I woke in the middle of the night wondering how you say ‘early’ in Italian. (My wife and I had just seen an Italian movie, which may have prodded my mind in that direction.) My Italian isn’t great, but I know most of the basic vocabulary, so it was frustrating. “Let’s see, it’s temprano in Spanish, de bonne heure in French…” Nothing helped, so I got up and looked it up. Turns out you can say either presto (Se ne andarono presto ‘They left early’) or di buon’ora (but that seems to be limited to ‘early in the morning’). It made me realize that ‘early’ is a multivalent concept (see the various senses at Wiktionary; I’m sure the OED slices even more finely). I also thought that maybe the English word was related to Russian рано [rano], but the latter does not have a clear etymology.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    This first comment is a little early to be moving off-topic already, but that ne in se ne andarono seriously puzzled me. After some lay research, I find that it derives from Lat. inde. It seems to function much like the en pronomial adverb (?) in French, which has the same origin ? In some contexts I guess German davon would do the trick (or just weg in weggehen, for this se ne andarono example).

    Of course there’s no need to match up audibilia in one language with audibilia in another, you just say what is idiomatic in each language.

  2. Nonsense — move off-topic early and often! And yes, that “ne” is an interesting little fellow.

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Even with languages that you imagine you know a little about, you turn the corner and run into a wall. At the little Italian restaurant I frequent, I now know to say va bene cosí in a worldly manner instead of “keep the change”, and I can order penne quattro formaggi con olive nere without blinking an eye. But I understand not a single word (apart from “pizza”) when the Italian cooks talk Sicilian with each other.

    I fully expect to find out some day that I have never really understood the lyrics of Old MacDonald Had A Farm.

  4. Yeah, Sicilian is a whole nother language.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Sometimes you know a few common words, esp. “function words” but don’t know the key lower-frequency words that are actually crucial to the meaning of what’s being said or written. Sort of like “with a ?? here and a ?? there; ? here ? there ???? everywhere.” 17 years ago I was in Italy and found that I could figure out most spraypainted political graffiti except for the most important bits: i.e. I could figure out that something roughly meant “hurray for X” or “down with Y,” but not solve for X or Y. (The one exception, reflecting an apparent Italian graffitist fascination with the criminal justice system of Pennsylvania, was “LIBERA MUMIA.”)

  6. Maybe they wanted a mummy freed and they just couldn’t spel very wel.

  7. Isn’t French de bonne heure also mostly used to mean early in the morning? Tôt seems to cover a wider range of options; and there’s also précoce(ment).

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Spanish enhorabuena! means “congrats!” Whereas pues … enhorabuena means “well … if you say so”.

    Jes’ sayin’.

  9. Isn’t French de bonne heure also mostly used to mean early in the morning? Tôt seems to cover a wider range of options; and there’s also précoce(ment).

    True, but you have to remember I was coming up with these words around three in the morning while tossing in my bed.

  10. Why is it that I get the feeling that insomnia caused/by accompanied by wondering how to say something in a particular language, with possible questions as to the etymology of (a) word(s) that one does happen to recall, is a health problem readers of this blog suffer from substantially more than people in general?

    Stu: When I was taking Italian in a French-language cégep (A peculiarly Québec educational establishment, broadly equivalent to a junior college), our teacher told us that she also taught Italian to anglophones, and that in her experience it took about twice as long for anglophones to learn Italian compared to francophones (Italian and French share a LOT of features!). As a result, in courses she taught in English language institutions she would (for example), when teaching Italian NE, tell her native francophone/fluent French L2 students that “NE is just like French EN, despite being spelled backwards” and would then watch them horse around/flirt/doze off/whatever in class while she explained the function of NE to her monolingual English-speaking students…

    The example sentence is a case in point: “se ne andarono” corresponds morpheme-by-morpheme to French “(ils) s’en allèrent”. What makes Italian (and Spanish!) tricky for francophones is the fact that after non-finite verb forms clitic pronouns (including NE in Italian) are postverbal rather than preverbal, and, making it worse, are not written as separate words. These two factors combined make all too many verb + clitic groups MUCH harder to parse (For us poor standardized Northern Gallo-Latin speakers trying to read the words of our Southern fellow Latin-speaking brethren) than they should be (I believe Marie-Lucie once made a similar point, relating to her reading Italian).

  11. It took me FOREVER to realize that Italian “ne” is like French “en”, not French “ne”.

  12. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Catalan has the same particle as Italian ne and French en, and has it both as en and as ne depending on position.

    E.g., se’n van anar (they left, se ne andarono) but se n’han anat (they’ve left, se ne sono andati). Or without elisions: en van portar tres or van portar-ne tres (identically: they brought three, ne portarono tre).

    Spanish lacks it, which I suppose makes it a shibboleth of sorts in Catalonia.

  13. Why is it that I get the feeling that insomnia caused/by accompanied by wondering how to say something in a particular language, with possible questions as to the etymology of (a) word(s) that one does happen to recall, is a health problem readers of this blog suffer from substantially more than people in general?

    I get the same feeling, though must confess I don’t go round asking people what it is that keeps them awake in the small hours (if anything). There’s few topics my brain won’t wander through in that scenario; telling it to shut the fuck up and go to sleep is of course entirely counter-productive: how do you say that in X language? …

  14. Yes, ne is cute. Vattene! = French Vas-t’en! = “Go away!” or “Get out!” or something ruder.

    In the playful language mosaic heard in our household “soon” might be expressed in what is imagined to be the way in some ad hoc fictitious minor Romance tongue. “Bentot”, perhaps. Early? That might be “prestmen”, I suppose.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    There was a proto-Oti-Volta verb meaning specifically “get up very early in the morning”, with modern reflexes like Mooré yake and Mbelime yaki.

    I dare say that this, by itself, suffices to prove that the speakers of proto-Oti-Volta were subsistence farmers (not that there was much doubt about it anyway.)

  16. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I have a feeling that Spanish irse has a strong tinge of “getting out” even without the en/ne particle, so that vete! has the necessary illocutionary force all by itself.

  17. The Biblical (and later) Hebrew verb לְ-הַשְׁכִּים lǝ-haškîm (infinitive; root škm, in hiphʿil only) is interesting. In the OT it is most often used to mean ‘to rise early’ (and hence later transitively, ‘to awaken’). The only etymology I could find is a secondary meaning of ‘to shoulder (a burden)’, ‘to load up an animal’, from שֶׁכֶם šeḵem ‘lower back shoulder, shoulder-blade’. The sense of loading up is widespread in other Semitic cognates. The idea behind the etymology is that a animals are loaded early in the morning with one’s belongings before moving on, if you are a nomad.

    From ‘rise early’ came the further Mishnaic use as an an auxiliary + infinitive, meaning ‘to be early to do something’, e.g. הִשְׁכִּים לָבֹא hiškîm lāḇoʼ ‘he came early’, and hence ‘to be earlier, to anticipate’. Under the present circumstances, it pains me to give the best known example of this usage, אִם בָּא לְהָרְגְךָ – הַשְׁכֵּם לְהָרְגוֹ ʾim bāʾ lǝhŏrgǝḵā haškēm lǝhŏrgô (Bavli Sanhedrin 72.1), literally and loosely ‘if comes to.kill.you wake.IMP.m.sg. to.kill.him’, i.e. ‘if one is about to kill you, kill him first’. I like better the joky version, הַבָּא לְהַשְׁכִּימְךָ – הַשְׁכֵּם לְהָרְגוֹ haba lehashkimkha—hashkem lehorgo ‘he who comes to wake you up—kill him first.’ That one appealed to my night-owl family.

  18. In Ukrainian ранок = morning. I would be surprised if it was not closely related to рано = early.

  19. It definitely is; see the last link (Vasmer) in my post:

    сравн. ра́ньше, ра́нее; ра́нний, -яя, укр. ра́но, ра́нок “утро”

  20. Sicilian is a whole nother language.

    Mob boss Joe Bonanno was proud to be fluent in three languages: Standard Italian, English and Sicilian.
    His colleague Albert Anastasia (Umberto Anastasio) on the other hand allegedly could only speak his native Calabrian fluently and never really mastered English or Standard Italian; I find that hard to believe — you can’t really be a major figure in organised crime for several decades without being able to communicate properly.

    I realised early that French en and Italian ne were basically the same thing, but only really understood what they are doing once I learned they were derived from Latin inde. So much for all those claims that etymology is of no use in learning a foreign language.

  21. you can’t really be a major figure in organised crime for several decades without being able to communicate properly.

    I think a combination of broken English, broken Italian, and a large repertory of firearms can substitute effectively for a fluent command of those languages.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    you can’t really be a major figure in organised crime for several decades without being able to communicate properly.

    Trump ?

    ETA: for essentially the reasons just given by Hat.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    I guess the question might be whether* Anastasia’s particular stopping point on the Calabrian dialect continuum was close enough to Sicilian that he could communicate smoothly and effectively with Sicilian-speakers. If so, he was probably surrounded by enough of those (not all of whom, one might hope, would simultaneously be disloyal) to find out what was going on in the wider world and give directions to be carried out in the wider world.

    *Looking at his place of birth, which is only 100 km on the modern highways from where you can catch the ferry over to Messina, that seems likely, but obviously things may have been different in his childhood.

  24. Stu Clayton says

    If so, he was probably surrounded by enough of those (not all of whom, one might hope, would simultaneously be disloyal) to find out what was going on in the wider world and give directions to be carried out in the wider world.

    A helpful arrangement would have his surrounders unable to understand each other well. Conquering without having to divide, since the divisions are already present. Add a good dose of ruthlessness, and Roberto’s your zio. That’s how I would do it.

  25. J.W. Brewer says

    Stu’s suggestion of having surrounders w/o a common language will be likely to forestall certain potential problems but also requires Mr. Big’s skillset to include ability to communicate with all the different linguistically-fragmented surrounders. If a particular Mr. Big lacks that skillset, it’s not a strategy that can really be implemented.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    Mr Big knows what he wants. If the surrounders do not “get it”, he replaces them….

  27. Stu Clayton says

    @JWB: I did not say the surrounders must have no common language. I said they should be unable to understand each other well. Much like what is happening right now in this comment thread, in the presence of a common language.

    @PP: Yes. Mr. Big can easily play his surrounders against each other. The goal is to prevent conspiracy against himself. This is easy to do if he has no scruples about high turnover. Just terminate one of the surrounders from time to time, on any pretext whatever, in order to keep the others off their toes. Did not Mr. Stalin work like this ?

    The biggest risk would be to fail to pay his lawyers’ fees, at least in countries where lawyers are needed.

  28. If one was s soldati working for “Mad Hatter” Anastasia, supposedly the most volatile don of his day, one would probably be strongly motivated to understand what the boss wanted done.

    That said, given that Anastasia had a lot of connections to Jewish gangsters earlier in his career, I am dubious that he really couldn’t communicate effectively except in Calabrian. He and Lepke Buchalter, who worked together farming out hits and controlling the dock unions, probably needed a common language.

  29. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The one that confused me (and probably others) is that Portuguese no doesn’t correspond to Spanish no but to en el.

  30. Just so you know, these days it’s usually going to be presto and not di buon’ora, which almost automatically makes me think a lungo mi sono coricato (although IMO there are better translations of that line). Also, if you want to say “early” in the sense of “earlier than expected,” you can use d’anticipo.

    Re Albert Anastasia: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he couldn’t speak standard Italian, but I have a hard time believing he couldn’t communicate in English, given that he immigrated as a teen and even served as a sergeant in the US Army during WWII. Of course, “could communicate” is not the same as “mastered.” My guess is that he had a heavy accent and made the mistakes of an ok-but-not-great L2 speaker, like his brother here: https://alchetron.com/Anthony-Anastasio

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    We’re seeing some of the effects of not having a Mr. Big in the drug traffic in Marseilles. A few years there was a generally accepted Mr. Big who didn’t allow his minions to shoot one another or anyone else. Back in 2003 there was violent rioting in all the major French cities, apart from Marseilles, after a couple of boys managed to electrocute themselves after taking refuge in an electricity sub-station. Nothing much happened in Marseilles because Mr. Big didn’t allow it. Then he died (of natural causes, I think) and war broke out between two people who thought they should succeed him. There were lots of shootings*, but almost none of them affected innocent bystanders, because the shooters were quite professional and only killed the people they wanted to kill. Now it’s much worse, because there is no accepted leader but a collection of wannabe leaders whose authority is very limited. Most of the shooting is done, apparently, by boys with no training or professionalism.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that having a Mr. Big is a good thing. I’d much prefer to have no drug traffic at all, but that appears not to be an option.

    *”Lots” is a relative term, of course. Even at its worst we have far fewer murders than some other cities of similar population size, like Philadelphia or Phoenix. I don’t go about my daily business worrying about whether I’ll be shot at. We’re more worried that the synagogue that we pass almost every day will be attacked.

  32. A similar situation in Baltimore was a major theme of The Wire.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    Without making any excuses for Philadelphia’s recent number of homicides I will note that (if we’re talking absolute numbers rather than a population-adjusted rate), its population is almost double that of Marseille. That’s the within-city-limits-proper population – the disproportion would be greater if you looked at metropolitan areas. Marseille, whatever its fame for achievements in the field of organized crime, also has yet to produce a truly impressive baseball or ice hockey team. (Each city has its traditional culinary delicacies, both sets of which have their enthusiasts, but de gustibus etc.)

  34. The Marseille cheesesteak is too little appreciated.

  35. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I feel a vaguely patriotic impulse (o/b/o the greater Philly area) to question whether the competition to determine a new Monsieur Big for Marseille is quite as sanguinary as the early Eighties competition to determine a new Signor Big for Philadelphia was. Consider all the murders of high-level figures over a fairly short time frame detailed in three concise paragraphs here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicodemo_Scarfo#Power_struggle

    On the culinary front, there’s an excellent cheesesteak place on Passyunk Ave. that’s owned and operated by various relatives of one of the senior murder victims mentioned in that section and named after his still-surviving younger son (who officially is definitely not the owner), who has over the years been in and out of the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons.

  36. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned previously my disillusionment on learning that the New Haven mob was laughed at by both the Boston and New York families; FBI wiretaps revealed that they spent much of their time arguing about pizza and petty debts.

  37. Keith Ivey says

    Well, they couldn’t very well live in New Haven without arguing about (a)pizza.

  38. I think what I meant to say was “ordering pizza and arguing about petty debts,” but let’s face it, it’s been decades since I read the exposé in (probably) the Register, and I may be confabulating. The general purport was clear, though: they were small potatoes.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    When I were an undergraduate in New Haven four decades ago, there was a senior member of the janitorial/custodial staff (meaning he didn’t personally mop floors or fix broken faucets – he told someone who reported to him to do it) who was reputed to have historically had organized crime ties, but not necessarily of a violent nature. Just a prior career helping with the administration of the illegal numbers games in certain New Haven neighborhoods back before the greedy SOB’s in the state legislature engaged in the unfair competitive practice of starting up their own technically legal numbers game and thereby undermining the old illegal business model.

  40. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, while potatoes, small or large, are not a traditional pizza topping (whether for the New Haven style or others), I found this new seasonal offering remarkably tasty. https://www.wtnh.com/ctmorningbuzz/frank-pepe-pizzeria-napoletanas-fall-special-patata-rustica/ Frank Pepe’s has now opened a number of locations outside New Haven, but I think the closest they’ve gotten to Chez Hat is near Hartford – there are Mass. locations but I think all pretty close to Boston.

  41. Boston organized crime was pretty pathetic in its own way. The mafia in Boston was subservient to the ones in Providence. Providence! And if you read about Whitey’s heyday as the biggest organized crime figure in town the stuff his gang was involved in was pretty small potatoes; at one point their biggest earner was a guy drugging racehorses.

  42. Come to think of it, I probably should have written “laughed at by both the Providence and New York families.” Better yet, I should have kept my mouth shut (as the relevant potatoes doubtless would have advised me).

  43. providence is living proof (as is hartford, in its way, and arguably delaware in its entirety) that the significance of a place and the significance of its sketchy businessmen need not have any particular alignment.

    but i also (yes, as a matter of hometown pride, porter square being closer to winter hill than to cambridge city hall – but not merely so) feel it’s incorrect to judge the bulger brothers by the scale of their business enterprises rather than the scale of triumph involved in (1) being paid by the feds to simply continue being a mob boss and (2) completing their respective long and mutually beneficial careers without ever having to implicate each other. i’m not sure there’s another Family that has succeeded to the same degree.

  44. In Occitan early (as meaning de bonne heure) can be d’ora, d’abora, or de bona ora. And of relevance to another discussion (directions, in various Romance languages):

    al levant, de levant
    Sinonim(e)s: a l’orient, d’orient; a l’autan, d’autan; al marin, de marin; a solelh
    levant, al pujant.
    al ponent, de ponent
    Sinonim(e)s: al colcant, de colcant; al cèrs, de cèrs; a solelh colc.
    – Loís Alibèrt, Principis Gramaticals de l’Occitan, 1935 [rev. 1976 and later]

    These and others of interest are listed in that work, but they are glossed in French in a different recension that I have in print. Examples:

    d’aura en aura, de vent en vent: fr. en direction Est-Ouest.
    de montanha en montanha: fr. en direction Nord-Sud.

    This last, along with al marin and de marin for “east”, is of particular interest to me. As mentioned elsewhere, directions in Borneo can be strange. I noticed nothing special this time, but before when I was at Sandakan (in the Malaysian state of Sabah, north part of Borneo) I noticed that everyone including travel agents considered north to be the same as seaward – even though the town is located with the sea to the south. Local maps were invariably “upside down”. Hypothesis: For most of Sabah the sea would indeed be to the north, so equating seaward and northward would usually work quite well. Disconcerting for tourists and decadent westerner pedants. I got thoroughly lost when I asked for directions.

  45. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Mais dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de tems en tems un Amiral pour encourager les autres.

  46. In Japanese, hayai ‘early’ overlaps with ‘quick, speedy’. It’s possible to distinguish the two senses with separate kanji: 早い ‘early, quickly’ vs. 速い ‘fast, speedy’, as in 速度 sokudo ‘velocity, tempo’; 速記 sokki ‘shorthand’; 速読 sokudoku ‘speed reading’. But ‘quick march, quick time’ can be rendered as 速歩 sokuho ‘fast walk’ or 早足 hayaashi ‘fast foot’, and there are lots of expressions where 早 ‘haya’ means ‘fast’ as well as ‘early’: 早川 hayakawa ‘swift river’; 早馬 hayauma ‘fast horse’; 早起き hayaoki ‘early rising’; 早寝 hayane ‘early to bed’; 早取り hayatori ‘snapshot’.

    Here’s something not on my Japan bucket list: riding a 早駕籠 hayakago ‘express palanquin’.

  47. David Marjanović says

    and named after his still-surviving younger son (who officially is definitely not the owner)

    A colleague here in Berlin recently had a guest from Colombia who at some point wanted Colombian coffee. They found a Colombian café called Pablos Café. It prominently displayed a huge portrait, 2 m × 3 m, of Pablo… Escobar.

  48. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    In Japanese, hayai ‘early’ overlaps with ‘quick, speedy’.

    As does presto in Italian! As well as a commonplace adverb meaning “early” and “soon,” it used to be an adjective meaning “quick.” Generically it is no longer in my active vocabulary (and I believe I’m with the vast majority of Italians on this), but specifically it remains alive in music as the fastest classical tempo—or second-fastest after its superlative prestissimo.

  49. Third fastest: you omit prestissi-issimo.

  50. @ulr: “but only really understood what they are doing once I learned they were derived from Latin inde.”

    The -de helps but the in- sometimes confuses. Va-t’en! and allez, on s’en va! are about going hence rather than thence.

  51. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @John Cowan:

    At least my idiolect, and I very much presume Italian more broadly, allows that! But:

    (1) It’s prestissimissimo, a regular formation.

    (2) Once you go down that route, the fastest tempo becomes ill-defined because there’s no reason to stop: prestissimissimissimo is faster. Buffalo buffalo …

    (3) I don’t think it’s a classical tempo marking, though I can easily imagine composers using it for that very reason.

  52. prestissimissimo

    I think it has not been used as a tempo indication in published scores, before postmodern times at least. There have been odd urgings like presto possibile: “[Schumann’s] presto possibile marking adds to the sense of barely controlled momentum by asking the pianist to play—or to give the impression of playing—at the limit of human capability.”

    We do see double superlatives in Latin such as minimissimus and summissimus, which have made infrequent appearances in Italian and Spanish also. (The bestest superlatives.)

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