Lesson on how to say what in Italian

The Complete Guide to Saying “What” in Italian – With Audio Examples and Quizzes

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Want to speak Italian and sound like a native when asking common questions? Consider me your online Italian language tutor as I teach you how to use what in Italian in under 30 minutes.

Learning to properly use question words, like what, is an essential building block for communicating in any new language. In Italian, one of the most common and important question words is “che cosa.” Mastering the various forms of what in Italian will allow you to ask questions, understand responses, and fully engage in Italian conversation.

This free Italian grammar resource will help you master the various methods for saying what in Italian, a key concept for beginners. You’ll be able to incorporate “che cosa”, “cosa”, and “che” into everyday conversations and understand when to use each variation based on context and formality.

In this article we will:

  1. Explore the three main forms – che cosa, cosa, and che alone – and when to use each correctly; 
  2. Discover how Italians from Northern Italy to Sicily differ on che versus cosa usage. 
  3. Compare modern-day preferences to literary uses in the 1600s.
  4. Practice with helpful examples throughout the article
  5. Test your new knowledge with fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice exercises

Gain the ability to inquire and understand conversations in Italian by learning when to use formal or informal “what.” Get insights into the grammatical function of each form. Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced speaker, a deeper understanding of “what” in Italian will enhance fluency. Soon you’ll confidently incorporate che, che cosa, and cosa to communicate like a native.



How to Say What in Italian

Che cosa and che are the main ways to say what in Italian.

We use each of those for a different purpose. We will explore that further in this article.

There is a third way we say what in Italian; that’s cosa. This is an abbreviation of che cosa, although it can often act as a replacement for che.

Let’s now look at a few examples to help you get a feeling for these three.

– What do you want in Italian

There are three different ways Italians say that:

Che cosa vuoi?

Cosa vuoi?

Che vuoi? – a colloquial alternative to both

The first and second translate to what thing you want, while the third means what you want in question form. 

You can see that in this example che cosa and che are interchangeable, they replace each other. However, that’s not always so. Example 2 will help you understand this.

how to say what time in italian

– What time in Italian

To ask what time it is in Italian, use this sentence:

Che ora è?

In this case, you can’t use che cosa in place of che, as that would mean: what thing time you want, which makes no sense.

I am sure you are starting to get an understanding of the difference between the two.

The third example below will help you understand that not everything that reads in English translates to one of these three: che cosa, cosa, or che. Let’s see why.

– What is your name in Italian

The word by word translation is cosa ti chiami, but that’s wrong. So don’t say that in Italian.

Instead, Italians ask that question this way:

Come ti chiami?

Although, that’s for another time, come translates to how. So rather than asking what’s your name, in Italian, we say how are you called.

This example shows you that literal translation from English to Italian doesn’t work, at least not all the time. That’s because the two languages have different grammar rules and structures in place.

Don’t worry though, I aim to help you learn the basics with these Italian lessons. Once you have those in place, advancing in your Italian language learning will be much easier.


10 Beginner Phrases to Learn with What in Italian – Great for Travel Too

  1. Cosa hai detto? – What did you say?
  2. Che cosa vuoi mangiare? – What do you want to eat?
  3. Cosa prendi? – What are you having?
  4. Che cosa significa? – What does it mean?
  5. Che ora è? – What time is it?
  6. Che cosa mostra la mappa? – What does the map show?
  7. Che dice il GPS? – What is the GPS saying?
  8. Che cosa facciamo oggi? – What do we do today?
  9. Che tempo farà domani? – What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?
  10. Che cosa stai facendo? – What are you doing?


What in Italian Language – Past & Present Uses

Thanks to this article written by Accademia della Crusca, how what was used in the past.

Which of the three forms did they use in the past?

Accademia della Crusca says that it’s around the 1500s (il Cinquecento) that the Italian language sees the introduction of cosa; around that time it also starts being used in place of the more formal che cosa, even in literary works. 

Many writers started embracing that more casual style during the XVI century. These include Foscolo, De Amicis, and Verga, however, not everyone did. Bocaccio – although one of the first to write in vulgar Italian rather than Latin, chose to use che cosa in his Decameron (published in late 1582).

Nonetheless, the preference for cosa and che when writing literary dialogues became evident, especially thanks to Manzone who replaced all instances of che cosa with cosa in his second draft of I Promessi Sposi. It’s thanks to him and other revolutionary writers that today is more common for writers to use informal options (cosa and che).


graphic of map

what in Italian across the regions
Which form of what in Italian is used across Italy? Have a look.


Regional Differences: North & South Prefer A Specific Form

Another important contribution of Accademia della Crusca was to highlight the different uses of what in Italian across the regions.

The research project La Lingua delle Città (LinCi), started in 2013, surveyed 31 Italian cities to determine which form of what in Italian was used the most in the North, Centre, and South.

Among the 216 participants, it’s evident that the casual form is the most used. That means that fewer people use che cosa daily when speaking and writing. The ones that use the longer form, do so alternating with one of the casual forms (cosa and che).

The interesting findings relate to the use of cosa and che among the regions. Accademia della Crusca says that from the findings it’s evident that cosa is more commonly used in the North of Italy, especially in cities like Milan, Verona, and Genova but also on the island of Sardinia. On the other hand, che is preferred in Tuscany and the Southern cities from Rome to Catania.

Now that you have a better understanding of what is in Italian, let’s dissect each of the three forms. We’ll define their meaning, pronunciation, and grammatical function, and we will also look at when to use them. Let’s start with che cosa.


Che Cosa in Italian

Che cosa meaning

Che cosa translates to what in English, but its word-for-word translation is what thing, because in Italian che = what and cosa = thing.

Che cosa pronunciation

The table below will help you with the pronunciation, but I also suggest listening to the audio I recorded for you. You can practice along.

Italian PhraseTranslationSpellingPronunciation
Che cosaWhatche co-sa/keh koh-sah/
Che cosa pronunciation & spelling

   

Listen to an Italian say che cosa


Che cosa function

To understand what part of speech is che cosa, in Italian, we are taught to do the grammatical analysis of the sentence. That simply involves dissecting the sentence into words and understanding the function of each one. Let’s do it.

Che: pronome interrogativo (pronoun used to ask a question)

Cosa: nome comune, femminile, singolare (common noun, feminine, singular)

There’s also another way to look at the same sentence. That’s analisi logica, and although similar to analisi grammaticale, it looks at the logical function of the sentence, and not necessarily word by word.

In Analisi Logica, che cosa is a complemento d’oggetto that is an object complement.

Grammarly defines object complement as follows:

An object complement is a word or group of words that appear in the predicate of a sentence and describes or renames the direct object of the verb in a way that is essential to complete the meaning of the sentence. Most of the time they are nouns, adjectives, or noun or adjective phrases.

When to use che cosa in Italian

Che cosa is the more formal way to say what in Italian. However, if that’s your preference you can use it all the time, when writing and speaking. You are not going to look stuffy or fancy, it’s just a personal preference.

In my personal opinion, che cosa puts more emphasis on asking the question because it’s like using what twice since both che and cosa can be used on their own to ask the same question.

Che cosa examples

Che cosa fai? – What do you do?

Che cosa dici? – What do you say?

Che cosa mangi? – What do you eat?

Che cosa guardi? – What are you looking at?

Che cosa hai letto? – What did you read?

Che cosa mi racconti? – What can you tell me?

Che cosa stai scrivendo? – What are you writing?

Che cosa cuciniamo? – What do we cook?


Cosa in Italian 

Cosa meaning

Cosa in Italian literally means thing.

However, it also acts as the shorter version of che cosa, which as we said earlier, means what thing or what in Italian. So cosa also means what.

Cosa pronunciation

Have a look at the table below to see the spelling of cosa. And after you can listen to me saying it below.

Italian WhatTranslationSpellingPronunciation
CosaThing, whatco-sa/koh-sah/
Cosa pronunciation & spelling
Cosa pronounced by an Italian

Cosa grammar function

I already told you earlier that cosa is a noun. However, in this case, because it is the abbreviation of che cosa, it also acts as a pronoun to ask questions.

When to use cosa

You can use cosa to replace all occurrences of che cosa, when you want to be more casual.

However, it’s fine to use cosa in formal conversations as long as everything else is kept formal. For example, you can use cosa whenever using the third or polite form.

Cosa examples

All the examples I gave you for che cosa can also be said and written with just cosa. See below.

Cosa fai? – What do you do?

Cosa dici? – What do you say?

Cosa mangi? – What do you eat?

Cosa guardi? – What are you looking at?

Cosa hai letto? – What did you read?

Cosa mi racconti? – What do you tell me?

Cosa stai scrivendo? – What are you writing?

Cosa cuciniamo? – What do we cook?



Che in Italian – Can Act as What & Which (Quale)

Che meaning

Since che can replace cosa and che cosa, it follows that it also means what in Italian.

However che can also have all these other meanings in Italian: that, than, whether, who, whom, which, such. It’s good to know that, but don’t worry about the other meanings for now.

Che pronunciation

The table below will help you with the pronunciation, and although you heard me say it earlier in the che cosa section, you can listen to me say just che below.

Italian WhatTranslationSpellingPronunciation
CheWhatche/keh/
Che in Italian pronunciation & spelling
How to say che in Italian


Che function

Although che can also serve as a conjunction when it means what it is still acting as an interrogative pronoun (pronome interrogativo).

Let me remind you that an interrogative pronoun is a pronoun used to ask a question. What, which, who, whom, and whose are all question pronouns, both in English and Italian.

When to use che

As you’ll see in the section below, che can be used to replace both che cosa and cosa, when you want to ask a what question.

However, not every occurrence of what questions using che can be replaced with che cosa and cosa.

We already saw this at the beginning of this lesson with the question asking what time is it.

In Italian, you can’t say che cosa ora è. You only say che ora è?

Che examples when it means what

All the examples I gave you for che cosa and cosa can also be said and written with just che. See below. This is the most informal of the three forms.

Che fai? – What do you do?

Che dici? – What do you say?

Che mangi? – What do you eat?

Che guardi? – What are you looking at?

Che hai letto? – What did you read?

Che mi racconti? – What can you tell me?

Che stai scrivendo? – What are you writing?

Che cuciniamo? – What do we cook?

Che examples when it means quale

When che means quale, that is which, it can’t be replaced by che cosa or cosa, since those mean what.

All of the examples below, che con also be said with quale instead of che, but you can’t use che cosa or cosa.

Che ora è? (Quale ora è) – What time is it?

Che stazione è? (Quale stazione è) – What station is it?

Che marchio è? (Quale marchio è) – What brand is it?

Che macchina hai? (Quale macchina hai) – What car is it?

Che lavoro fai? (Quale lavoro fai) – What work do you do?

Che pasta cuciniamo? (Quale pasta cuciniamo) – What pasta do we cook?

The simplest way to understand and recognize whether che means what or which, is to see what follows it. If che is followed by a verb it usually means what, whereas if it is followed by a noun it likely means which.



Lake Fusine, Udine Italy
Take a break, you deserve it. And while you do admire this view of Lake Fusine, near Udine in Friuli Venezia Giulia.



Let’s Practice With These Examples

Che cosa bella?
What beautiful?

Che cosa significa?
What does it mean?

Che cosa c’è nello zaino?
What is there in the backpack?

Che cosa ci consiglia?
What would you advise us? (third person)

Che cosa c’entra?
What does it have to do with it?

Che cosa c’è stasera in tv?
What is there tonight on TV?


Che cosa c’è accordi?
What’s the deal?

Che cosa vuoi da me?
What do you want from me?

Che cosa fai oggi?
What will you do today?

Che cosa gli direbbe mamma?
What would Mum tell him?

Che cosa fai la?
What are you doing there?

Che cosa hai messo nel caffè?
What have you put in the coffee?


Che cosa ne pensi?
What do you think about that?

Che cosa studi?
What are you studying?

Che cosa si fa oggi?
What are we doing today?

Che cosa ti piace?
What do you like?

Che cosa vedere a Venezia?
What is there to see in Venezia?

Che cosa odiano le zanzare?
What do mosquitoes hate?

Che cosa vuol dire?
What does it mean?



no hand gesture image

wrong way to say what in Italian

What in Italian Doesn’t Always Translate to Che Cosa or Che

As we said you can’t always translation what in Italian to che cosa or che. Sometimes, you have to use a totally different question word. See the examples below to better grasp this concept.

  1. What’s your name?

         Translates to: Come ti chiami?

  1. What’s the rush?

Translates to: Perché tanta fretta?

  1. What’s up?

Translates to: Come va?

  1. What’s the catch?

Translates to: Dove sta l’inganno?



Summary: Key Takeaways from Today’s Lesson



Test Your Knowledge: Interactive Exercises

Let’s see how much you have learned today with these fun and simple exercises. Don’t worry if you can’t answer them all; if that’s the case, feel free to read this article again or check the answers below.

Fill in the Blanks:

  1. “_____ mangi a cena?” (What do you eat for dinner?)
  2. “_____ hai detto?” (What did you say?)
  3. “Non so _____ fare.” (I don’t know what to do.)
  4. “_____ tempo fa oggi?” (What’s the weather like today?)
  5. “_____ vuoi fare domani?” (What do you want to do tomorrow?)

Multiple Choice Questions:

  1. How do you say “What’s your name?” in italian?

a) Cosa è il tuo nome?

b) Che è il tuo nome?

c) Come ti chiami?

  1. What’s the correct translation of “What’s the matter?” in Italian?

a) Cosa c’è?

b) Che c’è?

c) Come stai?

  1. How do you say “What’s your favorite color?” in italian?

a) Cosa è il tuo colore preferito?

b) Che è il tuo colore preferito?

c) Qual è il tuo colore preferito?

  1. What’s the correct way to say “What time is it?” in italian?

a) Cosa ora è?

b) Che ora è?

c) Come stai?

  1. How do you translate “What do you do for a living?” in italian?

a) Cosa fai per lavoro?

b) Che fai per lavoro?

c) Come stai per lavoro?


Practice what in Italian with these exercises

Check your answers

Fill in the Blanks:

“Cosa mangi a cena?”

“Cosa hai detto?”

“Non so cosa fare.”

“Che tempo fa oggi?”

“Che vuoi fare domani?”

Multiple Choice Questions:

(c) Come ti chiami?

(a) Cosa c’è? (You can also say “che c’è?”)

(c) Qual è il tuo colore preferito?

(b) Che ora è?

(a) Cosa fai per lavoro? (You can also say “che lavoro fai?”)



More Things to Know About Cosa & Che

1. In informal spoken and written Italian, cosa can be abbreviated to cos’, but only if it precedes a verb starting with h or a vowel.

Examples:

Cos’hai fatto ieri sera? – (What did you do last night?)

Cos’è successo? – (What happened?)

2. The pronoun che in Italian can also mean that which, which can also be replaced with ciò, and still means what.

Example:

Dimmi che cosa ti serve. / Dimmi ciò che ti serve.

Tell me that which you need. / Tell me what you need.

3. Che can also be used as an exclamative pronoun, and in these cases, it behaves differently from the interrogative che. 

In exclamations, che is preferred over che cosa. But in questions, either can
be used depending on formality. 

Examples:

Che bello! – (How nice!)

Che sorpresa! – (What a surprise!)

But:

Che cosa vuoi mangiare? – (What do you want to eat?)

Che cosa fai stasera? – (What are you doing tonight?)



Other Questions Words You Should Learn Next

Like in English, Italian has many other question words that are fundamental to speaking the language, from basic sentences to complex conversations. 

Here are all the question words in Italian.

Who – Chi

Where – Dove

When – Where

Why – Perché

How – Come

Which – Quale

Which one will you learn next?



Final Thoughts

Learning to say “what” in Italian is easy with practice! Just remember these three forms: che, che cosa, and cosa. Use che cosa and cosa for asking about actions. Use che for asking about nouns. Pay attention to whether Italians say che or cosa in different regions. Take the quizzes in this article to test yourself. Soon you’ll be a pro at asking and answering “what” questions in Italian. With some work, you’ll be talking to Italians in no time.

If you want to continue learning Italian and become fluent fast, consider taking these lessons next:

  1. How to ask how are you in Italian
  2. Italian days of the week
  3. Merry Christmas in Italian



Frequently Asked Questions About What in Italian

What does che cosa mean?

Che cosa literally translates to “what thing” in English. The che is “what” and cosa means “thing.” Che cosa is used to ask “what” questions in Italian in a more formal way.

When to use Cosa or Che? 

Use cosa or che for casual, informal ways to say “what” in Italian. Che is the most informal. Cosa is appropriate for casual conversations, while che cosa is best for formal settings. Pay attention to context.

Why do Italians say Che?

Italians use che as a shortened, casual form of che cosa. It’s common in the Southern regions and informal speech. Che relates to the verb, while che cosa and cosa relate to the whole sentence.

What does Che Sara mean in Italian?

Che sarà is a common Italian expression that means “what will be”.” It expresses curiosity about something in the future.

What does che pizza mean?

In Italian, che before a noun like pizza means “which.” So che pizza literally means “which pizza” or asking “which pizza?”

How do you use Cosa in Italian? 

Cosa can replace che cosa in questions to say “what” informally. For example, “Cosa mangi?” means “What are you eating?” Use it to ask about actions.

What is the Italian meaning of Cosa?

The Italian word cosa translates to the English word “thing.” It can stand alone or be part of che cosa to mean “what.”

What does che cosa mean in Italian slang?

In slang or very informal speech, Italians use cosa or che to replace che cosa.

How do you use Che in Italian?

Che is used to ask “what” questions informally. For example, “Che fai?” means “What are you doing?” Use it to ask about actions and nouns.

Is cosa masculine or feminine? 

Cosa is a feminine noun in Italian. So you would use the feminine forms of adjectives to describe it.

What is the meaning of Che Cosa Fai?

The phrase che cosa fai translates to “What are you doing?” in English. It’s asking what action someone is doing.

What is the meaning of Che?

The Italian word che can mean “what” or “which” depending on context. It has various other meanings as well.

How do you pronounce Che?

Che is pronounced “keh” with an accent on the first syllable. You can hear me say it above in this article to practice the correct pronunciation.

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