Italian teachers mystified

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A Norwegian couple went on a language course in Otranto, Puglia – a beautiful historical town at the heel of the Italian boot. When enrolling, they had given their occupations as “farmacista” and “pastore”. The teachers were expecting a pharmacist and her shepherd husband. They thought it was an interesting match.

During the first lesson, everybody was asked the classic question “Why are you studying Italian, and do you find it difficult?” The pharmacist said that she had had quite a bit of Latin during her studies, and that was a big help when learning Italian. Her husband said it was the same for him. The teachers were impressed by the level of education of Norwegian shepherds.

A few days later, the verb “pregare” popped up in a lesson. “Pregare” means both to ask (politely yet fervently) and to pray. The Norwegian student joked that in his professional life he was very familiar with the first person plural imperative of that verb, “preghiamo” – let us pray.

At that point, the teachers may have had a split second’s mental picture of Shaun the Sheep and his mates saying grace before their graze, but it soon dawned on them that something was off. This man was not a shepherd watching over a flock of sheep. He was a Lutheran priest.

The fact that the man was married had made the teachers assume that he could not be the priest-variety of a “pastore”. It’s not that these were ignorant people. Quite on the contrary, they were very well-read and highly educated: one of them had studied law and history, the other had a degree in linguistics and anthropology. But living in basically Catholic Italy, they were not used to priests establishing families, so the sheep-minder was the more obvious interpretation.

There are numerous examples of words with several meanings. Usually, it is clear from the context, which one is meant. Sometimes, though, there are several plausible possibilities, and we will automatically go for the solution that makes most sense according to our own background.

Both an English schoolboy and a Norwegian cat may lick their lips at the thought of Kit(e)Kat, but they will have different expectations – and they are likely to get annoyed if we mix up their snacks.

In fact, “pastore” has a third meaning in Italian, namely a shepherd dog. The teachers never expected the canine version to turn up at their school, though.

The picture shows what can happen when Norwegian shepherds leave their flock and take off to Italy – total chaos, sheep all over the place, wilfully ignoring the zebra crossing.



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march, 2023

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