If the Italian language is a locked door that you’re still struggling to open, then I’ve come to bring you the key. No matter how many subjunctive verbs your language teachers want to fill your brains with, all you really need to get by in this country is a whole lot of prego. There are some words in the world that carry their weight in gold. There are some words that travelers should keep safely jingling in their pockets at all times. Some words are like spare change that can be easily spent in tight times. Prego is one of those words. It opens all doors. And in Italy, you’ll find it everywhere except ladled over your pasta. Prego is the multipurpose solution to every language need. Just what does it mean? Well, everything, actually.
Spend a week or two in Italy and you’ll see. Prego implies serviceable attention, it commands respect, and it encourages people to either wake up or speak up. Bread-selling ladies in their crisp candy-striped uniforms will shout it at you from behind mounds of soft focaccia. Harried postal workers will bark it at you from behind their protective Plexiglas shields. Newfound friends will shower you with prego as a sign of their dutiful affection.
When expressed as a question in shops and markets, prego means “can I help you?” or “what can I do for you?” It’s the invitation to ask for what you need. It’s your chance to become that demanding client that Italian shop-owners love so well. When expressed as an affirmation, prego grants permission. It means “of course” or “certainly” or “be my guest”. “May I come in?” Prego. “Do you mind if I open this window?” Prego. Thus, an initial exchange in a shop might sound something like this. “Prego?”
“Posso dare un’occhiata? Can I have a look around?”
In more informal situations, prego is often accompanied by props or gestures that modify its meaning. When accompanying wine and water or wooden plates of antipasti, prego means “help yourself”. When uttered alongside an empty chair, it becomes “please have a seat”. Say prego to an older lady when you are in a line at the grocery store, and you mean “feel free to go ahead of me since you are only buying milk.” Say it after someone profusely thanks you, and you will mean “you’re welcome” or “cheers”. Say it when someone’s mumbling or speaking too fast, and you will mean “I can’t hear” or “I beg your pardon?” Prego can also imply elegant disbelief or subtle non- conformity, and it is a favourite power word for all age groups.
Add the object pronoun ti to prego, and you will drastically enhance your communication abilities.
With ti prego, you’ll find a plethora of essential idioms suddenly on the tip of your eager tongue. Put your hands in front of your chest in the praying position, and you suddenly have “I beg of you” or “have mercy.” Roll your eyes and toss your head, and ti prego becomes “Give me a break, will you?” All very useful expressions, I might add, for those planning on staying in Italy for a long time.
Aren’t you happy to have such a lightweight, no fuss, highly practical word to tote around the peninsula? It doesn’t take long to love a language in which one word can mean so much. And it’s good to love a language that you have to work so hard for. For many frustrated English speakers learning Italian remains a quasi-mystical process, a journey through the dark forest of linguistic confusion. If you are one of them, a word like prego is like the sun shining through the trees. Or perhaps I’m being too dramatic. Perhaps the Italian habit of adding poetry to the most banal word stew has seeped into my cells. If so, ti prego, humor me. Because we really are talking about a magical word. It’s not just “please.” It also means “you’re welcome,” and almost everything in between.
Want (more) adventures in Italian expression?
Read Linda Falcone’s Italians Dance and I’m a Wallflower