A Big, Happy Family: 18 Italian Family Words to Make Your Nonna Proud
La famiglia (the family) is embedded deep in the Italian psyche.
If you’re learning the Italian language, you’re also learning the culture behind it, and family is a very important aspect of Italian culture.
In this post, we’re going to learn some vocabulary about the different members of the family—from that drunk uncle who taught us all the dirty words, to that cool aunt who owns a pool.
- 18 Italian Family Words to Add to Your Vocabulary
- 1. padre (father)
- 2. madre (mother)
- 3. genitori (parents)
- 4. fratello (brother)
- 5. sorella (sister)
- 6. marito (husband)
- 7. moglie (wife)
- 8. figlio / figlia (son / daughter)
- 9. zio / zia (uncle / aunt)
- 10. nonno (grandfather)
- 11. nonna (grandmother)
- 12. nipote (nephew / niece)
- 13. cugino / cugina (cousin)
- 14. fidanzato / fidanzata (fiancé / fiancée)
- 15. patrigno / matrigna (stepfather / stepmother)
- 16. suocero / suocera (father-in-law / mother-in-law)
- 17. cognato / cognata (brother-in-law / sister-in-law)
- 18. bimbo / bimba (baby)
18 Italian Family Words to Add to Your Vocabulary
1. padre (father)
He’s the head honcho, the big kahuna of the family. He’s dad.
He used to have absolute powers over the remote, ‘til he realized nobody’s interested in sitting in front of the TV anymore.
In Italian families, he’s called padre, the same word you’d use for a priest.
But we don’t really call our dads “father,” do we? Unless we belong to the set of “Downton Abbey” or are waiting for our trust fund to mature. We say “dad” or “daddy.”
In Italian, you can use papà and babbo to refer to your dad. They’re warm and endearing, much less formal than padre. It means dad’s more than just a designated plumber or ATM machine. He’s an all-around cool guy who forgets to wear pants every once in a while.
The further south in Italy you go, the more likely you are to hear babbo used, and is especially prevalent in Tuscany.
2. madre (mother)
Like padre, madre is just too formal to call the woman who housed us for nine months and still houses us…nine years after college.
Mamma is more like it. It’s the perfect word for the woman we owe everything to.
There’s nobody like a mother. If you’ve grown eating the most delicious food, if you’ve been dressed up in high fashion from head to foot, if you’re not allowed to go out on a Saturday night because of unspeakable dangers… you’ve probably grown up with a loving mother—and a very Italian one, at that.
Italian mothers are a class act, especially when they have boys. They play the impossible task of being their son’s number one cheerleader and critic, all at the same time.
Many Italian men find it hard to leave the nest and are tied to their mother’s apron strings. (The Italian economy and job market actually has a lot to do with it.) But they have a term for “mama’s boys” who are old enough and still opt to live with their parents: mammoni (plural) or mammone (singular).
But say what you want, it’ll mean nothing to a mother. Because in Italy, they have a saying:
“Amor di madre, amore senza limiti.” (A mother’s love has no limits.)
3. genitori (parents)
Cognates are words in different languages that have similar origins and therefore also have similar sound and meanings. English and Italian have loads of cognates, like “familiar” and familiare. They look so similar you can usually guess the meaning even if you don’t know the word.
But there are also “false cognates”—words that look very similar but have totally different meanings. They’ll make you say, “Boy, I didn’t see that one coming!”
Parenti is one such word. No, it doesn’t mean “parents”; it means “relatives.” (Although your relatives might act like they’re your parents sometimes.)
Parents in Italian is genitori. Remember that!
4. fratello (brother)
This would be easier to remember if you think of “frats,” those Greek-lettered “fraternities” in college. They’re all about brotherhood.
And they do have a pretty accurate idea of what brotherhood is because the first thing they do is give you a good and memorable spanking. (Because hey, that’s how you show someone you love them.)
If you find yourself among siblings, the oldest one’s called il più grande (oldest) in Italian. The youngest is il più piccolo, and the poor one in the middle, with all the emotional baggage, is called di mezzo (the middle).
5. sorella (sister)
If you’ve ever had a sorella, especially an older one, you know that they can be both protective and loving… and, okay, maybe a little annoying, too.
But when you grow up, you’ll find that, no matter what your differences were in younger years, she can be a great amica (friend).
6. marito (husband)
Italians make great husbands: They’re passionate, cultured and good-looking. (Well, most of them are.)
If you’re “married,” that’s sposato in Italian. That is, you have a spouse.
If you’re a single guy, you’re a celibe (now, what English word does that remind you of…). If you’re a single lady, that’s called nubile.
Someone divorced is divorziato/a. And if you consider yourself “separated,” then you’re separato/a.
Widowed? You’re vedovo/a.
There are so many ways to describe the state of human relationships. But in any case, whether you’re married, single, widowed or divorced… try to live la dolce vita (the good life).
7. moglie (wife)
The Italian wife might be stereotyped as the strong matriarch figure, but remember that although women do play a very important role in the Italian family unit, it’s unfair to hold everyone to a stereotype.
The book “The Italian Wife,” written by Kate Furnivall, shows a different side to the coin. It’s a historical fiction set in Mussolini’s 1930’s Italy.
The book tells of Isabella, who was sitting at a café when a woman asked her to look after her daughter for a few minutes. This mother then climbed to the very top of the Bellina clock tower and kept walking until there was only air to step on.
The book will not only take you back in time, it’ll also take you through enchanting hillside towns, winding roads and charming piazzas. See old-era Italy through Kate Furnivall’s masterful descriptions, and learn something about the true meaning of family.
8. figlio / figlia (son / daughter)
Quick pronunciation note: The g here is silent. When you have gli in Italian, you pronounced it as a double l or ll. So figlio is pronounced “fee-llyo,” and figlia is pronounced “fee-llya”—with the letter g nowhere to be heard.
Sons and daughters are coddled in childhood, with the family unit (and its extension) specifically geared to raising them properly. In return, the kids are expected to show respect to elders.
As testament to the importance of family in the Italian culture, you’ll find plenty of sayings about it used by native speakers. One of them is, “Tale padre / madre, tale figlio / figlia,” whose English equivalent is “Like father / mother, like son / daughter.”
This expression might evoke something positive, funny or nostalgic, like when your son drops a lump of spaghetti onto his lap, slathering himself with tomato sauce. But it can also imply something negative, like, say, a corrupt politician’s son repeating the sins of his father.
9. zio / zia (uncle / aunt)
If you change the letter z to the letter t, then you have the Spanish equivalent of “uncle” and “aunt”—tio and tia.
The more you study these languages, the more you’ll notice the great overlap between them. Spanish and Italian are both descended from Latin and are considered two of the Romance languages.
They’re called “Romance” languages, not in the bouquet-of-flowers-champagne-long walks-on-the-beach sense but rather because they’re descended from the language once spoken by the Romans. It’s always interesting to see how language evolved and which words remained similar across time and space.
10. nonno (grandfather)
Raising the kids of the family is treated with the utmost importance and everybody chips in. Even grandpa!
It’s very common in Italian families for the grandparents to have an active role in raising the grandchildren. Especially these days when husband and wife are out working, nonno might very well be left with the kids.
In Italy, they believe that “Guai a quella famiglia che non ha vecchi.” (A family with no elderly is a doomed family.)
This really talks to the richness of wisdom and experience that elders bring, the life gems they can impart to the next generation.
And because grandpa and grandma love to spoil the children, the little ones often adore them.
11. nonna (grandmother)
The nonna is the true head of the Italian family. She’s old and wise, so much so that your own father’s afraid of her.
She’s so old, sometimes she’s called nonnina (little grandmother). Because she’s come to that point in life when a person starts getting smaller and her vertebrae start acting up.
Italian grandmothers are the vessels of family traditions, family histories and family secrets. There’s really quite nothing like the woman who claims to have shaken hands with Mussolini and watched as the first ever tiramisu was made by her own grandmother.
If you’re wondering how a big Italian family is kept together, it’s probably nonna’s job. She’s the glue that holds everybody in check. She also plays a vital role in making sure that Italian culture and traditions get passed from one generation to the next.
12. nipote (nephew / niece)
Nipote comes from the Latin nepos, which means descendant. The word is also where we get “nepotism”—which is the practice of placing one’s own family and relatives in positions of power or preferential treatment.
If you’ll notice, Italian doesn’t distinguish between a nephew and a niece. You’ll know the gender once an article or possessive adjective is used. For example:
Mio nipote — My nephew
La mia bella nipote — My beautiful niece
13. cugino / cugina (cousin)
For Italian families, Sunday is family day. Everybody’s there—at somebody’s house—bringing all the different types of pasta they’re so proud of.
Actually, any excuse Italians have for a celebration—birthdays, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, first birthdays, winning third place in a Spelling Bee—everybody gathers around the table to eat.
That’s also when you meet the cousins your mother compared you with. And you think, “She’s not all that. I dunno what mom was thinking when she thought Alessandra was so slim and beautiful.”
14. fidanzato / fidanzata (fiancé / fiancée)
It’s the f word. Before becoming a family, a man and woman get engaged.
It used to be that fidanzato and fidanzata only referred to people who were set to be married. But over time, their use has extended to simple boyfriend-girlfriend relationships.
Besides this, the concept of engagement has lost its luster over time and many couples aren’t making a big deal out of it.
The terms ragazzo and ragazza can also be used to convey boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. You say:
il mio ragazzo — my boy
la mia ragazza — my girl
Add to this a cocky smirk and you’ll be the envy of the world.
15. patrigno / matrigna (stepfather / stepmother)
Here’s another example of the silent g in Italian.
Italian is generally a language where words are pronounced just as they’re spelled. Spelling bees aren’t really pollinating in Italy. (The spelling and the pronunciation go together so closely that once a word is given, you already know how it’s spelled.)
There are, of course, some exceptions. And this is one of them.
Patrigno and matrigna has that gn consonant combination. We don’t pronounce the g here. Instead, the gn combination is pronounced as an ny.
So patrigno is pronounced “patree-nyo” and matrigna is pronounced “matree-nya.”
And yes, gnocchi is pronounced “nyo-kee.”
16. suocero / suocera (father-in-law / mother-in-law)
They say that “la suocera non pensa mai che fu la nuora” (a mother-in-law never remembers she used to be a daughter-in-law).
This is supposed to remind a newly married couple to move to another state just as soon as the ink on the marriage contract has dried. There’s this idea that in-laws, in general, are supposed to give you a hard time. (It’s what you get for stealing their sons and daughters.)
I’ve found this stereotype to be true.
But don’t ask me how I found out.
17. cognato / cognata (brother-in-law / sister-in-law)
For Italians, a marriage doesn’t divide a family. Quite the opposite, actually: Marriage extends or expands a family. So you not only have a set of suocero and suocera, you’ll likely also gain some cognato and cognata.
In-laws are really treated like family. Just as you’re welcomed to your husband’s or wife’s circle, you also welcome them to your own.
And the result? Sunday lunches become bigger, longer tables are set up in the yard, you get invited to more events and see a whole new generation grow.
In many Italian towns, you can actually see how the people are related by marriage and witness how that makes the bond between locals tighter.
18. bimbo / bimba (baby)
And last but certainly not the least, we have the baby. Bimbo if it’s a boy and bimba if it’s a girl. These poor creatures receive torturous punishment during family gatherings—experiencing pinched cheeks and playful bites on the tummy.
By the way, you can also use the bambino or bambina for cuties.
But if you mean “baby” as in your “bae,” the love of your high school life, then you can use words like amore (love) or tesorino / tesorina (darling).
Although if you really want him to be part of la famiglia, you might want nonna to take a good look at him first.
So there you go! You now know what to call your family in Italian.
The best way to master these words will be to use them and see them used by native speakers. You want to use the terminology correctly and respectfully, after all.
If there are any local Italian speakers around you can speak or listen to, then practice with them. If there aren’t any around, then you can still be on the lookout for family vocabulary whenever you consume Italian media, like books, TV shows, movies, podcasts and more.
You can also practice with language learning programs that show the words in context. For example, FluentU has a library of authentic Italian videos that include content related to everyday matters like family. Each clip has interactive subtitles so you can learn terms and expressions and see how they’re used by native speakers.
Soon enough, you’ll be fitting right in with the famiglia. Use these words with some cool Italian slang on your next family gathering and feel the burning stares from your relatives like you’re in a scene from “The Godfather.”