It's no secret that learning a language to native level is a challenging task. If you're committed and you've said to yourself "I want to learn Italian", paying close attention to native expressions and idioms as well as taking online Italian classes will help you out greatly. Being myself a lover of languages and linguistics in general, it often happens that when I'm speaking to foreign people, we discuss the translation of certain idioms and their uses.
Many times, however, languages work in a very special way and with certain formulas that can hardly be understood without a translation. I firmly believe that these little nuances of human language are one of the things that make language learning fascinating. Thus, I always stress the need to not conform, to be proud of the peculiarities that represent us, and to preserve those "sweet differences" that make everything more colorful and in observing this you will learn how to speak Italian, or any language, much more efficiently.
That said, a few days ago, while I was teaching a group of students of Italian, the topic of the boh came up. This strange interjection that we use in Italian seems to have no correspondents in other languages. After chatting a good half hour, I realized how interesting the topic actually was, so much so that it lead me to write the this article.
First of all, a clarification must be made: the Italian boh is considered by the Treccani dictionary a simple interjection used in spoken language to "express uncertainty or disbelief". While I agree with this definition, I believe that these three letters placed next to each other hide a much more complex expressive power which deserves a more detailed treatment. The mere fact that it cannot be translated gives an idea of how singular, and sometimes equivocal, its meaning. A meaning that in many ways, reflects the common behavior of Italians. Very often it is coupled to another Italian interjection, mah, which has a subtle skeptical meaning. Both reflect the rich national history of Italy, a country that has gone through empires, kings, governors, wealth, and poverty. An Italy where peoples and cultures have always met and coexisted, and which today represents a bridge that still exists in the middle of the Mediterranean. In short, it represents many things, too many things, which normal people cannot worry too much about and that have always led us to doubt and consider numerous possibilities.
Boh generally appears in three forms:
- "Boh" with a “h” is certainly the most correct form, as it respects the rules of Italian grammar for which an interjection must always be followed by the “h” (e.g. mah, poh, bah). Moreover, it can also be followed by the exclamation mark and this is used above all in books or in the written form (boh!)
- In informal messages, SMS, and even in some recent publications, it appears without the “h”, that is the form "bo". (I often use it like that.)
- Finally, there is "bho", but I personally would not give credit to this form (unless you are in a hurry or you want to appear "cool"), since the “h” after the "b" is not present in Italian and does not indicate anything grammatically.
As for the forms bo', bò, or boo, I would leave them aside, as I get goosebumps simply hearing them.
For native Italian speakers and students who have been to Italy at least once, you will have noticed the amount of boh that pervades the day of an Italian. But more than anything else, it surprises me to see how many different nuances this simple expression possesses. First of all, when you produce your first boh (for all the foreign students out there), do not forget to shrug your shoulders a little and make a slight grimace of indifference. Here I list a series of examples that can give an idea of how to use it and, above all, the hidden meaning that you will express through its use.
Es. A → «Cosa vuoi per colazione?» «Boh» = It’s the same for me, you can decide.
Es. B → «Dov’è Martina?» «Boh» = She’s off somewhere, she’ll be right back.
Es. C → «Cosa ne pensi di Luca e Giulia? «Boh» = It’s not my business, I don’t care too much.
Es. D → «Cosa indosserai alla festa? «Boh» = I haven’t decided yet, I’ll let you know.
The boh is used in many situations and contexts, and can have substantially different meanings. It certainly indicates "non-knowledge" and "uncertainty", but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The boh also indicates a kind of disinterest, and little importance attached to the topic in question. Many times it is used as an equivalent of "I don’t know, but it doesn't matter, it's all right", or "I don’t know, I don’t want to take part in the conversation". Finally, boh is a symbol of serene acceptance of a certain condition, peculiarity (and here we go into behavioral analysis) typical of Italians.
My grandparents, who were avid users of the term, often said to me that "we humans are not given all the answers and maybe it's better this way". I believe that in general we Italians are more superficial about many things or we are simply trained to accept things as they are. Ultimately, the average Italian cares less, and deals with things even less. A sort of "lightness" that some see as negative, and others, positive. Perhaps this is due to the fact that our society makes us believe from childhood that Italy sucks, that it is full of unsolvable problems, and that we can’t do much. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that having hope is the key to happiness, that there is always something to be happy about, and that it is not so important to know everything. Boh, I do not know, and you know what? After all, it's all right, it doesn’t matter.