Changing Seasons in the Italian Language
The change of the seasons (il cambio delle stagioni) doesn’t bring dramatic changes in California, where I live. But in Italy every stagione – la primavera (spring), l’estate (summer), l’autunno (autumn), and l’inverno (winter) — has a different feel and focus. L’autunno is my favorite.
The names of the months of autumn date back to ancient Rome — and remind us that our calendar (calendario) was one of the enduring gifts of Julius Caesar. Before his time the Roman calendar, devised by Rome’s founder Romulus some 2700 years ago, had only ten months. January and February, when the land lay fallow, didn’t exist.
The new year began in March, with the beginning of field work to plant new crops. The Latin numbers seven, eight, and nine — septem, octo, and novem — gave their names to the months of September, October, and November.
By the first century B.C., the calendar was several months out of whack with the seasons. In 48-47 B.C. Caesar, planning massive military campaigns in the East, wanted a single official calendar that would keep in touch with the sun. Consulting with a Greek astronomer and mathematician, he devised a new calendar consisting of 12 months and 365 days, with a leap year inserted every fourth year.
Shortly before his assassination, Caesar gave his name to what had been Quintus, the fifth month, which we know as July. His successor Augustus bestowed his name on Sextilis (the sixth month). But the final months of the new calendar retained their numerical names.
Autunno is the time of ripening (maturazione), and the Italian language has several words – raccolto, messe and mietitura – for the harvest of crops such as fruit and grains. But the grape harvest has a name of its own: vendemmia. Vine-growers (viticoltori)) keep a close eye on their vines (viti) to determine when the grapes (uva) are ripe (matura or vendemmiabile).
La vendemmia begins with white grapes (uva bianca), which ripen before the red. If there’s a threat of damaging rain, grape pickers (vendemmiatori) may have to work by the light of the harvest moon (luna della vendemmia or luna di Settembre) to save their crops. At the cantina, bunches of grapes (grappoli d’uva) are sorted, washed, stemmed, and crushed.
Then everyone waits, hoping that this will turn out to be una buona annata (a vintage year). The novello (new) wine is uncorked and enjoyed during Italy’s equivalent of America’s Indian summer – l’estate di San Martino, the summer of St. Martin, whose onomastico or saint’s day falls on November 11. As a traditional saying puts it, “Per San Martino, cadono le foglie e si spilla il vino.” (For St. Martin, the leaves fall, and the wine is tapped.”)
Words and Expressions
fare il raccolto – get in the harvest
cogliere l ‘uva – to gather grapes
pigiatura dell’uva — grape pressing
vitigni – species of grapes
uva da tavola -- dessert grapes
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language.
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