A window on language and customs in Italy

Linda Falcone
February 8, 2007

‘Sometimes used to introduce discussion or resume debate, mah is the net that captures stray thoughts. It’s the time you take before you jump and your chance to consider how cold the water is.’



I have never been on a speed-date in my life, and I’m hoping to be able to say that until the day I die. Repeated introductions, timers and frantic checklists make me nervous. I’m just not good at having to be interesting at high speeds. Besides, when you live in a country where getting sized up is the order of the day, there’s no need to torture oneself voluntarily-at least in public.


 I much prefer to have my ‘speed-date’ sessions in private-and most of these are purely language related. Finding a nice free phrase to spend quality time with is quite a feat, especially if you’re prone to weeding words out of your mind with the zeal of a gardener gone manic. This week, for instance, I’ve had several impressive close encounters with numerous Italian expressions. Alas, none of them made it past our seven-minute round of ‘getting to know you’.


 Admittedly, I am picky. A single writer seeking depth cannot just go falling in love with every word-suitor who offers her a plate at the picnic. For me, language is a love relationship, and if my heart isn’t in it or I can’t get my head around it, then there’s just no sense leading a poor word on. Aloneness is better than bad company, and survival can sometimes depend on a very good goodbye.

When I am truly lonely for a good word to write about, I call my mother. If you want to find some truth, you’ve got to go to someone you can’t lie to. Plus, she is a writer too, who knows better than to provide me with mere vocabulary. ‘Okay’, she told me over the phone last night, ‘Tell me what you’ve learned this week’.


‘Mah, non ho imparato niente, I haven’t learned anything’.


‘So, write about not learning anything’.


I refused the idea at first, of course. Partly because I couldn’t see the fun of it, and mostly because that’s what you do when you’re on an all-encompassing refusal rampage. But then it hit me—the word for that strange sense of inconformity I’d been carrying around with me for days. It’s what Italians say, when they can’t think of anything to say. It’s mah.


Often heard and frequently misunderstood, mah is a complex exclamation with a myriad of meanings. Useful in times of unveiled mystery, mah is also known to English-speakers as ‘who knows’ or ‘I haven’t got a clue’. It’s quite a bit stronger than boh, the other syllable Italians use to admit ignorance. Both words show that you have no idea what the final verdict will be, but mah, carries more skepticism. ‘Mah! That case will need a decade just to knock down the courtroom door. And once it’s in, there’s no telling what the judge’s gavel is going to hit’.


Sometimes used to introduce discussion or resume debate, mah can also be a net that captures stray thoughts. It’s the time you take before you jump and your chance to consider how cold the water is. Like the English word ‘well’, it gives you a chance to round up your run-wild ideas. Mah, however, holds none of well’s between-the-lines optimism. Think of it as a disclaimer disguised as an extra breath. As the prelude to a thought you’ve never before formulated, mah is a buffer against false hopes. It serves to warn the world that your speedy new theory might not make it through the test drive. ‘Mah! I don’t know if this will work, but I’m willing to give it a shot’.


A breath-based extension of ma, the Italian word for ‘but’, mah carries many of the same undertones. To the English speaker ‘but’ can be one scary bugger. With a tip of its hat, it topples the tower you carefully built in the first clause. ‘I appreciate your efforts, but the answer is no.’ Mah is ‘but’ without the padding, and it can stand alone if accompanied by an exclamation point. The seed of doubt and the champion of inconformity, mah means ‘I disagree’. The reasons why are considered obvious and often left unexplained.


With mah, looters like uncertainty, skepticism, ignorance and doubt become the crowded inmates of a cell that’s only three letters wide. In this sense, you’ve got to hand it to Italians. They have a knack for creating words with ant-like strength that can carry 10 times their body weight. Constantly pressed for space, Italians have learned how to pack a whole lot of meaning into a single unassuming syllable. So, while mah may not be a word for the highly dignified, it is both a crutch and a walking stick that can certainly prove useful for the likes of you and me.


One day, perhaps, we shall be wiser. In the meantime, it can’t hurt to have a word for all the things that are hard to get your heart in or your head around. Carry mah with you at all times. We can never know when the hemming, hawing, stalling side of ourselves will turn up and demand dinner. We’ll never know when our wild inner child will want to break out and make non-conformist angels in the snow.

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