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The word paese means both country and town, in Italian.

What happens when the distinction is important? For example, today I saw a photo and wanted to ask my friend "Is this your town?". I ended using città, even though it wasn't a city, because I wanted her to understand that I wasn't talking about her country.

How do Italians get around this problem?

  • Paese doesn't mean city; city is "città". – badp Nov 21 '13 at 17:03
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    There are similar ambiguities in many languages. "Country" (as in "countryside"), "pueblo" (also means "village"), "pays" (also means "little region") etc. This happens because of the way the concept of nation has developed in history and the sense of belonging to a place. In opposition to such concepts of rural origin (my village, my agricultural land = my nation), there's a more modern concept of "cittadinanza", "citizenship" etc. coming from urban concepts (my city = my nation). Interesting, uh? (But this is not an answer. :-) ) – Mauro Vanetti Nov 21 '13 at 17:13
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    @badp: yes, that's why I say "I used città - even though it wasn't a city". I knew I was wrong, but was the only way I could think of to work around the ambiguity. – Groky Nov 21 '13 at 17:43
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It's simple: there's no direct way to work around the ambiguity.

You have one word for two different things:

Paese as town (small place where people live);

Paese as a country (nation, state).

The actual meaning is explicated by the context, unless you are in a particular case where you can use synonyms (nazione or stato for the second meaning).

Paese as a town could be forcedly replaced by altered nouns like paesino, or paesello, in case you can't eliminate the ambiguity by other means.

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    Some people capitalise "Paese" when it means country, and particularly when it means Italy. But this doesn't help in spoken language, of course. – Mauro Vanetti Nov 21 '13 at 17:15
  • So the best way to ask "is that your town?" without ambiguity would be to say "Quello è il tuo paesino?" – Groky Nov 21 '13 at 17:45
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    @Groky The best of the ways to translate "is that your town?" is still "quello è il tuo paese?", I guess you do this question before a map, so none could mistake a town for a state. If no map (or picture) is present, you can use "paesino", being forced to specify. – martina Nov 21 '13 at 20:35
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There isn't any way to disambiguate one use of the word with the other one; it all depends from the context.

In your case, since you are watching a photo, that helps: If you are looking a photo showing a town, then È questo il tuo paese? would be understood as "Is this your town?" not as "Is this your country?"
If, differently, you were watching the map of a country showing the full country, then È questo il tuo paese? would be understood as "Is this your country?" if you are not pointing at a specific town shown on the map (e.g. the capital of that country).

In other cases, there are set phrases for which the meaning is not ambiguous: In un Paese democratico, paese would be understood to mean country, not town; that is also true for essere al servizio del paese, Paese nemico, or il paese quest'anno voterà due volte. While paese is often written capitalized, it can still mean country even when it is not capitalized.

As side note, paese has also a third meaning: vast territory, generally inhabited and cultivated.

  • It was a photo showing a statue/monument ;) Therefore either meaning could be understood. – Groky Nov 22 '13 at 10:33
  • A statue would make me think to a town, not a country. That is, if the statue/monument is not something very important at national level for that country. That could be the case of La tomba del Milite Ignoto at Rome; I would associate it with Italy, not Rome, since it is in dedication to the services of an unidentified soldier and to the common memories of all soldiers killed in any war. A statue celebrating the 10 giornate of Brescia would make me think to Brescia, not Italy. – kiamlaluno Nov 22 '13 at 10:50
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Paese is used for a quite small town, or village, indeed, but it can be ambiguous for Italians too, unless the context helps to clear the meaning. If I just said “Il mio paese è il più bello del mondo”, I could be boasting either about my country or my village.

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The "village" is the basic social unit in Italian culture. Most (traditional) Italians would think of a "global village" in reference to their country. Meaning that their (small) "village" is more important to them.

So "paese" refers to a village (or small town), unless the context says otherwise: e.g. "Il mio paese è Stati Uniti." "Il mio paese è Italia."

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