Italian is one of the major Romance languages (or Neo-Latin) and inherited various traits from its predecessor. The verbs system that regulates the Italian language was transposed by the Latin one. One of the results of this evolution was the grouping of verbs into three categories, called conjugations / 'coniugazioni'.
By now, you should already be familiar with the two main Italian verbs : 'essere' ('to be') and 'avere' (to have), but you might also have noticed that there's much more out there. Common verbs such as 'fare' ('to do'), 'mangiare' ('to eat'), 'dormire' ('to sleep'), and 'correre' (to run) are all over the place, and in your language coursebook, you might have read the word 'coniugazioni' - what does that mean? In this article, we are going to learn a bit more about how Italian verbs are structured and organised. One of the first thing you will read online or on grammar books is that Italian verbs are divided into three groups called conjugations :
The easy way out would be to tell you that this division depends on the ending of the verbs in their infinitive form, but I believe you deserve something more to understand why this information will be useful to you.
How is structured an Italian verb? Italian verbs have a simple structure. To understand it we are going to consider a verb at its infinitive form (e.g. 'parlare' [to speak]). Let's split this verb into two parts, by taking out the 'coniugazione' -are.
The main part of the verb is called the 'verb's root', and it consists in an invariable part that holds the meaning of the action expressed. In our example would be 'parl-'. This bit is going to be consistent in each form of the verb (all the tenses, modes, or person of the verb will hold to this part). The verb's root (or 'radice del verbo' holds the meaning of the word and allows us to recognise the verb throughout all its forms.
The following bit, '-are', is generally identified as the coniugazione but here we can go a step further and notice that the most important element in this part is the vowel - 'a'. This single letter, along with the verb's root, forms the 'tema' ('theme') of the verb. The last bit '-re' is the variable part of the verb and it would change each time, depending on the tense we are using and the person the verb is referred to.
The thematic vowel is fundamental because it allows us to create the right form of the verb and not to confuse the tense we are using.
N.B. Even just a vowel would change the tense you are using!
Even though this might sound confusing, the good news is that while using the present tense indicativo there are just some minimal variations, and you can easily get away with it using almost the same forms for each conjugation. Here's an example with the differences underlined:
But why the 3rd conjugation has two variants? How did we get here? What about the irregular verbs? As mentioned in the introduction, and discussed here, the Italian language derives directly from Latin. The Latin language used to have 4 conjugations are; -ēre; -ĕre, -īre, whizh were reduced to three in Italian. The conjugation '-are' contains most of the Italian verbs and has only three irregular verbs : andare, stare, dare. The second conjugation, '-ere' holds most of the irregualr verbs such as : bere, piacere, cuocere, volere, etc. The third one, '-ire', contains some of the irregular verbs : salire, venire, uscire, etc. In some cases, just as with the verb 'finire' ('to finish'), the verb will go with the option on the far right of the page (e.g. finisco).
Please, try to consider this article as an explanation to the 'why' in Italian there are 3 conjugations rather than a guide on how to conjugate the verbs. The coniugazioni correspond to an arbitrary organisation of the language that follows regular patterns, even if you don't see them they are present and your brain will pick them up without you even realising it! If you enjoyed this article consider joining our summer courses and follow us on Instagram to get our latest news and language tips! Consider subscribe to this website and our newsletter! To do so, visit the homepage and type your email in the box at the bottom of the page!