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Something I've noticed whilst I'm learning Italian is that when you have a phrase such as "ti chiamo" is that the action described is being applied to the object of the sentence, and the conjugation determines who is performing the action ("I call you" in this instance).

However, "mi piace" (or even "mi piacciono") seems to be an exception to this, as it means "I like". My question is whether this reversal is rare or I just haven't come across examples where this structure is used.

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    Welcome to Italian.SE! – Charo Jul 5 '19 at 13:16
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    Welcome to the site @JosephDurrant! Are you sure that in the phrase "(io) ti chiamo" the "action described is being applied to the subject of the sentence"? Wouldn't the subject of the sentence be "io"? – Easymode44 Jul 5 '19 at 13:47
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    In any case, piacere is not an “exception” of anything; it's a particular construction followed by several more verbs, either as the only possible way of using them or together with other constructions: sembrare, parere, mancare, garbare, interessare, risultare, and even andare (mi va una mela) and many phrases with fare (mi fa schifo, piacere, senso, ...). – DaG Jul 5 '19 at 17:53
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    This reversal is actually how the word like used to work in English! For example, Shakespeare writes "it likes me not" to mean what we would now express as "I don't like it". macmillandictionaryblog.com/whats-not-to-like-about-like – dbmag9 Jul 6 '19 at 9:21
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    While "It pleases me" may sound unusual in English, this construction is seen as perfectly idiomatic not only in other Romance languages like French but in German or Russian as well: "Ça me plaît", "Es gefällt mir", "Это мне нравится". Japanese, on the other hand, never uses a construction corresponding to "It pleases me"; for Japanese people, it's always "I like it". – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Jul 6 '19 at 23:42
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The peculiar structure with verb "piacere" you noticed is due to the fact that literal translation of this Italian verb is "to be pleasing to (someone)", so that this "someone" is the indirect object of the sentence and not the subject.

As the book Italian Verbs for Dummies explains (I have done a correction to the text because there was a confusion between the words "wine" and "milk")

As a verb, piacere (to like, to be pleasing to) is unique in that it takes indirect-object pronouns rather than personal pronouns. For example, "I like wine" becomes "Wine is pleasing to me," or "Mi piace il vino." Similarly, you need the preposition "a" (to) when using proper nouns. For example, you translate "A Domenico piace la pasta" as (literally) Pasta is pleasing to Domenick (or Domenick likes pasta).

As @DaG has pointed out in a comment, "personal pronouns" in the above extract really refers to "subject pronouns".

At this book you can also read

With the verb piacere, what's typically the object in an English construction becomes the subject in an Italian construction. For example, I like spaghetti becomes (literally) To me, spaghetti is pleasing, or "Mi piacciono gli spaghetti."

The same book also explains that an Italian verb which behaves in a similar way is "mancare", used to convey the meaning of "to miss" or "to lack":

The verb mancare, which means to miss or to lack, functions in precisely the same manner as the verb piacere (to like). In other words, you generally use it with indirect objects and indirect-object pronouns, and it translates literally as Something is missing to me.

An example of use of "mancare" which come from this book is the following:

Cara mamma e papa, mi mancate! (Dear mom and dad, I miss you!)

The literal translation of "mi mancate" would be "you (subject) are missing to me (indirect object)".

Other examples of "mancare" coming from the same book are:

Io ti manco? (Do you miss me? Literally: Am I missing to you?)

Sì, tu mi manchi. (Yes, I miss you.)

Mi manca mia madre. (I miss my mother.)

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  • I am not sure what they mean by “it takes indirect-object pronouns rather than personal pronouns”. Mi is a personal pronoun... They probably mean something like “...rather than pronouns in subject form”, but as it is, it's a bit confusing. – DaG Jul 5 '19 at 17:47
  • @DaG: I completely agree with you, but what's the book says. In fact, chapter I of the book is titled "Meeting the Personal Pronouns Face to Face": having a look to such chapter one can see that what are called "personal pronouns" are "subject pronouns". – Charo Jul 5 '19 at 18:06
  • I see, thanks for clarifying that. – DaG Jul 5 '19 at 21:07
  • Thanks, I didn't know that piacere meant to please (most translations have it as meaning to like something) - makes much more sense to me now. So to clarify, in this context, mi piace would mean "it pleases me"? – Joseph Durrant Jul 8 '19 at 14:42
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    @JosephDurrant: Yes, it's that way. – Charo Jul 8 '19 at 16:29
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You are just used to the English construction, but I'm not sure if it is more natural than the other. Compare with the English sentence Basketball pleases/interests/attracts me. What is the action here? What should be the subject? Who or what "does" something? Who is the actor? Basketball, for attracting / interesting me, or me, the one who likes basketball?

That's just how these verbs are constructed in different languages; it's difficult to find a logic in it. Constructions similar to the Italian one appear in many other languages; for instance French (X me plait), Spanish (Me gusta X), and German (X gefällt mir), so it's not that crazy.

Another analogous sentence that is constructed differently in various languages is I'm hungry, which is ho fame in Italian (literally I have hunger), and similarly in French (j'ai faim) and German (Ich habe hunger), and Spanish (tengo hambre). Is hunger something you have (like in "I have no desire to eat"), or a state of being? Both viewpoints seem equally valid, according to people with different native languages.

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Just to add some thought in simple words...

"Piacere" literally means "to please, to give pleasure". It is correct to say "La pasta piace" (it gives pleasure, said in an indefinite general form); but to say who it pleases, one must add an "a" followed by the entity the pasta is pleasing: "la pasta piace alla gente", or "piace a me". I think this construction expresses well the passivity of the person liking pasta: a person can do nothing about it, it is a victim of the simple fact the pasta is so pleasing (and often the victim pays this passivity with a raising weight!).

The english translation of "I like pasta" is "Io amo la pasta" (I love pasta) or, with less sentiment, "Io apprezzo la pasta" (I appreciate). "Amare" is a special verb, because is the only one able to express love (sentimental love) to another person, and probably this is the reason why, referring for example to pasta, an italian will likely choose to say "apprezzo" or "mi piace".

I find the same passivity in "mancare" (to miss). Again, if I like pasta but I can not have it, I am a victim, and the subject is the pasta ("a me manca la pasta"). Another example is "sembrare" (to seem, to look like) which, luckily, has the same construction in english too. Would an english speaker wonder about "sembrare"? Other verbs having similar construction, some found in other answers in this page, are apparire (to appear), attrarre (to attract), eccitare (to excite), trascinare (to drag).

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  • Perhaps you might want to remark in your answer that, of the verbs you offer as examples, some are transitive and so need an object (mi attrae = attrae me), while other ones take the “dative”, an indirect object (mi piace = piace a me). This fact is somehow hidden by the fact that the pronoun mi is equal in both cases, but for other objects the construction is different (X attrae Gigi vs. X piace a Gigi). – DaG Mar 9 at 12:01
  • I wanted to be as simple as possible, and mainly point out that english also has the same construction the OP is wondered by. The presence of your comment is useful to remember that the answer is not diving deep in that matter. – linuxfan says Reinstate Monica Mar 9 at 13:41

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