“Boh, che ne so?” The baker’s nephew replied as we leaned against a wall at the edge of Orvieto.
I had just asked a question that should have been asked on the 8th, instead of the first, date because all of the other Italian words I knew had taken leave.
The fact that I had just asked this acquaintance to share the depths of his soul with me was not the point. The point, in fact, was the complete Italian-ness of the sentence he had just said.
You could translate it to, “Eh, what do I know?”
If you’ve spent any length of time in Italy listening to Italians (or have watched snippets of Italian TV), you’ve heard all kinds of sounds used to express a spectrum of emotions.
These sounds, once mastered, will help you sound more like a native speaker, and after a while, they’ll be so natural that you’ll find yourself doing them in your native language, too.
In this article, I’m going to break down four sounds: boh, beh, uffa, and oh.
WORD 1: BOH
“Boh” isn’t the most refined word to use (particularly in formal situations), but it is common in everyday Italian.
So when and how do Italians use “boh”?
1.) To express uncertainty or doubt
You: Credi nel destino? – Do you believe in destiny?
Italian: Boh, che ne so? – What do I know?
You: Com’è andata l’intervista? – How did the interview go?
Italian: Boh! Non ne ho idea. – I have no idea.
You: Pensi che tu abbia superato l’esame? – Do you think you passed the exam?
Italian: Boh! Vediamo. – Who knows? We’ll see.
2.) To express confusion
— Boh, non so veramente che pensare! – I really don’t know what to think about it!
You: Che strada dovremmo prendere?! – What street should we take?
Italian: Boh! – Your guess is as good as mine.
You: Hai capito cosa ha detto? – Did you understand what she said?
Italian: Boh, no, non ho capito niente! – No, I didn’t get anything!
3.) To avoid continuing the conversation
La mamma: Hai progetti di cercare un lavoro? – Do you have plans to look for a job?
La figlia: Boh. – Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t. Either way, I don’t want to talk about it.
Boy: Mi ami ancora? – Do you still love me?
Girl: Boh, non lo so più. – I don’t know (and you end the conversation).
WORD 2: BEH (BÉ)
You can think of “beh” as another form of a pausing, almost like saying “well…”. You may recognize a similar usage in the word “allora” or “insomma”.
Here are some examples of how to use it.
A: Avresti dovuto dirmelo! – You should have told me!
B: Beh…non sapevo cosa avrei potuto dirti… – Well… I didn’t know what I would say to you.
A: Che dovremmo fare? – What should we do?
B: Beh, magari dovremmo chiamare sua madre. – Well, maybe we should call his mom.
2.) Uh, um
A: Andiamo a mangiare! – Let’s go eat.
B: Va bene, dov’è? – Okay, where?
A: Beh…scegli tu. – Uh…you choose.
E: Come mai parli italiano così bene? – How come you speak Italian so well?
F: Beh…ho vissuto in Italia per un paio d’anni e poi…in realtà non lo parlo fluentemente. – Uh/well…I lived in Italy for some years and then…really I don’t speak it fluently.
WORD 3: UFFA
“Uffa” is a funny word, borrowed from children’s vocabulary, and because of this it’s considered delicate and almost polite.
It could be translated as “darn” or “ugh” when the situation you’re in is unfavorable, or just to communicate to the people around you that you’re about to lose your patience. Remember, it’s really informal, so don’t use this around bosses or post office workers (no matter how badly you want to!).
A: Devi andare a lavoro oggi! – You gotta go to work today!
B: Uffa, sembri la mamma! – Ugh, you sound like my mom.
Guy: I posti per il cinema di stasera sono terminati! Il prossimo sarà domani. – Seats are full tonight for the movie. The next show will be tomorrow.
You: Uffa! Non ci posso credere. Due ore di fila e non siamo riusciti ad entrare!! – Oh gosh! I can’t believe it. We’ve been waiting at the line for two hours and we didn’t make it to get in!!
Mom: Amore, non puoi mangiare il gelato perchè tra poco si cena. – Honey, you can’t have the ice cream now, cause we’re going to eat in a few minutes.
Kid: UFFAAAAAAA! Ma io lo voglio!! – AAAAARGH, but I want it!!!!
WORD 4: OH/AHÒ
This is definitely the easiest of the sounds to understand as it’s typically used as an interjection or as a way to express surprise.
1.) Interjection (of passion, let’s say)
— Oh, non so che dirti! – Hey man, I don’t know what to tell you.
A: Non mi piace per niente la Grecia. – I don’t like Greece at all.
B: Oh, se non ti piace, allora, vattene. – Hey, if you don’t like it, then leave.
A: Ahò ma ti ho detto di venire qui alle tre! – Hey, I told you to come here at 3pm!
B: Che ci posso fare se il treno era in ritardo!! – What could I about the train being late!!
CPF: Ahò is Roman dialect.
A: Ecco qua il tuo regalo! – Here is your gift!
B: Oh, che bella sorpresa! É proprio quello che desideravo. – Oooh, what a nice surprise! It’s exactly what I wanted!
A: Ehi, ciao! – Hey there!
B: Oh, eccoti qui. – Hey, There you are.
A: Giulia non mi è mai stata simpatica. – I’ve never liked Giulia much.
B: Oh, questa è nuova! – Oh, that’s news!
Have questions on how to use these sounds or fun stories to tell? Leave a comment below!