8

The saying "Signori si nasce non si diventa" and other occurrences of this construction (tipo il cortometraggio: "Bulli si nasce") strike me as odd considering there isn't agreement between the subject and the verb: signori being plural and si nasce singular.

Why wouldn't the construction be Signori nascono or Signore si nasce?

  • Would the past tense of this be "Signori si è nati"? "Gentlemen were born" (cioè: in the past) – gbutters Jan 10 '15 at 15:26
  • 1
    Not actually a duplicate, but overlapping and of interest: italian.stackexchange.com/questions/2067/… – DaG Jan 10 '15 at 15:36
  • 2
    Yes, that would be the present perfect. It would never be used that way, however. – persson Jan 10 '15 at 16:38
  • In Tuscany constructions such as noi si è are common, and I am sure many people there will swear that they are proper 100%-correct Italian. So the statement that si nasce is exclusively singular is at least debatable. – Federico Poloni May 13 '15 at 7:15
8

That's an impersonal construction, which is used quite a bit in Italian but very little in other languages like English. Impersonal constructions are used to express ideas, actions or orders in a general way.

Examples of this construction:

Bisogna stare attenti (roughly: one must be careful/pay attention etc.)

Non si deve fare rumore (roughly: do not make noise, one should not make noise)

Qui si mangia bene (roughly: here one eats well)

Although these sentences don't have a real grammatical subject, they're always built with the verb conjugated in the third person singular, sometimes using the "si" particle (depending on the verb). That's the general idea.

With the verb "nascere", it's possible to build sentences like

Io nacqui povero

Io sono nato libero

But when we turn them into general impersonal statements, we use the plural:

Si nasce liberi

If we change the word order, the meaning becomes that of some quality or feature that is already present at birth, as opposed to being developed later:

Liberi si nasce (you are either already free at birth, or never)

Signori si nasce

So the example you cite translates roughly (but not literally) to "a (real) gentleman is born (not made)". It's an idiomatic phrase, and as such it's not immediately explainable in a very logical way. In particular, I can't really tell you why in the impersonal formulation the plural is used; it's just the way it is.

The phrase is the title of an old Totò movie (a famous Italian comedian). In the movie he actually says:

Signori si nasce; e io lo nacqui, modestamente!

where the part after the semicolon, although strictly speaking grammatically correct (if a bit questionable), sounds quite peculiar and funny, which is of course part of the intended effect.

| improve this answer | |
  • Uhm, I question that “Io lo nacqui” is grammatically correct. That would entail that “nascere” is a transitive verb, which of course is not. The funny effect to which you refer arises precisely from that deliberate grammatical blunder. – Ferdinand Bardamu May 5 '15 at 19:00
  • You can say "io nacqui libero" (felice/signore/whatever), and consequently "io lo nacqui" (meaning "libero"/"felice"/"signore"/etc). At least it doesn't sound too wrong to my ears. – persson May 6 '15 at 15:09
  • All right, thanks. Lo can be used with copulative verbs as well as with transitive verbs: e.g. “Lo mangio” “Lo chiamo” ~ “Lo divenni”, “Lo sembra”. (As a side note, I point out that the use of the anaphoric lo with copulative verbs was frowned upon by the 19th-century purists.) Even though it may come with a predicative expression (e.g. “Nacque libero/felice”, etc.), nascere cannot be numbered among the copulative verbs, in my view. Therefore, what can be accepted for essere, divenire, sembrare, parere, can be barely tolerated, if at all, for nascere. – Ferdinand Bardamu May 6 '15 at 15:53
  • 1
    I think "Si nasce liberi" and "Liberi si nasce" have the same meaning. The second just stress the idea. – Fabio F. May 7 '15 at 17:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.