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Learning Italian: Passato Remoto, more or less

Posted on the May 20th, 2009

This week in class, we’ve spent a couple of days studying the Italian verb form Passato Remoto. The conjugation of the verb essere (to be)  in present tense, as an example, is  sono, sei, è, siamo, siete, sono. In Passato Remoto, the conjugation transforms into fui, fosti, fu, fummo, foste, furono.

When and how to use Passato Remoto?

Well, I did try and write a paraphrase of what the teacher told us today but, with only a half-formed understanding, I failed miserably.  Looking for help,  I did a quick online search for Passato Remoto (English-language websites) and discovered I had a lot of company in my confusion.

So, I decided the safest thing to do is post an excerpt from an Italian textbook I’m using: (“Grammatica avanzata della lingua italiana” Alma Edizioni – Firenze, 2007 edition )

“Il passato remoto, rispetto al passato prossima, ha la caratteristica di essere più utilizzato nella lingua scritta. Per quanto riguarda il parlato la sua diffusione é piuttosto alta nel sud, scarsa nel centro Italia (a parte la Toscana) e praticamente nulla nell’Italia del nord…

“Al di là delle sue caratteristiche stilistiche e geografiche il passato remoto rende un discorso lontano non tanto nel tempo quanto nella sua percezione psicologica: una favola, una novella, un racconto, anche il testo di una canzone o di una ballata, al passato remoto collocano la narrazione in una dimensione epica, lontana dalla realtà di tutti i giorni.”

Rough translation:

Passato Remoto, respective to passato prossimo, has the characteristic of being more utilized in written language. As regards the spoken language, its diffusion is rather high in the south of Italy, scarce in central Italia (apart from Tuscany) and practically non-existent in northern Italy…

Aside from some of its stylistic and geographic characteristics, passato remoto is used to express distance not so much in time as in a psychological perception: a fable, a novel, an account or story, also the text of a song or of a ballad, in the passato remoto place the narration in an epic dimension, far from the reality of the everyday world.

Verb humor

Our teacher also told us about the common use of passato remoto in spoken Italian in south Italy and in Tuscany. For example, if a Tuscan is talking about a trip to the beach over the past weekend, he or she likely will prefer to use passato remoto, even though in time, the trip happened only the day before.

In Napoli, our teacher said, the use of passato remoto is so favored in everyday speech, that Italians share a longstanding joke about it: In Italy when someone knocks on a front door, or rings the doorbell, the standard response from the person inside is “Chi é?” (Who is it?). But in Napoli, so the joke goes, when the knock or doorbell ring happens, the response is “Chi fu?” (Who was it?).  Because you see, it already happened… ahem… so it’s past tense.

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