each other to recite them as quickly as possible. More often than not, this will result in sputtering and laughter, as participants fail to cleanly recite the twisters. Rules or structured games associated with tongue twisters are uncommon (e.g. points system, prizes, etc.), though they may be implemented.

Another function of tongue twisters not mentioned by the informant is the improvement of pronunciation. Those learning a new language may be encouraged to practice tongue twisters to improve their command over said language’s phonetic composition, and overall fluency. Given the already quickly-spoken nature of the Italian language, tongue twisters may serve new language learners well.

Italian Proverb: “Old Age is Trouble”

Is there something of a proverb that comes to mind from home?

J.A. – “La vecchia e una rogne; ma si non l’arrive, e una veregogna.” (Italian)

Translates to: Old age is trouble; but if you don’t get there, it’s a shame.

J.A. – “My parents’ people were farmers in Italy.  This saying has a fatalistic humor that resonates with me.  I feel closer to people I never knew hearing the clever play on words in the original Italian.”


This being a dark proverb, it brings to my mind the mortality of those I’m close with.  I got stuck for a few minutes on the first half of that sentence; “old age is trouble.”  What does that mean?  Are you going to die?  Is disease coming for you?  It’s interesting – this person thought of the proverb as an example of “fatalistic humor.”  I’d disagree with that, actually.  I’d argue that it’s a blatantly depressing proverb, explaining that any life is better than death.  The inevitability of what’s coming for you may be frightening, but – hey, at least you’re alive.

Brunelleschi and The Egg


There is an old architecture legend about famed Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi trying to convince the city of Florence that he was the most qualified to build the Cathedral of Florence. The story goes that after being rejected due to his long absence in Germany, Brunelleschi attempted to show that not only did he have the artistic eye, but also the wit and intelligence to solve any problem. To do this, Brunelleschi handed each of the chosen architects an egg and asked them to stand it up on its end and have it stay there. After none of the architects were able to do it, Brunelleschi crushes one end, creating a surface that can be stood up on the table. According to the legend, this is what convinced the city that he was truly the smartest of the bunch.


My interview with my source, T, is as follows:

T: So when Brunelleschi was telling his idea to the city, he literally didn’t tell them anything he was going to do. He’s like, “Guys, I know how to do this, I know you have this problem, I’m going to build your building” and they’re like “uhh… you were gone for like 10 years, we don’t even know if you’re capable of this.” And he’s like “You’re gonna give me the job and here’s why.” So he gives them all eggs and says “Make the egg stand on its end. If one of you can do it then you don’t have to hire me.” And none of them could do it so he walks up to the table and says, “You want me to show you why I have more knowledge than you?” and he smashes the end of the egg on the table so it stands up on its end. They gave him the job.


I think this is a very clever legend. In all honesty the likelihood of this display of intelligence being the only driving factor behind Brunelleschi being hired is highly unlikely. The story, however, is a great way of conveying just how dedicated and clever Brunelleschi actually was, regardless of whether this event actually took place or not.

Phallic Symbolism on Homes in Pompeii

The informant, a 66-year-old American woman (my grandmother), has frequently traveled to Italy for the past several decades. During a celebration for my mother’s birthday, I pulled my grandmother aside and asked her if any particular Italian traditions or beliefs have stood out to her over the course of her travels, and she laughed.

“Oh my, you’re in for a treat. In Pompeii, the buildings were preserved in ash. After they had been dug out, many of the doors had carvings over them that were perfectly preserved. On more than one house, large penises are carved on the door. This would signify that it was a fertile home and would help whoever lived there to continue to have children and ensure success for a family. I’ve also heard that it was a way of bragging. Hey, if I had a large penis to brag about I’d probably do the same thing.”

Since these carvings would have been made in a pre-Christian era, they preceded the more familiar carving of a fish over one’s door, which Christians would use as a symbol to signify that their home was a safe place of worship. It is interesting to consider that in the cultural context of Pompeii thousands of years ago, representations of basic human anatomy were appropriate for placement in the extremely intimate barrier to one’s home–at the liminal divide between public and private. In America today, it goes without saying that a homeowner’s association would be less than pleased at the sight of a penis carved on someone’s porch. Perhaps this change has arisen because in the contemporary United States we no longer view having a fertile home and being able to sustain a family as an extraordinary accomplishment worth bragging about, instead we see it as something rather ordinary, but thousands of years ago during the Roman period it may have been looked upon as much more of an accomplishment worth bragging about to be able to provide for one’s family and maintain a fertile home.

You Should Never Go Into the Sea in a Month with an ‘R’

Informant: “I don’t remember how to say it in Italian now, but I remember the saying translates to ‘You should never go into the sea in a month with an “R”‘. I remember learning this when I was studying in Florence my Junior year of college, I was in Florence from January to June, but right in the middle, right around March, so spring break time, I went down to Sicily with a bunch of my friends. And it was a lot warmer than in Florence, but it wasn’t super warm, and so all of my friends wanted to go in the ocean, and my relative really had a hard time with that [laughs] because they were like ‘oh no, you can’t go into the ocean, it’s march’, and I said ‘So what if it’s march?’ and they said ‘you can’t, it’s a month with an r.’ And it was sort of a big deal. And I think the origin of this comes from, you know Sicily is an island, and in the past when a lot of people were poor, they didn’t go to school, and they didn’t know how to swim, and maybe it’s different now, but in the past most Sicilians didn’t know how to swim. And so if you go into the ocean when it’s cold, you might get a cramp or something, and you’re more likely to drown, plus in those months it’s colder, so if you think about it, January is cold, March, April… And May is warm, so that’s ok, and June, July, August. And September is starts getting cooler, and October, November, December. My friends ended up swimming anyways, but my relatives thought they were crazy…”

Collector [a few weeks after initial interview]: I was reading the transcript of my interview with you, when I realized that the Italian word for January, ‘Gennaio’, does not have an ‘R’ in it, despite this being one of the months you mentioned. How does this impact your opinion of this saying?

Informant: [short silence, then laughs] “Wow, you’re right! I can’t believe I never thought of that! Wow… that’s weird, I guess I had just always thought about it in English. Is that the only one? Wait… [Informant lists off all the months in Italian]. Yeah, so I guess that’s the only one that doesn’t work. All the other months that have ‘R’s in English also have ‘R’s in Italian except that one… Its so strange because I know when I was first told this, the person who told it to me said it in Italian. I guess maybe they just thought that they didn’t need to worry about January because it’s always so cold in January that no one would want to swim.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: Sicilians, living in a geographical area completely surrounded by water, would of course have a body of folklore concerned with when it is safe to go into the ocean, and when it is not. This saying serves as a mnemonic device to help remember when it is ok to swim in the ocean, and when it is unsafe to do so. For this reason, I would imagine that this originated more as a way to keep children safe from drowning in the ocean during the colder months in the winter as well as the late fall and early spring. Of course, this does not apply to anyone going out on the ocean, as most Sicilians would need to go out on the ocean year-round to support their livelihoods.