Translated by Alanna Quintyne

In today’s article called “Centuries in Italian”,  I talk about how to use centuries in Italian. Talking to my students, especially the most advanced ones, I got that something absolutely normal for Italians, can be strange to understand for students from other countries. So if you want to know more about this topic, keep reading the following lines! :)

Have you ever chatted about history or read historical books? Have you ever had the opportunity to talk about past centuries?

Well, if you’ve done any of these, you will certainly notice a very Italian peculiarity concerning this. If, on the other hand, you haven’t done any of these, then you will discover something very intriguing below as it relates to the centuries in Italian.

The idea for this article was born, as it often happens, from a conversation with one of my students who is passionate about history, who pointed out to me that things that are completely normal for us Italians are bizarre if not downright absurd for foreigners.

Don’t believe it?

In order to understand what I am referring to, it is necessary to give a few examples:

  • Il 1400 è il periodo dei grandi artisti del Rinascimento.
  • Il ‘400 è il periodo dei grandi artisti del Rinascimento.
  • Il Quattrocento (scritto per esteso con la prima lettera maiuscola) è il periodo dei grandi artisti del Rinascimento.
  • Il XV secolo è il periodo dei grandi artisti del Rinascimento.

Do you notice anything in particular? Are the above sentences the same or are they different?

You might probably be a little puzzled now, so I will give you the answer: the phrases listed, regardless of the form used, are the same and their meaning is:

  • The 15th century is the period of the great Renaissance artists.

At this point, you might be asking why, so, let’s not hesitate any more and shed some light on this.

Centuries with an Apostrophe

I’m sure that for all of you the third and fourth sentences, written with the roman numeral, presented no difficulties, so I would say let’s just concentrate on the first two sentences. For Italians, there is no difference between 1400 and ‘400. Why? 

As you may have noticed, the century ‘400 is written with an apostrophe, which in Italian, always elides something, in this case, it would be the number 1.

Therefore, for Italians, saying ‘200, ‘300, ‘400, and so on (numbers all written strictly with an apostrophe), is equivalent to saying 1200, 1300, 1400.

It is obvious that when we speak, it is not possible to make the apostrophe explicit, so it is the context that helps us in this case. If we take the following sentence as an example:

  • Nel ‘700 ci sono state tante rivoluzioni importanti (In the18th century, there were many important revolutions),

An Italian can immediately understand that we are speaking about the 1700s. On the contrary, saying:

  • Carlo Magno è nato nel 700 (Carlo Magno was born in 700 A.D.),

Everyone would understand that I am referring to 700 A.D., that of the Middle Ages.

Should we take a look at another example?

  • Il ‘900 è stato un secolo di grandi avanzamenti tecnologici (The 20th century was one of great technological advancements),

Even in this case, from the context we can clearly deduce that we are talking about the 1900s and not 900 B.C. or A.D.

It goes without saying that if we do not have enough information or knowledge, the context cannot help us, and in such cases, we will have to deal with ambiguous sentences. In other words, sentences that are difficult to place in the right historical period. But alas, this is a risk you will have to take if you want to learn Italian well.

Years with an Apostrophe

The apostrophe isn’t used only with centuries but also with years, and even then, the apostrophe is used to eliminate numbers that are considered by us to be, if you’ll allow me to say so, “unnecessary”. Let’s look at some sentences:

  • Lui è nato negli anni ‘80. (He was born in the 80s).
  • Beverly Hills è una serie cult degli anni ‘90. (Beverly Hills is a cult series from the 90s).

Given that both years are written with the apostrophe, it is clear that we aren’t referring to the 80s or 90s B.C. or A.D., but the more recent ones, 1980 and 1990.

Once more, even in this case, context comes to our rescue and helps us place the narrated events in the right historical period.

Conclusion

It was very interesting for me to discuss this very subject with several students and to realise how the use of the apostrophe with years, but especially with centuries, is something strange and complex for them, when for us Italians, it is practically normal. 

Unfortunately, if you want to delve into Italian and if you love history, literature and historical novels, this is something you will have to deal with and get used to.

But remember, in relation to years and centuries, if you are struggling to figure out the right prepositions to use with historical periods, don’t miss out on my article called Prepositions with Days, Months and Years.

I’m sure it will be very useful!!

ila firma

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