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My conversation manual included the word assai very often as an equivalent for troppo, molto, etc. When I got in Italy one of my friends from there, of Neapolitan origin, said that is a Neapolitan word, not used in Italian and it is considered vulgar to use it, because of its peasant connotations. I heard it numerous times on TV and the shows weren't about history/ethnology, but nowadays subjects. Also other friends from Veneto didn't knew its meaning. So what's the story with this word?

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Your friends don't know Italian, I'm afraid. It's true that in Veneto the word is not frequently used, though; but from not using it to not understanding it, there's a big jump. –  egreg Dec 15 '13 at 23:04

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your friend is wrong when he says that this word is a regionalism. It is usually used as an adverb meaning "much, very", intended to reinforce an adjective:

assai bello = very beautiful

It may also be used in the sense of "many" in front of a noun (so, taking the value of an adjective). Beware, it's an old usage, mostly considered wrong nowadays (except than probably in the South):

assai persone = many people

Moreover, a third usage exists. You can indeed use it to mean "much" as an adverb:

Ho fatto assai per te = I did much for you

All this is perfectly fine in Italian (and that's why you hear it very often).

This said, I understand (a bit) what your friend meant. In Naples and the neighborhood, the word is used after an adjective (in the same sense outlined in my first example here), and this is a regional usage. It is anyway wrong to say that it does not exist in Italia. If the one from Veneto didn't know the word, it's his/her fault.

As for the etymology, the word comes from ad satis, Latin, meaning "enough" and indeed its original meaning has been shifted from "enough, in a sufficient way" to "much" (you can read the Italian etymology dictionary here).

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I have never heard 'ci sono assai persone', except in Naples and around there, though. –  Kyriakos Kyritsis Dec 15 '13 at 19:35
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@KyriakosKyritsis Treccani (here treccani.it/vocabolario/assai), cites Machiavelli with this usage, I'm not sure it's so common but I'm also not sure it's related to Naples as well. –  martina Dec 15 '13 at 20:15
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assai sounds really south-like, at least to my friulan ear. In the North it's almost never used. This doesn't mean that it is a regionalism, but sure the frequency of its usage changes quite a lot between regions. –  Bakuriu Dec 22 '13 at 13:45
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@Lohoris Io non l'ho mai sentito usato in quel modo, non credo che sia corretto comunque. –  martina Dec 30 '13 at 18:06
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"Assai persone" sounds disgusting to my ears, if it is not a gag of some comedian from the Zelig TV show. I would never say that not even under torture! –  gd1 Jan 4 at 22:24

What on Earth makes them think it is “vulgar”? It is a regular, non-regional Italian word (it appears in Petrarca, Leopardi etc. and is used for instance even in musical notation: allegro assai etc.). As for many words, it is used more or less in different parts of Italy (or, for other words, in different strata of population, or by different age groups): this are matters studied by sociolinguistics.

A point to be careful about: Its original meaning is enough (from Latin ad satis), but it has been used for centuries in the sense of “much, very.”

(As always happens for the meaning of single words, most of the story can be read in the relevant article of any good dictionary.)

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Assai is a sort of superlative and it is absolutely not vulgar. It comes from the Latin word satis, which means very or much depending on the usage. In Southern Italy, it is often used as an adverb with the same meaning. For example:

[Correct usage] Un uomo assai famoso (A very famous man.)
[Southern Italian usage] Io ho mangiato assai. (I ate too much.)

TL;DR: No, it's not vulgar.

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I am going to get downvotes for this, but I feel the need to warn you.

My advice is to use assai only in written language (in sentences like "un uomo assai famoso", citing LiquidFiber, or "un locale assai noto e frequentato"), and as little as possible. If you use it, do follow LiquidFiber's advice.

In the spoken, everyday language it may appear:

  1. Contrived and 'acted' ("fa assai caldo oggi", most likely reaction: "what?")
  2. A regionalism, even if it is not (already discussed)
  3. Funny (because of 2)

The upvote-catching answer is: yes, you can use it, it's on the dictionary. But if I were a close friend of yours I would say you: avoid it! I can hardly imagine a job interview in Milan or in Florence where the candidate says assai. So embarrassing.

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I would be delighted if in a job interview (which is something I sometimes do) I heard a candidate express him/herself in good Italian, correctly using words like assai. BTW, I'm from Rome, which is north of the line where assai is used in "regional" ways. –  Walter Tross Feb 8 at 23:12
    
That's why one should probably hope to have someone like you as the interviewer! :) However, you can't be always that lucky. Better safe than sorry... –  gd1 Feb 9 at 6:06
    
It may be awkward in speech for precisely the opposite reason than being vulgar. :-) –  Mauro Vanetti Dec 10 at 10:44

I think assai is fine used conversationally to mean "much/very" as described by several people above. Certainly it is used in this way in Lazio, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.

It has a more poetic, old-fashioned tone when used adverbially or adjectivally after the expression/word it is qualifying, which is more common in the south, esp. Naples.

In Neapolitan, it is "assaje", as in the very famous folk song "Te voglio bene assaje", referenced in Lucio Dalla's song "Caruso".

Showing you have a knowledge and awareness of this part of Italian heritage would be impressive to your Italian friends, if they are not too ignorant to know it themselves.

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Assai is not a vulgar word. It is and old-faschioned word though, which was mainly used in poetry. Sometimes, is also used in south/middle Italy as part of local dialects (but even in this case, it's not vulgar at all. It is just an old-fashioned way to make a superlative (as others pointed out).

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I'm not sure "mainly used in poetry" is correct. –  egreg Jan 13 at 9:01
    
You are right, i needed to better explain what i meant. By it is "mainly used in poetry" i wanted to underline that it is very old fashioned. Moreover, it mostly belongs to some specific regions of italy, and its use nowadays is quite rare. thanks for the correction –  Gianluca M Jan 13 at 23:21

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