The History and Importance of the Neapolitan Language

Almost everyone knows that Italian is the official language of Italy. You might think this seems obvious; it’s even in the name. Some visitors know that German is also spoken in Italy and a little bit of French is spoken in the Northwest, but what about all the dialects? If you’ve ever been anywhere near Naples, you’ve probably heard of Neapolitan. 

Naples is one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world. While its history and culture are fascinating, what makes Naples so unique is its language. Urban Neapolitan, also known as Napulitano, is a dialect of Italian that is spoken by the people of Naples. It has many unique words and expressions that cannot be found in standard Italian. Learning Napulitano can provide travelers with a deeper understanding of the city and its people. It is also a great way to make new friends in Naples! So, if you’re planning on visiting this amazing city, be sure to learn a few phrases in Napulitano!

Naples has been around for centuries, and its culture has been heavily influenced by the many civilizations that have occupied this region over the years. The ancient Greeks were one of the first groups to settle in Naples and they left behind a powerful legacy that is still evident in the city’s architecture and culture today. The Romans also had a significant impact on Naples and their influence is particularly evident in the city’s language and music. After centuries under Roman rule, Naples eventually became part of the unified Italy in 1861. However, since it was located on the rugged Italian coastline, Naples developed its own distinct dialect that differed from standard Italian. 

There’s something special about Neapolitan. It’s more than just a language – it’s a way of life. Travelers to Naples are immediately captivated by the city’s passion for life, its vibrant culture, and its unique spirit. And it’s no wonder that UNESCO has now recognized Neapolitan as an official language. This decision is a testament to the incredible richness of the Neapolitan culture, which has been passed down through generations of passionate speakers. From the unforgettable melodies of Neapolitan songs to the hilarious comedies of Eduardo de Filippo, Neapolitan has always been a language of emotion and expression. Now, with UNESCO’s recognition, the world can finally appreciate Neapolitan for the beautiful language it truly is.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in dialects as a way of preserving Italy’s linguistic heritage. In some cases, dialects are being taught in schools as a way of keeping them alive. This is particularly true in the south of Italy where some dialects are at risk of dying out due to migration and the increased use of standard Italian. By teaching children their regional dialect, it is hoped that they will be more likely to use it themselves and pass it on to future generations.

There are many different dialects spoken throughout Italy. Each dialect has its own unique features that set it apart from standard Italian as well as other dialects. If you’re planning a trip to Italy anytime soon, why not learn some basic phrases in one of these dialects?   More importantly, learn some Neapolitan!

Our Favorite Neapolitan Idioms and Expressions

  • A quatt’e bastune— to be “on four walking sticks” means to be fully relaxed. This expression comes from the depiction of four walking sticks shown on Neapolitan cards.
  • Chiachiello — this term is used for someone who’s all talk.
  • Chino ‘i vacantarìa — literally meaning “full of emptiness,” this expression is used to describe something empty.
  • Dicette ‘o pappecio ‘n faccia ‘a noce: damme ‘o tiempo ca te spertos o. — this is one of the most iconic Neapolitan expressions, literally meaning “The worm said to the walnut tree, give me time so I can burrow into you.” It’s a plea to not let go.
  • ‘E stramacchio — means “clandestinely” or “under wraps.”
  • Fa ‘o paro e ‘o sparo — when someone is doing something “odds and evens” in Neapolitan, it doesn’t mean they’re deciding whether they’ll do something. Instead, they’re weighing the pros and cons of a decision.
  • Gente ‘e miez’ ‘a via — people on the street live from hand to mouth to get by.
  • Ha da passa’ ‘a nuttata — one of the most celebrated Neapolitan expressions was used for the first time by Eduardo de Filippo in the comedy Side Street Story, and essentially means that you have to keep going during the hard times (the nuttata) because better times are ahead.
  • Inta a scurdata — Neapolitans say this when something was never forgotten and the time has come to right a wrong.
  • Jamme bell’, jà! — this is one of the most well-known Neapolitan expressions outside of Naples, and it literally means “Come on, beautiful, come on!”
  • L’acqua è poca e ‘a papera nun galleggia — this expression literally means “there’s so little water not even a duck could float.” Neapolitans use this expression when a situation is really bad.
  • Mmange, ca ru ttuoie mange — this literally means “eat because otherwise you’ll eat from your plate.” The meaning isn’t easy to guess from the literal translation, but Neapolitans use this expression for someone who tries to use a situation to their advantage without realizing that they themselves will face the consequences later on.
  • Me dai na voce — literally “give me a voice,” this expressions means “let me know.”
  • Metterse ntridece — this curious expression sounds similar to a Sicilian expression, but it has a different meaning.  Someone who “puts themselves in thirteen” is someone who sticks their nose where it doesn’t belong.
  • ‘Nu guaio ‘e notte — literally translating to “a pickle in the night,” this expression means a disaster, or a serious predicament that’s practically impossible to solve.
  • ‘O ciuccio ‘e Fechella — this Neapolitan expression definitely stands out because of its origin story. L’asino di Fechella, or “Fechella’s donkey,” is an expression used for people who are ill. It seems like a certain Fechella had a particularly sickly donkey that was ill-adapted for carrying things.
  • ‘O guappo ‘e cartone — the guappo is an arrogant guy, and when they’re di cartone it means that they’re all bark and no bite.
  • ‘O munaciello — this mythical creature is a type of elf endowed with magical powers that can either be good or bad. You can hear them being talked about when something inexplicable happens in the house.
  • Parlà mazzecato — someone who only tells half of the story, whether it’s because of spinelessness or calculation.
  • Rutto pe’ rutto — literally “broken for broken,” it means at this point what’s done is done, what happens happens.
  • Scarte frúscio e piglie primera — if you’re a fan of the musical artist Liberato, you might be familiar with this expression. The literal translation doesn’t quite match up with its current use (because it refers to a card game that’s no longer played), but the expression’s meaning is clear: it’s when you try to avoid a mess and end up in a worse situation.
  • Se so rotte le giarretelle — giarratelle are small pitchers, and this phrase refers to them breaking. It means a very solid bond between two people has been broken.
  • Si’ ‘nu babbà — Neapolitan expressions are closely linked to local cuisine, and this expression is no exception. When someone says that they’re a babbà, it means that they’re saying they’re darling or a doll.
  • Statte buono — the ultimate sendoff, meaning “fare thee well.”
  • Stann’ cazz’ e cucchiar — no, this isn’t a vulgar expression. It literally means “like a bucket for the mortar and the trowel.” The actual meaning refers to two people who understand each other perfectly.
  • Tene’ ‘a neva ‘int’ ‘a sacca — someone who “has snow in their pocket” is someone who’s in a rush. Maybe they’re afraid the snow will melt?
  • Tene’ l’arteteca — means “to be rambunctious.” Arteteca is a rheumatic fever that causes spasms and was once common in children.
  • Tène ‘o mmale ‘e ndindò: a isso lle vène e a me no — means something to the effect of “you have ridiculitis, but I don’t get sick from it.” But what does male di dindò mean? It’s an expression for someone who’s allergic to hard work, so it’s a malady that afflicts every slacker when there’s work to do.
  • Zittu zitto, ‘nmiezo ‘o mercato — someone who does things “hush hush in the middle of the market” thinks they’re acting stealthily but everyone can see them, and therefore they’re drawing attention to themselves.