Surviving as a foreigner in Italy involves learning lots of basic Italian phrases. One that you simply cannot live without is Che cosa vuoi? which means What do you want?
Che cosa vuoi?
What do you want?
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Let’s break the phrase down into its component parts:
Che cosa is the classic literary form of what in Italian. Translated word for word, che means what and cosa means thing so literally che cosa means what thing.
Interestingly it is also possible to use che and cosa on their own to mean what, but according to L’Accademia della Crusca, each region has its own preference. Cosa on its own is used more in the north and Sardinia, whereas che on its own prevails in the centre-south. My husband is from Turin in the north, for example, and I can confirm that he tends to use cosa on its own.
Vuoi (you want) is the second-person singular indicative of volere (to want).
Note: For the purpose of emphasis, contrast or clarification, people will sometimes say Tu che cosa vuoi? or Che cosa vuoi tu? with the pronoun tu (you). For example:
Allora, Maria vuole un caffè, Marco dice che vuole un cappuccino. E tu, che cosa vuoi?
So, Maria wants a coffee, Marco says he wants a cappuccino. And you, what do you want?
Just like the English equivalent, Che cosa vuoi? is a very direct question that should only be used between people who know each other very well – otherwise you might appear rude. In a formal situation, it is safer to use a more polite alternative such as Che cosa desidera? (What would you like?).
There are, of course, many ways of expanding on this sentence to provide extra information. Here are a few common examples:
- Che cosa vuoi fare / mangiare / bere? = What do you want to do / eat / drink?
- Che cosa vuoi da me / dalla vita? = What do you want from me / from life?
- Che cosa vuoi di più? = What more do you want?
- Che cosa vuoi dire? = What do you want to say? OR What do you mean?
Although Che cosa vuoi? is often used to genuinely inquire about another person’s wishes, it can also work as an expression of annoyance if said with an aggressive tone of voice. In this case, people will also use just che vuoi or cosa vuoi preceded by the word ma (but) which acts as an emphatic filler.
Ma cosa vuoi? Lasciami stare!
Ma che vuoi? Lasciami stare!
What (the hell) do you want? Leave me alone!
And if you enjoy Italian gesticulations as much as the spoken language, you’ll be happy to learn that there is a widely used gesture for Ma che / cosa vuoi? (In fact, there’s even an emoji for it!) Simply pinch your fingers and thumbs together in a vertical orientation and wave your hand (or both hands if you like) up and down.
A final translation for ma cosa vuoi / ma che vuoi when it appears mid-sentence is what can I say. In this case, it isn’t so much a question as a way of emphasising the fact that you are unable to explain, excuse, or clarify something any further.
Ti prendi sempre troppi impegni. – Eh lo so, ma cosa vuoi, sono fatto così.
You always overextend yourself. – Yeah, I know but what can I say, that’s what I’m like.
Note that you can translate what can I say directly in Italian, or use other alternatives like the ones below:
- Che posso dire / dirti = What can I say / What can I say to you
- Che ti devo dire = Lit: What must I tell you
- Che / Cosa vuoi che ti dica = What do you want me to say (to you)
- Che / Cosa ci posso fare = What can I do about it